This past week I read the The Handmaid’s Tale, said to be one of Margaret Atwood’s finest pieces. If you’re like me and like to read books before you see the film, you may want to check this one out next before your friends spoil it for you because you can see it right now on Hulu.
Publisher’s summary: The Handmaid’s Tale is not only a radical and brilliant departure for Margaret Atwood, it is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its images and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The regime takes the Book of Genesis absolutely at its word, with bizarre consequences for the women and men of its population.
The Story is told through the eyes of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order. In condensed but eloquent prose, by turns cool-eyed, tender, despairing, passionate, and wry, she reveals to us the dark corners behind the establishment’s calm facade, as certain tendencies now in existence are carried to their logical conclusions. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. It is Margaret Atwood at her best.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a first hand account of our narrator, Offred’s life under a fascist monotheocracy. Since the novel is rooted deeply in this dystopian society, flashbacks to Offred’s previous lifestyle seem almost archaic. Through her story, we can see society collapsing, but we don’t know why. Atwood brilliantly obscures these details. We know what Offred knows, and only that.
Even though this kind of storytelling is exactly fitting for the tale, it can be frustrating at times to not know exactly how and why the government collapsed. Still, it is all the more suitable to the story because it immerses readers even further into the ways Offred and others view the world. While readers lack the complete backstory and must piece together Offred’s life from the time before the collapse, the entire world of the novel is rich with detail and careful descriptions of the newly transformed society and of course, of Offred’s everyday life.
From this personal account, it is easy to see how difficult it is not to conform to this society when any kind of behavioral anomaly is deemed treason to the regime and constitutes either death by hanging, or perhaps worse, dismissal to the colonies, concentration-camp like areas with little food, possibly nuclear waste, and piles of bodies.
Since Hulu recently adapted The Handmaid’s Tale into a television series, its popularity resurged as a major topic in not only literature, but in relation to political discourse. Most articles describe it as both timely and timeless, a cautionary tale to those averting their gaze while civil rights are stripped away.
Don’t let the dark themes keep you from reading it though. Even in bleak moments, Offred’s narrative voice finds comedy, beauty, and friendships that are glimmering lights in all the dark.
More available titles by Atwood: