The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the darkest timeline, where the religious Right has taken over the United States, and turned it into a theocracy. The catalyst for this takeover was the birthrate plummeting, and the religious Right’s belief that they can create a new caste system to solve that problem.
Welcome to Gilead, where the reader discovers all its fresh horrors through Offred, a Handmaid. Dressed in all red, save for a white head cover, Handmaids’ serve Gilead by being breeders. Assigned to rich men, Commanders, and their barren wives to be a surrogate, their bodies are not their own anymore.
When I read this book my senior year of High School, I hated it. First, I wasn’t used to the style, which is similar to a stream of consciousness, where past and present blend together. Atwood also drops quotation marks sometimes, and I didn’t realize til my present reading that when the quotations marks showed up it was to mark the present.
But the main reason why I hated it was sorta personal. For a few years I was pretty conservative and super religious, so I saw the novel as a silly attack on my belief system. I thought, ‘there’s no way this would ever happen, and Atwood just hates Christians.’
Needless to say, I missed the point. (Ugh, Me from the past.)
Though I consider myself spiritual, a lot of my viewpoints have done a 180 from high school, so this reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was a vastly different experience.
I think for me the most interesting part of the novel is, even though I was never really ‘pulled in’, there was such a unsettling importance that I felt I must continue. That’s not to say I was bored, but more that I just coasted slowly with Offred as she slowly revealed what happened.
I don’t have time to review all the major themes brought up in The Handmaid’s Tale (pretty sure Thesis papers have been written on this novel), but I do want to talk about what hit me the most, complacency.
There are a few western countries that have seen first hand the impact of complacency in people (USA and UK know what I’m talking about!). When Offred discusses how everyone got to here, she alludes to our ability to ‘get used to things’, that we would all die in boiling water, like lobsters, and wouldn’t know it because the temperature was raised so slowly.
That’s my biggest fear with today, and always how dystopias seem to happen, we get used to them. Atwood reveals the apathy and complacency present within all of her major characters, even the feminists who tried to resist.
The scariest lines usually come from the Aunts, the women tasked with indoctrinating the Handmaids, not only with all their ‘double speak’ about protecting women and how this new world is better for them, but how right they are about humanity. That for the current generation of Handmaids (and all of Gilead), it’s only difficult because they still remember a different life, but for the next generation, they won’t know any different.
“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
My only issue has to do with pacing. Most of the more cerebral sections are important, and Atwood brings up many great points and ideas, but I think some sections could have been edited. Here and there, I would really have to will myself to push through, knowing that soon the pace would pick up again, but sometimes it was hard.
Also, I was surprised that Atwood kept this floating pace throughout most of the book, and then everything happens so quickly in the last twenty pages. I had to re-read the ending a couple times, but the pace at the end was shockingly brisk.
Despite the pacing, this is a must-read book. Especially for today, when the world seems like it took one step closer to this reality than further from it.