Having read her poetry and one of her novels, “Blind Assassin”, I approached this book with a sense of excitement. However, in the end, The Handmaid’s Tale is a tale about a woman’s passivity. Despite its clever use of literary devices and unreliable narration, The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately stands as a superficial, dystopian commentary on reproductive labor and fascism.
The story of a Handmaid
The novel, narrated by the titular Handmaid Offred, takes place in a city located in the former shell of the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. Offred is a Handmaid; we see the world as it is through her eyes. In this reinvented society, women have little to no rights, and infertility rates are high. As a result, a new caste system is formed: we meet Commander’s Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, and Econowives. Offred walks us through the routine of her daily life as a Handmaid, interspersed with flashbacks of her pre-Gilead life.
Throughout the novel, what strikes me as exceptional is the diction and style Atwood writes with. She fluidly moves from one scene to another, such as the days spent in the infamous Women’s Center and Offred’s regular walks with her fellow Handmaid, Ofglen. Consequently, this gives a narrative structure that’s quite difficult to wade through, yet it constantly implores the reader to further follow Offred’s story. Furthermore, this poses a question: Offred is an unreliable narrator, so how much of what she says should we take at face value? I believe that this is left vague due to authorial intent; and yet if one trusts Offred and her story, a conflict of interest occurs. One would be bound to ask this question: Is Offred complicit in the oppression that occurs to Gilead’s less-than-fortunate women?
Throughout the novel, what strikes me as exceptional is the diction and style Atwood writes with.
Offred as protagonist
Atwood has said that she considers Offred to be an “ordinary, more-than-less cowardly woman”, and this is the exact problem with our protagonist. Offred is passive; she chooses to pursue sex with the Commander’s chauffeur (and possible Resistance spy) Nick, she tries to search for her best friend, Moira, to an anti-climactic end; she even contemplates about her abducted daughter and her long-lost husband, Luke. Offred wants, but she does not do. It’s not to say that Offred would be a better protagonist if she was a rebel with a cause like Moira was once before; she is a woman in isolation, and her thoughts and actions reflect that.
Yet, on a deeper level, her isolationism further compels her to not sympathize with the women around her. Offred is a fictional character; she has no ‘free will’, so to speak. Atwood chooses isolationism over companionship and empathy; Ofglen, Offred’s partner, ends up dead and what does Offred do? Nothing. She attempts to use the passcode the former Ofglen has given her and gets rebuffed. She reflects that she never even knew the old Ofglen’s name. End scene. There are no further mentions of the Resistance between women. There is a sense of fleetingness, a nihilist undercurrent to Offred’s interactions with the women around her.
What adds insult to injury is the backdrop of this novel. Womanhood is so clearly devalued in Gilead; women are treated as expendable objects. Offred remarks this about herself and her fellow Handmaids:
“This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not.”
Yet, the novel turns to conventional romance as its plot. We are told bits and pieces of Gilead’s history, the existence of the resisting faction, why it is the way it is, and yet all of that merely serve as a backdrop to Offred’s nighttime visits to the Commander’s study and her trysts with Nick. While I wouldn’t commend Atwood on her worldbuilding, it had potential. What is the end result of her work, however, ends up merely scratching the surface.
The emotional investment in Gilead and the collective suffering of its women is almost nonexistent. How, then, will we feel for Moira, for Janine, for Ofglen, for Offred’s daughter and mother, for the countless women in Gilead and its colonies? Are they like folk art, archaic? Atwood fails to further elaborate on how gender so thoroughly impacts these women’s lives and mindsets, creating a flimsy structure for a feminist critique on reproductive labor.
The Handmaid’s Tale offers an intricate, up close and personal view of Gilead, its women, and Offred’s own life. Beautifully written, it’s a shell of what it could have been ー an impassioned narrative of Offred and her respective relationships with the women in her life, and a proper commentary on Gilead and how it may not be too different from the world we live in today. Yet with what it is, a reader is merely a passive bystander in this novel; one feels, wishes, thinks ー but one does not do.
Cover: Unsplash / Jonas Jacobsson