The Handmaid’s Tale

Who’s in Control?

First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been given new life by the 2017 Hulu series, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred. To say that it’s been given “new life,” though, sounds almost insulting. Once a bestseller, it’s a bestseller again. In the eighties, the book was fascinating. In 2017, it’s scary. America is no more. A Christian sect has taken over and Gilead has been established. After war and environmental ruin, babies are a hot commodity. If not a wife of the fundamentalist elite, a woman might be a servant: a “Martha” (a maid), an “Auntie” (a kind of lifestyle coach for the repressed), or a “handmaid” (a concubine of sorts). Or one might be banished to the colonies to do something like clean up toxic waste. Offred is a handmaid and this book is her story.

Jennifer: Well, I’m a sucker for dystopia. Atwood’s book, a classic for sure, is right there with Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahreheit 451 (which we reviewed)—though it’s distinctly woman-centric. Though I loved Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy (I didn’t love Divergent), Atwood is supreme, providing a female perspective on dystopia in a strong literary novel. With her siren-cry (not a pun!), readers might need to consider important questions. How are women uniquely vulnerable to future dangers? How might they be protected? Are there warnings we should heed? What does the plight of womanhood teach us about all of humanity? Can humanity ever have a future without the upholding of its women?

Lara: I can take or leave dystopia. I prefer my dystopia be high on realism and low on the fantastical. And that’s what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so good and so horrifying to read. It seems very real.

Jennifer: Yes, it’s very real. (Note that Lara is not a fan of magical realism, speculative, or sci fi stuff.) Where did I hear Atwood say that she purposefully chose, in dipping into this genre, to only use technology or tools or traits already known and used by humankind—no fantastical stuff? No zap guns or lightsabers or things to teleport you. The essay at the end of the audiobook?

Lara: I think that is where you heard it.

Jennifer: Despite its origins in the eighties, the book does not feel dated at all.

Lara: In The Handmaid’s Tale, we are hearing a first-person account of Offred (that’s Of-Fred/Owned by Fred: this is how handmaids’ names are derived—we never learn her real name), a young woman living as a Handmaid in Gilead. She has been stripped of her freedom (and of her husband and young daughter) and given the job of becoming pregnant, so that her Commander’s wife can raise a baby. Her total existence is based on her ability to produce a child. Her inability to do this will demote her to an even lower class of citizenry. Understandably, she struggles with her new purpose.

“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”

It started slowly, with things like not being able to use her credit card to make purchases to losing access to makeup, books, clothing. The simple act of choice is taken from her. It leads to full-on ownership by the Gileadean government.

I should stop here and say that this was my first reading of the book, and I consumed it via Audible. Claire Danes does a bang-up job performing the hell out of Offred and giving a complex portrait of a young woman’s harrowing journey.

Have you read this before?

Jennifer: Yes, I had read it already. I read it when it came out when I was fifteen or sixteen. I liked it a lot, but I didn’t remember it. Reading it at forty-seven (or listening—I did this dual thing in which I listened and followed along in my original copy) was an entirely different experience. I found it amazing. AMAZING!

I should say that, while it is relevant to any discussion of women in particular and human rights in general, I do not think our current times are making this book “especially” poignant. Whenever the dignity of any human being is jeopardized, stories like this will be poignant and relevant. That’s what makes it a contemporary, must-read classic. There seems to be a need to make this novel speak to us about our current political climate. It should, but it’s bigger than that—as all great Art is. Now, you know that I am no fan of our current political climate, but I think Atwood’s novel is larger than our own partisan circus. Your thoughts?

Lara: Well, we are seeing the slow stripping away of things that matter to a lot of people. And that’s how something like Gilead, a totalitarian environment, often happens. Slow change that becomes the new normal. We disagree on quite a bit politically, and I’m very angered/frustrated/disturbed by our current administration, however, my optimism—or perhaps naiveté—has me convinced that Gilead could never, would never, happen here. But that’s not to say that women and minorities aren’t regularly oppressed and disenfranchised in America. But let’s get back to the story.

As disturbing as Offred’s story is, I couldn’t put it down. What works?

Jennifer: So much works. I think, basically, it’s just a great story with strong characterization. That we have some very good examples of classic dystopian novels told from the perspective of men makes a female-centric narrative particularly gripping. I thought Offred was really well-drawn. I was taken with her. She is flawed, which only makes her more human. Because Gilead is such a contrived and false society, no one has very real conversations. Therefore, we’re alone in Offred’s head most of the time. She’s a fabulous character with interesting thoughts. What do you think?

And were there things you didn’t like?

Lara: Offred is a fascinating character who, despite her surroundings, remains strong and strategically chooses who to friend (Ofglen) and how to question her Commander when he starts an inappropriate relationship with her.

