“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publication: First published in 1985
Summary from Goodreads:
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society in which extremism has won. The systematic oppression of women has a new face and institutionalized power in the new republic of Gilead. Featuring a protagonist caught between the old and the new, a cunning fight for survival, and a relevance that must be acknowledged in today’s society, The Handmaid’s Tale is a brutal representation of what happens when the bad guys win.
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
Offred, the protagonist, is in a unique position as a narrator. She comes from the time before Gilead. She had a life – a husband, a daughter. Readers not only witness the present-day horrors that are life in Gilead, they also experience the rise of Gilead piece by piece just as Offred does. Readers are privy to the ‘before’, as well as trapped by the ‘after’. Offred might not be the most reliable protagonist – she changes her narrative, her ideas, and the timeline or events that take place. The story follows Offred in her life as a Handmaid, a sexual slave to whichever government official assigned to, as she navigates the commander’s house and society in Gilead.
The Handmaid’s Tale shines brightest when it lays down its brutally honest commentary on oppression and control. Atwood doesn’t shy away from the cold, hard truth. She sets it out as it is; detailing the harsh fates characters who don’t fit in often find, as well as rape, murder, and birth. Another strength is the writing itself: Atwood has beautiful prose that carries the weight of the story. Her language is deliberate and as stark as the universe she has created.
However, the novel also has its downsides. While the prose and narrative are strong, I think Offred – despite her utility to the story – is one of the weakest links. From an outside perspective, Offred does nothing. She has no autonomy outside the realm of male ordinated functions. She, in her acts of rebellion, is only fulfilling other male fantasies. I do think she is undeniably important to the story and how it is told, but from a literary perspective, she falls flat as a protagonist.
The Handmaid’s Tale is mind-blowing, heart-breaking, and utterly astounding. I think it is a book that demands to be read – not for its literary prowess, but on account of its truth and ground-breaking nature. It isn’t afraid to throw its faults in your face, and Atwood certainly wasn’t afraid to call out society as a whole. While The Handmaid’s Tale might not be the best book ever written, it may very well be one of the most powerful narratives in this day and age.
“If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.”