Working at a publishing company means it’s never hard to get book recommendations, and one of the books that has been passed from cubicle to cubicle lately is The Handmaid’s Tale. I had never read anything by Margaret Atwood, but always wanted to, so I was excited when a coworker lent me a copy. Little did I know what I had been missing.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, my favorite books are ones that take me out of my own world while teaching me something about it. I love learning through defamiliarization because it challenges the assumption of normality in our everyday lives. It gives a different perspective on things we have become accustomed to experiencing every day—so much so that we don’t even notice them anymore. But authors like Margaret Atwood make us notice.
While The Handmaid’s Tale is not technically science fiction (Atwood prefers the term “speculative fiction”), it reminded me how much I love science fiction. One of my favorite books is In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly not the same story, it gave me the same sense of excitement and awe. Both books deal with women trying to survive a dystopian society, but with much more nuance and finesse than something like Divergent.
The story takes place in an extremist religious society not too distant from our present, where women are valued solely for their reproductive qualities. Fertility rates are dropping and most women have been stripped of their independence. Young women like the main character, Offred, are placed in a childless but powerful household (run by a Commander and his infertile wife) where their only purpose is to go grocery shopping and try to get pregnant. The Commander and Offred have emotionless, ritualistic sex while the Commander’s wife lies in the same bed. The idea is that, if Offred were to become pregnant, the baby would belong to the Commander’s wife. Offred is simply the vessel.
At the same time, this society was supposedly put in place to protect women. Offred remembers the past when women could go wherever they pleased and dress how they wanted, but would often be raped or murdered. Now, young unmarried men are not allowed to touch women, or even speak to them. The Commander longs to have an emotional connection with Offred, but it isn’t allowed. He must meet with her in secret from his wife, who sometimes seems to have more power in the household than he does. However, women are still being raped and murdered—it’s just institutionalized now. The power dynamics really mess with your head, but they’re also clearly a satire of our own flawed society.
Unfortunately, Atwood gives a bleak outlook on the ability of women to enact change. The strongest female character in the book ends up working as a prostitute and giving up on her social activism. While Offred at first seems a bit hopeful she will see her friends and family again, she soon becomes complacent and decides to do whatever she is told. It is implied that to speak up against the authorities would only make you dead, and it may be better to just live with the injustice however you can. I had hoped for a more optimistic message, but maybe Atwood’s version is most realistic.
If Margaret Atwood’s genius wasn’t proven to me by the end of the novel, the epilogue certainly did so. The epilogue is a transcript from a speech given about The Handmaid’s Tale hundreds of years after it was “written.” It takes place at an academic symposium focusing on the time period during which Offred lived. The epilogue retells The Handmaid’s Tale through a historical, academic lens. The speaker talks blithely about Offred’s society and even crack jokes about it. They speak about her as though she was just one cog in a giant wheel, and not a living, feeling human.
I love the epilogue because it justifies literature. It shows the difference between “learning” and “experiencing.” Hearing Offred’s story from her own perspective, however fictional, made me relate to her. I was put in her position, and had to question what I would do in her circumstances. The academics in the epilogue, however, treated her like the men in her own society: as an object. It was like the difference between reading a World War II textbook and The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s important to empathize with people, and not just study them from the outside. That’s how you really learn.
So thanks, Ms. Atwood, for making me care. I look forward to reading everything you’ve ever written.
My rating: 5 stars