For those out there who for one reason or another are unfamiliar with the subject of this review - and you’ll find no judgement or criticism for that herein – I’ll begin with a simple introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale. Written by Margaret Atwood in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative dystopian novel set in the years following the overthrow of the United States government by a group called the Sons of Jacob; they then create a totalitarian, Christian theonomy (a type of theocracy that views Biblical Law as applicable to civil law) and call the resulting new nation Gilead. The novel is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a Handmaid called Offred. I say called rather than named because as a Handmaid in this society her identity and individualism (and humanity) have been almost entirely stripped from her. Repeatedly Offred refers to the societal need for her to “obliterate [herself]” or “empty [herself], truly, become a chalice” (Atwood 330). As a Handmaid, Offred has been given to the family of a Commander (a high-level member of the current Gilead regime) so that she might be used as a state-sanction/state-enforced surrogate mother. In the kind of short and crude terms that this book demands us to face, Offred exists simply to be used for breeding.
There is no question of the threat of death that constantly surrounds Offred. She is not permitted to read; this crime is punished by “a hand cut off, on the third conviction” (317). She is not permitted to move freely within either her place of residence or outside of it. She can be shot simply for walking outside of approved areas. Then there are the Eyes, the ever-watching, state-run department whose sole purpose is to monitor and enforce the strict Christian theonomy. Torture, public humiliation, and death is all that awaits those considered dissident by the Eyes.
For years this novel has existed in the great canon of dystopian novels. But unlike 1984 or Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist/female dystopia. While men are certainly in danger under the regime – Offred sees a man snatched off the street in broad daylight by the Eyes (196) – there is no debate on this issue: this dystopian nightmare is far more terrifying for women than it can ever be for men. So terrifying that Offred’s most consistent companion throughout the narrative is not a person but the ghost of the Handmaid who came before her, the one who made her household remove the chandelier from her room. As Offred explains, “There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to” (7). It is important to acknowledge the pains to which the Gilead regime has gone to in order to prevent Handmaid’s from committing suicide and (more importantly) to acknowledge the pains that the Handmaid’s face and which make suicide such a pervasive response.
Thus, The Handmaid’s Tale is not a novel about active resistance against a brutal totalitarian regime. It is not a story about freedom fighters and a resistance network that makes small but important victories against the evils of their government. It is a novel about self-reflection as self-preservation, silent resistance, and the all-consuming struggle to remain an individual in a society that seeks to kill you just enough, but never all the way.
Characters & Themes
Through our protagonist Offred we are able to get a glimpse of many characters from her life before and after the Sons of Jacob took over. There are no happy stories here. The novel consists of two casts of characters: a pre-Gilead cast and a post-Gilead cast. Before Offred was taken to the Red Centre to become a Handmaid she was married to her husband Luke and had a daughter. She had a fierce best friend from college, Moira. She had a strong-willed mother. After becoming Offred she is given a simulacrum family to ‘replace’ the one she lost under the regime. She has Serena Joy, Wife of the Commander, a twisted mother figure. She has Ofglen, her travel companion for visits to the marketplace and a possible friend, though this can never be without risk. Then she has the Commander and one of his Guardians, Nick, who become surrogate husband and lover, respectively. Finally, if she fulfills her role as Handmaid she will give birth to another child, though it will never truly be hers. But the emphasis here is on simulacrum. Though he says it in a patronizing manner, Offred ultimately agrees with the Commander’s assessment that “[for women] one and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other” (222).
There are other characters I could discuss (Aunt Lydia, Janine, Cora, and Rita), but I’m going to focus on Offred’s two ‘families’ for the purposes of this discussion. First and foremost, we must acknowledge that they are all foil characters. Offred is the only truly three-dimensional character in this novel. This is appropriate because, as we learn, the entire novel is brought to us as a transcript of a collection of tapes Offred has made at some time following the events of the novel. Through all of these foil characters, past and present, Offred struggles to find self-worth, meaning, and a significance to her existence beyond that which has been prescribed to her. Her struggle is captured quite eloquently by her inability to find contentment in a simple idiom: “Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?” (7). She looks back to her relationship with Luke, finding comfort even in constructing arguments they might have about unimportant or trivial incidents, just so that she can have the idea of the feelings of anger and reconciliation. Offred longs for a return to something real and, at first, she thinks she can only find this in a connection to her past. As the story develops, her search for this feeling of self-worth leads her to pursue a risky and odd relationship with her Commander (his idea) and a far riskier relationship with Nick (initially Serena Joy’s idea, but afterwards entirely her own). She also looks to Ofglen for a human connection that can bring her hope in her hopeless existence. Though they can (almost) never look at each other and never speak except during their circuitous routes back from the market place, they form a friendship. But just as the Commander and Nick can never give her what Luke did (though Nick perhaps comes the closest), Ofglen can never give her the kind of friendship Moira did. Likewise, Serena Joy can never give her the acknowledgement and push that her mother did.
