Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a very, very long time. I read the opening pages in a lesson at school when I was seventeen and had been intending to get round to it ever since. It had been sitting on my shelf for nearly five years, and I had heard so many things about it – almost exclusively good things, if not brilliant things, life-changing things, this-is-the-best-book-ever things. I say this as a sort of disclaimer, because although I did like and was interested by The Handmaid’s Tale, I wasn’t quite as impressed as I had expected to be.
The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps one of the most famous dystopian novels of the twentieth century, alongside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, there are many similarities between these two books, and in a way The Handmaid’s Tale is for gender what Nineteen Eighty-Four is for class – or, more accurately, The Handmaid’s Tale is for misogyny what Nineteen Eighty-Four is for radical communism. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian North America, where society has been systematically rearranged following some kind of war or coup, and partly triggered by declining birth rates. Women are no longer allowed property, and have to conform to one of four roles in life: wife, Martha (servant), Aunt (a sort of teacher), or Handmaid. The role of Handmaids is to bear children for high-ranking officials and their wives.
Within this world, we are told the story of Offred. Denied her old life and even her original name – which we never learn – she is stationed with the Commander and his wife. For a dystopian novel, it is a very individual and personal story. It deals with her life both before and after the change of regime, and any defiance against the state is personal and individual. There are whispers of an organised resistance, but she is never really part of it. In this way it is an intensely personal and human story, and how the society is actually organised and how it came to be is never fully clear.
There are a lot of things I loved about The Handmaid’s Tale. In general I am very interested in dystopian novels, and I’m also very interested in feminism and in gender roles in society – probably another reason why I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long. The Handmaid’s Tale explores what would happen if certain assumed gender roles were pushed to their extremes. This aspect of the book is impressive and important. And I love that it is like Nineteen Eighty-Four from another angle. I appreciate that the structure of the book, with a personal narrative followed by a quasi-historical appendix is an echo to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The issues Atwood is exploring in The Handmaid’s Tale, not only of oppressive regimes but of misogyny, of how society views the role and purpose of women, is what makes the book great.
The writing is very strong throughout and the narrator’s psychology complexity is very well done. We see her depression and her resilience, but also the extent to which she has been absorbed into this society and is part of it – how she has started to blame and hate other women as the regime tells her too. I also like the self-conscious story-telling, the narrator’s awareness that she isn’t always telling the exact truth, sometimes because she can’t and sometimes because she doesn’t want to. I like the way the narrative slips from the present to the past, how memories of her old life drift in and out of the narrative. Indeed, the storyline that engaged me most was that of the narrator and her friend Moira and the institution where they were taught to be Handmaids – the story of the transitional period. It was a shame, for me, that this was often overshadowed by other narrative arcs.
Indeed, for all that I respect and admire it as a novel, there were a few things that stopped me fully engaging with The Handmaid’s Tale. The first is simply this: I did not believe in this dystopia. Not that I didn’t believe that it could ever happen, but that I just didn’t believe it could happen as quickly as it is supposed to. The narrator was married with a young daughter before the regime change, in what seems by every description to be a 1980s America as it was when Atwood was writing. In the novel’s narrative present, she is still of an age where she can have children. This means that the changes supposed to have taken place in the novel have happened in about ten years, at most fifteen. I found it very hard to believe that such social and political changes could have occurred in so short a time.
I think what I struggled with is that Atwood doesn’t really provide a proper explanation for what has happened. There is some talk of war, and a vague allusion to illnesses in the colonies which may be to do with nuclear radiation, but that’s all. I kept on expecting to be given a clear biological or genetic reason for the declining birth-rates, but none was ever really mentioned. It felt like the world Atwood present needed a clearer and more extreme cause to become what it has become, and I couldn’t find it. I do wonder if my lack of belief in this world was to do with my modern perspective. Obviously the position of women in Western society has changed considerably in the last thirty years, and what seems inconceivable nowadays may have been more believable in the 1980s. Either that, or I’m just a natural optimist and just stubbornly refuse to believe in the world she creates. Yet for me, it felt like Atwood had put much more thought into the dystopian world she wanted to write about, than into how this world came to be. I understand that the transitional period is not the book’s focus, but I still found myself distanced from the whole story by my inability to believe that this extreme regime had so rapidly taken over
My second issue is a more personal one – not a reason why The Handmaid’s Tale is any less great a book, but a reason why I enjoyed it less. I like books with hope in. Yes, I read and love a lot of “sad” books, a lot of books that do not have happy endings, a lot of books with dark themes and bleak overtones – but for me, a book that is entirely bleak has nothing to really engage with. My favourite dystopia novels are Station Eleven, The Chimes and Never Let Me Go. These all have a sort of universal hope in humanity, or at least a hope and happiness in human relationships, in friendship, in love. I need that, in dystopian fiction. What I love about those novels is their poignancy. But The Handmaid’s Tale is not poignant. It is bleak, stark and awful. There is not even hope that is extinguished later, which would be enough for me. There are no happy moments snatched from misery. There is just no hope. Which is perhaps the point, and is perhaps part of what makes it such a powerful novel, but it didn’t make me like it. In a novel with so atrocious a setting, I would have liked some human relationships to offer at least some kind of hope. I didn’t really find this. For me, the characterisation of the male characters in the book wasn’t strong enough for me to feel any engagement in Offred’s relationship with them. Her friendship with Moira was one thing in the book that made me feel anything but anger. I understand why the book is as bleak and hopeless as it is, but I feel it would have been a stronger novel if there had been some glimmer of hope to engage with. Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is some sense of hope in the middle of the book, even if it is extinguished by the end.
I was also a little disappointed by the novel’s ending. If you’d like to read a spoilery discussion of the novel’s ending, do click below:
I felt, in truth, that it was a bit of a cop out, not so much an ambiguous ending so much as a moment of indecision on Atwood’s part. Perhaps the fact that we do not know where Offred is going is symbolic of the fact that many women in her position would not be saved, as she might be. The “Historical Note” seems to imply that she does escape, but we can’t be certain. It also implies that the world has moved on, that society recovers from the dystopia Atwood presents, that in the future people are looking back on it and even laughing at it. I know that maybe this should offer the hope I found was missing in the rest of the book, but it didn’t really feel like that to me. It was so distant from the rest of the book that, as with the Appendixes of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I just wasn’t really sure what to make of it.
All in all, I had mixed feelings about The Handmaid’s Tale. I was expecting it to be one of my favourite books of the year, and it wasn’t – and yet it is a powerful, fascinating, well-written and important book. It’s the sort of book I wish I had studied at university, the kind of novel I think I’ll appreciate more as I start to pick it apart it my head and think it through. I do recommend it, though I think it’s the sort of book to ponder over rather than enjoy. Regardless, my interest is piqued, and I’ll definitely be looking to read more by Margaret Atwood in the future.
Greatest strength: I suppose the writing, and the way Atwood explores gender politics.
Greatest weakness: For me, I didn’t really believe that this social change could have occurred quite so fast. It felt like Atwood had compacted fifty years’ worth of change into ten years in order to suit her plot and her character’s biological timeline, which jarred for me.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.’
Also, I’ve recently become a Foyles Affiliate. If you like, you can purchase The Handmaid’s Tale online through the Foyles website.
Next week: More throwback books, this time Elizabeth Gaskell’s wonderful Mary Barton.