Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale
Posted April 25, 2014on:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Anchor Books, 311 pp., e-book.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a dystopian future in the United States, where we have poisoned the world so much that fertility drops. American civilization responds by acting to control women’s bodies in a totalitarian regime. Gilead is a colony behind walls, closely guarded with Eyes everywhere so that no one can escape. The central character of the book is Offred, a handmaid. The handmaids are women who have given birth before the regime, who therefore have the possibility of conceiving again. They are forced into a bizarre sexual slavery modeled after the story of Sarah and Hagar, where Sarah has Abraham try to conceive with Hagar and give birth “at Sarah’s knees” so that the baby is considered Sarah’s. Offred’s story takes place early in the regime, because she can remember a time before, with a husband and a child of her own, which have since been taken from her.
Atwood’s novel unwinds the extreme possibilities for controlling women’s fertility and erasing their individual identity. Handmaids are not the only women so controlled–the Wives (unable to conceive, but married to powerful Commanders), the Marthas (household servants), the Unwomen and all the rest are also circumscribed by the system, as are the men in the story. Religious doctrine combined with paramilitary control and panoptic surveillance bring about this situation, which binds everyone, even the most elite like Offred’s Commander.
The world Atwood creates initially appears as nothing more than a heavy-handed feminist critique, but the style of her prose transcends the polemic. Offred herself narrates the story, but her voice vacillates between strident and vacuous. As a Handmaid, she is supposed to be only a vessel, only a womb for carrying things for others. Her voice in story often presents as a void, as her foggy account wraps around the emptiness of her life, never direct or moving forward in her telling. Everything happens to her, she speaks in passive voice. For example, her description of her own body:
I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.
I found this the hardest part of reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I wanted Offred to use her narrative as resistance, to tell her own story plainly, but the system refused it. The story that emerges is fragmented and hollow. While Offred does find ways to resist and grasp for selfhood in the story, those too are fragmented and uncertain. That’s the power of Atwood’s prose–she binds her characters and binds herself in this world. It is that artistry that takes The Handmaid’s Tale beyond simple feminist polemic. As a feminist, it’s worth reading either way–but this novel and its craft not only awaken the reader to the issues of control over women’s bodies, they create a unique voice in literature.
I am also left wondering about its place within the burgeoning genre of dystopian fiction, especially Young Adult fiction like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Ender’s Game and more. There is a great power in imagining the logical end of all our politics and policies.