In 1985, when The Handmaid’s Tale was published and became an international phenomenon, birth control for women had been approved for over 20 years. The decision of Roe v. Wade had been standing for 12 years.
Yet Atwood imagined a future in which few women had the right to choose anything.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place solely in the futuristic Republic of Gilead, a theocracy, centered around Cambridge, Massachusetts — an ironic touch. In our age, Cambridge, Massachusetts is a center of intellect and liberalism. By its nature, liberalism goes along with the sort of government infrastructure that could, someday, allow for a takeover by hostile powers from within or without. Atwood’s decision to set The Handmaid’s Tale in Cambridge was a stroke of genius that adds to the power of her narrative.
This commentary contains spoilers…
But I’ll spill the beans right out of the bag and say that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a book that can be spoiled. The beauty lies in the way the story is told: in Atwood’s choice of narrator, in the limited scope of her setting, and in the language. Like any good dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale has original turns of phrase — Econowives, Handmaids themselves, Aunts, Commanders. They’re not nearly as numerous as the ones you’d find in, say, 1984 or Brave New World. But Atwood manages to evoke the same “old dystopian” feel in her “new dystopia.”
It didn’t escape me that she did most of the writing for The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, the year in which, duh, 1984 is set. Whether or not this was purposeful, I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it beyond her — she’s an extremely intelligent, well-read lady.
In the future of The Handmaid’s Tale, fertility rates have fallen, and only a few women capable of bearing viable children remain. The cream of the crop are called handmaids, and are allotted to powerful men with wives who cannot bear children. Through a strange ritual based on the Biblical story of Rachel and Bilhah, the powerful husbands copulate with the handmaids, while the handmaids lie on the wives’ knees.
Point-of-view and narration
The Handmaid’s Tale is told from a single point-of-view, that of a handmaid named Offred, and this is an essential part of its beauty. It’s also written in the present tense. And it’s one of the rare first-person present tense books that I truly enjoy. This is the model for that confined-feeling-inducing writing style used in The Hunger Games and the Divergent series, modern, watered-down dystopian novels aimed at teens. The Handmaid’s Tale is not aimed at teens. Offred is a woman with a woman’s voice.
Her true name isn’t revealed in the novel. She’s called Offred because the name of the Commander she serves is Frederick. At the end of the story, when Atwood reveals in an epilogue the frame surrounding the story — a symposium farther in the future of scholars studying the collapsed Republic of Gilead — people speculate on who this Frederick was.
Offred’s world is tiny. It contains the house she lives in and the shops she visits. As the story progresses, her world expands in tiny ways. She gains entrance into her Commander’s study when he asks her to break the rules and visit him there. Eventually, she gains access to the dwelling of Nick, a guard with whom she begins an illicit relationship.
Atwood draws a stark contrast between Offred’s current existence and her memories of her former life — a life with a lot of space, a life that included love. In one of the novel’s more perplexing sections, her Commander smuggles her out of Gilead to a strange place populated by women who didn’t make the cut — including Offred’s old friend Myra.
Offred ends up carrying Nick’s child. She doesn’t know whether he’s a member of the Mayday resistance against Gilead — or whether he’s an Eye, a spy for Gilead. The story ends inconclusively when she boards a van with men said to be Eyes at Nick’s request.
The beauty of The Handmaid’s Tale
For me, much of the beauty of this novel lies in its inconclusive ending. The reader doesn’t know what happened to Offred and her child. It reminds me of the ending of Lois Lowry’s The Giver — another monumental dystopian creation. Once you read the epilogue, you know enough, in my mind. The Republic of Gilead will fall. You know a little bit about how it will fall. You know that someday, people in a better time will look back and wonder at it. Men and women will once again sit around the same table as equals, the world healed.
The book left such a stunning legacy in part because people asked many questions. How did Gilead begin? How exactly did it fall? What happened to Offred? In my opinion, many of these questions should have been left unanswered.
In 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for television. I haven’t watched the TV series, but I know that it stirred up interest for the novel once more. I also heard that it continues the story beyond the narrative in the book. Around this time, Margaret Atwood began working on a sequel. As she puts it, she just couldn’t help herself from looking into the future of her characters.
Doing so, in my opinion, was a mistake.
The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments
I don’t review books I don’t like. (I only review books I do like.) In some ways, I liked The Testaments. In others, I didn’t. I won’t delve deeply into it, but I will speak to how I think it affected the legacy of The Handmaid’s Tale and the world of Gilead. I’ll do this in the form of a list of problems I had with The Testaments.
Problem one: Atwood continued her use of first person, present tense narration, but used three narrators this time instead of one. I found the first narrator extremely compelling, the second fairly compelling, and the third bothersome. Narrators two and three also sounded too similar, causing moments of confusion in the latter half of the novel. Their voices became almost interchangeable, which to me is a big no-no when utilizing first person narration through multiple perspectives.
Problem two: With so many narrators, the book had no clear flow and lacked direction at times. The Handmaid’s Tale is a deeply serious book. The Testaments felt like its scatter-brained, young adult cousin. It disappointed me because I was looking for deep meaning, which I found in only a few places.
Problem three: The Testaments explains too much. It answers too many questions. By the time you reach the end, there’s nothing left to consider. The Testaments closed all of the doors The Handmaid’s Tale opened. Some people value conclusion over thought, so they might like this. But I was horrified. I have no other words.
If you love The Handmaid’s Tale and haven’t read The Testaments, take a step back before reading it. Question whether you want to break the magic spell. Objectively speaking, it’s not a bad book, not even a bad sequel. But it’s not, in my opinion, a thought-worthy successor to one of the most thought-provoking books in history.
What do you think about The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments? Start a conversation in the comments!
If you enjoyed this review, check out my review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.