I am choosing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood for my October book review because it is the scariest novel I’ve read in a long time. This book is a cautionary tale of what happens when society hands over their civil liberty for safety. I know Atwood had the Moral Majority of the radical right in mind when she wrote the book, but in this time of Covid, I can see the story applied to the radical extremes of both the left and the right. The extremes are the opposite sides of the same coin. So with this in mind, let’s examine the futuristic world found between The Handmaid’s Tale’s pages.
Quick synopsis of The Handmaid’s Tale
In this futuristic story in which the protagonist, Offred, serves as a potential surrogate to carry the Commander’s baby. Offred finds herself living in the new American society modeled on Old Testament biblical beliefs after political turmoil. Women have been subjugated into a rigid class structure. At the top are the Commander’s wives. They are unfertile. The aunts follow them. They are older women in charge of training and manipulating the handmaidens. The Marthas and Econowifes seem to function on the next level. They do all the domestic work in this new society. The handmaidens exist to serve as surrogates to carry the babies of the elite. Infertility is a huge problem in this new society.
Offred remembers what life used to be like before the change. She had a husband and child. Her family gets stopped at the border while attempting to escape to Canada. She doesn’t know what happened to her husband and child, so she makes a great effort to forget about her past. She never reveals what her time was before she became a handmaiden. One person from her past makes an appearance. Her rebellious friend Moira attempts to fight the corrupt system where women have became enslaved. They can no longer hold jobs, own property, or read.
Problems in the new system
Offred discovers the hypocrisy of the new system because the rules don’t apply to the elite. Spies everywhere known as Eyes make certain the masses obey. Situations unfold that make it impossible for Offred to exist within the false system set up within the once free society. Women essentially traded personal freedom for security, only to find themselves enslaved. In the end, the reader doesn’t know if she managed to become a passenger on the Femaletrain or an unwoman sentenced to cleaning up toxic waste in the colonies.
Highlights found in The Handmaid’s Tale
The first highlight that I felt reflected the essence of The Handmaid’s Tale was the birth scene. All of the handmaidens are gathered to help one of their members give birth. The Commander’s wives are gathered in another part of the house, ready to take the credit if the birth is successful. I thought this scene showed the difference in the class system of the women in this new society.
The second highlight for me was when Offred’s Commander dressed her up in a feather-covered outfit, placed the blue cloak belonging to his wife on her, and had the chauffeur drive them to his club. The Jezebel was your typical house of ill repute when these wealthy leaders of the masses could indulge in their dark fantasies. Offred runs into her friend Moira who becomes one of these fallen ladies. This chapter reflects the hypocrisy in the new system of government.
Story Development found in The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is told in the first-person point of view. The reader only sees the story through Offred’s eyes. There are pieces of the history revealed while telling her story she keeps secretive and sometimes even fabricates. She doesn’t relate to the reader her former name before she became a handmaiden. Also, the reader never learns the name of her child. Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, seems to be a made-up character. These things could be hidden to protect the identity of the people involved or because Offred could be an unreliable narrator.
As the plot moves on, the reader suspects there might be a little of both going on in the story. I found the plot both exciting and fascinating. Offred was in danger from beginning to end. She struggled to maintain the party line and forget about the past until she couldn’t do it anymore. The ending was brilliantly written.
Worldbuilding in The Handmaid’s Tale
Atwood did a fantastic job of worldbuilding the totalitarian regime based on old testament law in this futuristic world. The role of women in this futuristic society reverts to an archaic patriarchal pattern. The poor’s role also changes in that there is no upward mobility except maybe through military service, which women are excluded from entering. Modern devices exist, such s the computer and television.
The change is also not worldwide. Japanese tourists come to visit this new American society. The women are dressed in modern fashion, not the long, cumbersome dresses the women of Gilead wear. Also, the Femaleroad exists where women escape to Canada to be free of the new society, similar to the Underground Railroad during slavery.
Character development in The Handmaid’s Tale
Atwood develops the characters found in The Handmaid’s Tale in a skillful way since real names are seldom used. The protagonist gives the Commander’s wife, the fake name of Serena Joy. This woman displays the elite’s arrogance and manipulation powers over those of less status. Her true character is revealed when she arranges for Offred to sleep with the family’s chauffeur to get the baby she desperately wants.
The reader is drawn into the story by Offred’s voice as she retells the story of her life. I love the way Atwood includes flashbacks of Offred’s past into the narrative. You know she is not a perfect person, but you cheer for her to escape. The contrast to Offred is Moira. This character is more courageous and rebellious than Offred. She escapes from The Center and attempts to be free in this totalitarian society Atwood creates.
The aunts and Marthas play their roles well. The characters of the men are less formed, but this is a book about the relationship of these women trapped in a male-dominated society.
Summary of The Handmaid’s Tale
I found this book intriguing but scary. It demonstrated how fanaticism in the extreme could upend a society. Events could transpire, either fictional or real, to make people believe it is in their best interest to trade liberties for security. The Handmaid’s Tale left a lasting impression on me. The one element of the book I found confusing was that no one was given a name. An example of this is the Commander was the same in every instance. It made them more symbolic, but it could get confusing at times.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures, click here.
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