The pervasive issue present in all of these ‘replacement’ relationships comes down to power, as so much of the novel does. Namely, the disparity of power and how destructive that is to Offred’s ability to interact with other people. All of her relationships in the Commander’s household come down to power; namely, who has it and what kind of power it is. And all of this is in contrast to the power dynamics that Offred remembers from her life before. She can never have a relationship with the Commander or Nick approaching that of the one she had with her husband (not to suggest it was perfect, which Offred doesn’t) because she can never achieve anything approaching their level of power over her. Nick is a Guardian and possibly a member of the Eyes. The Commander is, as his name implies, a high-ranking member of the regime that is actively subjugating her on a daily basis. While Offred is not utterly powerless in the presence of these characters (and others), she can never be assured of her own power. It is always tenable and subject to a system that permits her power only as a whim, never as a given.
And this is what is so sinister about the regime under which she is held. So completely has she been stripped of power – knowledge, voice, sight, visibility, friendship, touch, love, choice, possessions, stimuli, family, name, mobility – that even the tiniest spec of power seems like an illusion or potentially destructive. We aren’t talking about power in the sense of authority or government. We are talking about power in the sense of freedom. The power to eat what you want, the power to touch another person, the power to dress as you want, say what you want. Offred is not longing for a world where she possessed a power that took anything from anyone; she is longing for a world where she possessed a power to give herself and others something. Whether that something was love, meaning, absolution, forgiveness, respect, consideration, a smile, laughter, the sound of her voice, it really does not matter. It’s all of these things because now she can give none of these things. She can’t give them to others and she can barely give them to herself.
You could argue that Offred’s desires are selfish. And my response would be: yes, they are. It is selfish of her to want to read magazines. After all, that is an experience that seemingly doesn’t benefit anyone but herself. It is selfish for her to want to talk with whomever she wants about whatever she wants. But lets abandon the notion that just because these are selfish desires that they are inherently negative. Participation in human society calls upon us to be selfless to a certain extent towards other people; however, taking that level of selflessness to the point that one must “obliterate [themselves]” (330) is unconscionable precisely because such a level of selfishness is untenable. As effectively as the Gilead regime has cracked down upon women it cannot render them empty vessels; humanity and individuality persist and endure in the face of horrific conditions. Because Offred cannot obliterate herself, she suffers. Selfishness of the kind I am describing here (not the selfishness that we typically associate the term with, and rightfully so) is an unavoidable consequence of existence. We know humans can choose to view other humans as objects of value purely for their utility and even subjugate humans to a system that attempts to solidify this as reality. But The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrates how even the most intractable and totalitarian of systems like this cannot actually destroy that essence that makes someone an individual. The extent to which humans can and will go in trying is horrific but it can never eradicate. After all, as Offred observes of Serena Joy’s garden, “Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently” (176).
I hope by now to have given you sufficient reason to see why The Handmaid’s Tale remains significant even 32 years after its publication. It isn’t because the Hulu series based off of the books is such a huge success and is a trendy show to watch. It’s the other way around. The success of the show doubles back to the success of the original novel and the revelations it has to share about who we are and who we could be. Perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale does not contain the kernel of hope that I have drawn out of it. I am perfectly willing to admit that my interpretation is based on my own perceptions about what dystopian stories have to offer us. I don’t believe we gravitate to these stories purely because we are interested in some kind of masochistic engagement with a presentation of our ultimate failure and suffering at the hands of the darkest parts of our nature. I believe their value comes, in large part, from their capacity to show us something true about our capacity for light amidst our own darkness. I am sentimental by nature.
For anyone who read The Handmaid’s Tale during high school and didn’t appreciate it, I encourage you to go back and read it and consider that maybe there’s a reason you were forced to read that during third period. I hope you will find in it what I did, reading it for the first time: that it is a novel about all the ways we (acknowledging that the novel speaks to women in a way it can never speak to me) cling to our individuality in the face of forces that seek to exterminate it. That it is a novel about how loneliness can undo us so utterly even when surrounded by people. Furthermore, that it is a novel that demonstrates the reserves of strength we can call upon when we think we have no strength left to use. That there is something entirely heroic in Offred’s strength even though she never throws a punch, never shouts, and never gets revenge upon those who have wronged her in any of the flashy ways we’ve come to expect our heroes to.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Never let the bastards grind you down. The Commander calls it a joke. To someone who knows Latin, it is. To someone who has never been ground down, never been able to empathize with someone who has been ground down, it must be.
Offred believes in us, believes that by telling us her story we will demonstrate not only that we exist but that she exists in turn. Offred suffers, there is no question. But in the end, I do believe she wins. The bastards never ground her down.
If You Liked The Handmaid's Tale . . .
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto, Emblem, McClelland & Stewart, 2014.