Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
The Handmaid’s Tale is a rather terrifying vision of an America wherein the government has fallen to religious (Christian) extremists, and society is forced to regress to puritanical social and cultural constructs. First, women are forced out of their jobs. Then, their bank accounts are frozen and their funds accessible only by their husbands or male next of kin. Soon, women, non-believers, and sinners are being rounded up and sorted out – either to fulfill various “roles” in the new society or to be exterminated as examples of “justice” being served for violators of God’s laws. The Jews are shipped out of America or killed. Children birthed out-of-wedlock or born to parents who are in their second or third marriages (and, thus, unrecognized by the Church) are stolen from their parents and subjected to early indoctrination. Offred, the main character, is a Handmaid. She is hunted down, separated from her husband and daughter, and mercifully “allowed” the chance to serve God’s purpose, by becoming a live-in sexual servant to a Commander – one of the new society’s highest leaders. All women are subjects, after all, and their primary purpose is to serve their men by giving birth to children (and births have declined rapidly due to toxins in the air, water, etc.). Offred must accept, or die. But, beneath all tyrannical regimes there exists small rays of hope – freedom fighters and subversives, working slowly, quietly toward change. Will Offred live the remainder of her life – however long or short that may be- in full service of her Commander and the will of the new regime? Will she be tormented by echoes of the past – memories best forgotten and certainly left unsaid? Or will she find a way out, after all?
3 – Characters well developed.
The world Atwood has created in The Handmaid’s Tale is by far the most important character in it. The plot is executed in such a way as to lend a feeling of suspense and mystery to the novel, an accomplishment which makes the book simultaneously more than just “literature” and more than just “entertaining.” This is accomplished primarily because of the slow development of the story’s primary character, which is the world itself – the religious regime and the cloistered, domineering social structure. They are living, breathing elements of the book – just as much as Offred, Ofwarren, the Commander, or any other character within it. That being said, the story itself is so powerful and commanding, that it allows less room for growth and development of the traditional characters. While there are certain changes to watch for, primarily in Offred, the Commander, Nick, and Ofwarren (and, also in Offred’s relationships with each of these characters, which also change and develop slowly, in different ways, throughout the course of the novel), the back stories of many of the characters are left untold – hinted at, but never completely explained. This is one of those books where one might wish it had been another 50 or 100 pages long, simply to allow for more character development and interaction. What exactly happened with Serena Joy, for example? Or, how are Rita and Cora different – what does it mean that one is always smiling and tender, while the other is guarded and gruff? So much, including the ending, must be guessed, assumed, inferred – this does add to the mystery of the story and allows for personal interpretation but, personally, I would have loved just a bit more guidance and clarity. Small complaints, really, for what turns out to be an incredibly engaging read.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
Atwood creates a style of prose – a type of narration – which was completely new to me, and highly appropriate to the conditions in which the narrator lives. Most of the book is narrated in such a way as to depict not just internal monologue, but a person who spends time speaking to herself. This makes sense, considering the fact that most Handmaids had few, if any, people they could speak openly with – but how Atwood actually manages to physically narrate in such a way as to give the reader the impression of a narrator who is talking to herself, without expressly mentioning it, is beyond me. Still, she absolutely does it. The exceptions to this style are found in the form of brief moments of dialogue and in the epilogue. Speaking of the epilogue – this turns out to be a transcript of a speech given at a “Gileadean Symposium.” It is a section at the end that I almost skipped because it was labeled “Historical Notes” – just another example of Atwood’s cleverness. To get full appreciation for the story, be sure not to miss this last section of the book!
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
There are so many reasons to love this book: the language and the prose; the setting – familiar but so changed; the mystery and suspense; the humor. The best of all these, though, the reason to truly love this book, is because of the story itself. It is terrifying in theory and would be equally terrifying in practice (allowing one’s self to admit that such practices did exist, largely, and still do exist, in certain communities, makes the sting even sharper). Also adding to the intrigue is the understanding that societal changes such as this one are not too difficult to imagine. How many times in the history of humankind have we witnessed the seemingly rapid rise of brutal dictatorships? How quickly are we “re-educated” – turning in neighbors, friends, co-workers for their transgressions, in hopes of keeping ourselves, our families safe? The situation described in The Handmaid’s Tale can be compared effortlessly to that of Nazi Germany – the treatment of the Jews, the gays, the “others.” It is larger than that, though – there is a deep, dark element of human nature being explored here; something that is more than just racism or sexism or any form of bigotry or dominance. It is the nature of fear and power. What really controls us? How can we be made to do things we would never, in our right minds, consider doing? Fear and power.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Dystopian Society, Religion, Social Constructs, Power, Male/Female Dynamic, Fear.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
“Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, f or security reasons they said. The road-blocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. “
“She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved.”
“There is something reassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira would say.”
“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some.”