When I read The Handmaid’s Tale in February 2017, little did I know how much this novel by contemporary Canadian author Margaret Atwood (born 1939) would be in the press a few months later. As it turned out, it was serialized for Hulu, a video on demand service, with the season premiere having been broadcast in late April. Because the title is so hot at present, I decided to join the fray.
The book was on my TBR list for a long time and I finally relented to my nagging literary conscience. The Handmaid’s Tale was my first exposure to a bestselling writer who has garnered too many literary honors to mention, and been nominated for many more. I am no particular fan of dystopian literature, and since my exposure to required classics like 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm in high school, I have not often delved into this genre. Even though I can’t claim to have liked Margaret Atwood’s story, I am, nonetheless, glad I read it.
Set in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic, theocratic, totalitarian state (presumably the US), where environmental degradation has engendered infertility in many women, the ruling-class families keep “handmaids” for the sole purpose of procreation. These maids are put through a process of brainwashing and are not supposed to have their own thoughts or opinions. The novel’s “heroine”, if she deserves this title, is Offred. This translates to “Of Fred”, based on the name of the man she is assigned to, as she is not entitled to her own. Her only reason to exist is to bear healthy children to the so-called elites. To optimize the human birthing machine, her monthly hormonal fluctuations are minutely monitored. When the time is right, the handmaids undergo a ritual cleansing, before exposing only the prerequisite body part to their perpetrators, in a grotesque and dehumanizing “ceremony”.
Despite the system’s best efforts at enforcing subjugation and conformity, Offred remembers a life before the takeover. During an attempt to flee to a neighboring country (presumably Canada), she and her family were overtaken. Her husband was almost certainly assassinated, and her daughter abducted and adopted by one of the leading families. Offred’s dream of a reunion motivates her to keep on living, if that is what her existence can be called, instead of escaping it through suicide, a popular way out for many handmaids, despite the rulers best attempts at removing all means to effect it.
Offred’s hope is buoyed when she meets a fellow servant who, like herself, does not appear fully assimilated, even if she can’t be sure that this other woman is not a spy. Dissenters who are caught suffer a horrendous public execution portrayed in bone-chilling detail. When Offred is picked up by a van, the usual means of apprehending and transporting traitors to these show trials, neither she nor the reader knows if her captors represent friends or foes, and the tale culminates in this cliffhanger.
While I found it impossible to “enjoy” the nightmarish world created by Margaret Atwood, I enjoyed her masterful narrative style. The degree to which the choice and pace of language reflected Offred’s inner and outer life was remarkable. Her tedium and boredom were expressed by ambling phrases, her fear and panic by staccato-like sentences. Despite my constant sense of reluctance, the book was a page-turner.
The fear of totalitarian regimes, the loss of women’s rights, and the destruction of habitat is as relevant today as it was in 1985, when the novel was first published. Is it the responsibility of literature to address and elucidate current concerns, rather than to simply entertain? To prodesse aut delectare (instruct and delight), as Horace posited, or merely to delectare? What are your thoughts?
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