I had very mixed feelings about The Commander and Offred’s relationship—which was started by him having her over to play Scrabble. There were times when I got sucked into his attempts to be endearing or human—bringing her magazines and hand lotion (forbidden items)—but then I realized it was all a ploy to control her.

There was a part of me that thought The Commander might be in the Resistance and that together—not necessarily in a fairytale ending way—they would revolt. That said, I am not sure I “didn’t like it.” It think it speaks to the power of Atwood’s characterization and storytelling. She roped me in.

I think if I had a complaint, it would be around Nick. I wanted to know more about the chauffer/hired-help who turns out to play a pivotal role in her future. I am purposefully being vague. No bean-spilling today. We were hearing, though, from Offred. And she told us what she wanted to share.

Jennifer: Oh, I’m spilling the beans! I have to! SPOILERS AHEAD!

I flipped out a little at the end. I didn’t see it coming. When Offred’s voice ended, I was driving in my car and I really looked around wildly, stopped the car, and texted you something like WTF? As I mentioned, I didn’t remember it. The “end” happens twice. First, Offred’s story ends without resolution. She is taken away—either by the Resistance or by the Bad Guys. Second, we are launched centuries ahead to an academic conference. Gilead is gone. Recordings of Offred were recovered, and—like some kind of scholarly gathering on The Epic of Gilgamesh—professors gather to pontificate. We get a kind of resolution, in that we know Offred did this act of recording somehow and Gilead fell. The scholars are, however, utterly removed from Offred’s emotional life. That distance was hard for me. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Offred. I was very attached to her.

Lara: I remember you texting me. I was about to go on vacation and wasn’t that far into the book. Fortunately, you didn’t spoil it for me. As you know, I am forever the optimist, and I think Offred was picked up by the Resistance and this is the beginning of the end of Gilead. And before you snark on my hopefulness, remember that Offred herself was very hopeful. The act of her recording her story speaks to the hope she had. She says,

“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.”

 And probably my favorite line in the book:

“I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”

Jennifer: I choose to believe she got away too. I personally like when narratives tell me what happens, but it’s okay. I’ve accepted this. I think, though, this recording of story is super important. It comes up in numerous ways.

We wonder at the strange juxtaposition of the suicide of the handmaid who lived in Offred’s place before Offred and this handmaid’s own writing, a secret etching that says Do Not Let The Bastards Grind You Down. How do we make sense of both her suicide and her message? What is the significance of leaving a message? Does suicide render the message obsolete? Did the bastards grind her down? Was suicide part of resistance, or a sign of defeat?

Elsewhere, Offred reminds us,

“This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction . . . When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact. . .”

Story-telling or reconstruction is a form of control. Who gets to control this narrative? Who ultimately controls Offred—the Commander with his hand lotion and Scrabble, or the person who writes it down her way?

Still later, she says,

“I don’t want to be telling this story. I don’t have to tell it. I don’t have to tell anything . . . Why fight?” To tell a story, to reconstruct, is to fight—an act of hope.”

And when she reconstructs what happens with Nick, she says,

“I made that up. It didn’t happen that way.”

I think this reverberates nicely with the somewhat stilted academic ponderings—the artifice, the telling, the intellectual discourse one step removed from what really happened. Scholarship, too, is a form of reconstruction and control. Am I making sense?

Lara: Maybe. So do you think she recorded her story after getting out of Gilead? How on earth would she have access to a recording device and be able to actually record without someone hearing her or watching her?

Jennifer: No clue. They recover the tapes in what was once Maine, not the Cambridge area in which the book is set. I like to think she got away.

I think, ultimately, one big point is that no one—man or woman—could ultimately thrive in this society. Gilead is bad for men and for women. The Commander is evidence of this. This society is untenable. Serena Joy, The Commander’s wife, is miserable. There are secret whorehouses. This society will go down. One thing I really liked about the ending is that we know this place will not last. Good overcomes evil. We have that. This book is not a statement of despair. History unfolds in favor of the Good Guys. I believe this.

Lara: And don’t forget the books! Books are gone. The only book that remains is The Bible, and it’s conveniently kept under lock and key. To be taken out of context and interpreted however the few in power want to interpret it and rendering everyone beneath them powerless.

Jennifer: It’s a Jesus-free “Christianity.”

I found Serena Joy intriguing. She seemed a little like Tammy Faye Baker. And you wonder what happened to her.

Lara: Y’all are just going to have to read it and weigh in. We’d love to know what you think. Before we read our July book, though, I am going to check out the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.

Jennifer: Me too. I love Elisabeth Moss!

Next Up!

Join is in July for Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Until then… happy reading, Snotties!


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