Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood is my favourite author. I have yet to come across another writer capable of dethroning her genius. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been on my to-read shelf, but life has constantly gotten in the way of this endeavour. When AMC debuted its series with the same name, based on the book, I knew I had to take it off my to-read shelf and start reading it. I want to watch the show (it has Alexis Bledel in it!) and in my chronology of life events, watching shows are always preceded by reading books.

This book is unlike Atwood’s later work, The Blind Assassin being one of her masterpieces. It infuses strong elements of dystopian fiction that paint a very bleak and often terrifying setting for the characters. A setting that is geographically the United States of America, specifically, the State of Maine, this book follows Offred as she tries to make sense of her present circumstances.

The writing style wasn’t to my taste in this one. I would use the word “excessive” to describe it without being too unkind. The phrases are often clichéd, and seem as though they are struggling to fit into a paragraph but cannot because their edges cause friction, thus making them stand out. Having said this, I am going to go ahead and contradict myself at least in part by noting that the language is very graphic and successfully showcases the chaos that ensues in a dystopia.

Atwood is one of those intelligent authors who despite being so brilliant, respects her audience’s ability to possess a similar intelligence, and in doing so leaves room for us to draw connections and reach expected conclusions necessary for the flow of her narrative. This is one of her earliest works that I have read, and in it I see this trust of her audience just starting to develop. Unlike a lot of authors, Atwood does not patronize her readers by explaining everything.

In the character of Offred I found a young woman who seems confused and unsure of how to tread forward. Perhaps Atwood structures her novel around this lack of certainty because by its very nature a dystopia generates chaos, even if it tries to maintain structure. Offred’s character is layered with weaknesses and perhaps she needs to be weak in order to remain a puppet in the dictatorship she finds herself. She presents with actions that lead the reader to pin hopes on her ability to be a dissenter and overcome the dystopia, but Atwood does not make it clear that Offred will have that opportunity.

In the character of Moira, Atwood starts off with a brazen woman who some readers may argue carries the entire weight of redemption, but Atwood’s narratives are saddled with the shadow of reality. This is not a fairy tale.

Women’s rights is a major theme as is the bigger question around what lengths are excusable when trying to maintain the propagation of mankind. Power is indubitably analyzed from several angles and characters’ actions and emotions are dissected to reveal much about human nature. This book on the whole takes a magnifying lens to the relationship between fear and power.

The ending of this dystopian tale feels hokey, the historical notes at the end don’t do much for the narrative as a whole, and I suspect they were an attempt by Atwood to add some closure to her tale after leaving us on a dissatisfying cliffhanger. To that end, the ending left me feeling cheated. Atwood creates this dystopian society with such complexity, constructing details to support various levels of function, and the ending felt so “loose” that the entire novel seems to fray a bit because of it.

Still, this novel is not completely without merit. Atwood layers incredible detail which could only stem from deep research, and dexterously conveys the workings and horrors of a dystopian society. I also enjoyed the attention to detail in the references Atwood makes to other cultural groups and the different events that shaped society over the 20th century.

I remain convinced of Atwood’s genius but The Handmaid’s Tale left me disappointed and wanting. While the writing style fell short of perfection and the ending could have been stronger, I would definitely recommend this book. It may be a biased recommendation because I love Atwood’s work and who she is as a person, but this book does much to open our eyes to a dystopian culture so horrifying but at the same time so incredibly real. It is a staunch lesson in what happens when fanatics are given power by ordinary men and women who are frozen by fear.

As I read this book written in 1985, I was mortified by the connections I kept making to our present-day dystopia and the sheer anarchy that ensues when thousands stand idle as a brute force is handed unmitigated power. Atwood has an untouchable talent for asking some of the hardest questions and making you overturn your previous perceptions. Not as brilliant as her later work, but still worth the read.

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