It’s been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale which is why I wanted to read it before starting The Testaments. The original novel is one of those momentous pieces of fiction that, if you read it at the right time in your life, changes you. I mean, is it any wonder that a teenage girl reading one of the most important pieces of political literature turned out to be this outspoken little feminist? But more than that. Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers in recent years so it definitely helped shape me as a reader. However, I have to make a point before I carry on. Just as I ranted before my Blinded by the Light review, I have something to ask. Can we please stop saying that we’re living in a world like we see in the novel? I’m not trying to suggest that things are great right now but America’s (undeniably) severe policies regarding abortions and birth control are not the same thing. And to suggest that it is would ignore the genuinely horrible conditions that many women experience around the world. Like the young girls forced into marriages or the girls facing female genital mutilation. Yeah, every woman should have the right to an abortion but at least you aren’t being sold into sex slavery by your family. Yes, we still have a long way to go but we’re nowhere near Atwood’s dystopia just yet.
Nothing can compare to the first time you read this novel. It has the power to be a life-changing experience both in terms of the writing and the message. Going back will never have the same impact but does allow you to indulge in the fantastic writing. Of course, since I last read this book I’ve consumed a lot of very bad feminist dystopian literature that is often praised as the new The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet The Power, Vox and whichever other pretender comes out of the woodwork are just terrible imitations. Still, it’s impossible not to re-read this book in the context of the now cliched dystopian stereotypes. The “found document” aspect of the narrative seems unnecessary now and there is a part of me that wishes she had made more of certain aspects of the story.
But that doesn’t stop this being an important book and a great read. Margaret Atwood manages to create a terrifying world were a small group of people used religion to gain control. In doing so, women lose all of their freedom and only a select group of men are able to do as they please. The novel is narrated from the point of view of a Handmaid; a young, fertile woman who is owned by a Commander and his wife. Her only reason for existing is to bear his child. The great plan for increasing the birth-rate and slowly repopulate. Through her tale, Offred tells us how her society came to be and the kind of experiences she has to go through. It paints a horrible picture of absolute power.
Is the premise entirely believable? No, but I haven’t read one piece of dystopian literature that even a little bit far-fetched. I mean it’s a political allegory so I think we can forgive it for being a bit over-the-top. Taking a realistic idea and pushing it to the max is kind of the deal. I mean Atwood wasn’t actually trying to tell the future. She wasn’t even making a comment on religion itself. The novel is making a point about power and the problem an imbalance of power can have. Yes, this is an important feminist text but this isn’t simply a feminist story. The novel tells us so much about humanity and their desire for control. Yes, these people use religious texts for their own purpose but this isn’t a world taken over by religious people. It’s taken over by people manipulating religious beliefs and interpreting religious texts for their own gain.
In terms of story, there isn’t much going on here I guess. Instead, we see, through Offred, how society has changed people. We get an idea of who Offred was before. She was an independent, strong-willed, and opinionated young woman. She didn’t always make the best choices but she lived a good and happy life. Yes, in this new society, she finds herself fairly easily subdued. Her strange relationship with her Commander flips between hatred, pity, and awkward friendship. She can’t help but follow certain ideas even though she knows it’s against her. Rather than trying to shock her audience with too many images of violent acts or terrible conditions, Atwood instead shows us a woman broken. A once politically minded person who has slowly faded into a shadow of her former self. It doesn’t need to be a spectacle. The subtlety and matter-of-factness used to describe the rise of the nation of Gilead are enough.
Because Atwood’s writing is so easy to read that you get swept along with everything. The horrible elements are described in such a way that it’s easy to see why Offred and co. have lost the will to fight. Compared to contemporary feminist dystopian fiction, this is a masterpiece. It is a bit of a slow burner and it carefully reveals itself when it needs to. The novel doesn’t feel the need to distract with major examples of rebellion and is more than happy to leave loose ends wherever it goes. The thing that makes this book so terrifying is not anything that happens but the things we don’t see happen. It’s how used we get to meeting people and then never hearing from them again. The apparent ease with which people are dispatched from society when they cause trouble. That is the real show of absolute power.