The Handmaid’s Tale

I want to open this review with an admission that I saw the Hulu show first. The show has a number of departures from Atwood’s novel, most important being the change of scope from what, in the novel, is a very close telling that ends up within a frame of academic remembrance, to the show’s more immediate, more dramatic telling of the story in a world that is much closer to our own. Since I came from the world as described in the show, I read the book with certain prejudices that I would not have had if I were to read the story fresh. I don’t know what they are, but they exist, I’m sure.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a story that takes place, from 2018, in the slight past. It’s not completely clear what the year is, but I believe it is around the turn of the millennium, given the way the Eighties are talked about. I was surprised at the timing of the story, but then I realized the book was written in 1985, so Atwood was clearly concerned immediately about the trends she was seeing in society at that time. I wasn’t around then, so I have no knowledge of what it was like. This isn’t how I wanted to begin my review of her book.

I’m not sure how I want to begin. There’s a large part of me that feels inadequate to pass judgment on the Tale, since I’m a man, and I see the Tale to be a sort of testimony to the very real fears of a woman as to her place in a society that constantly treats her as lesser than someone like me. I feel that it is a man’s place, it is my place, in these situations to listen and to come to an empathetic understanding of the fears thus laid out in order to help eradicate their reasons. I suppose I can begin there, then, and state that I resonated with the emotional core of the novel as the testimony of Offred during her time as a handmaid in Gilead. I call it a testimony because of the second great stroke of this novel: the coda that frames the preceding text as a transcription of an artifact found in Bangor, Maine, a hundred and fifty years after the events of the novel. Giving us that distance, from the point of view of a world that’s moved on from Gilead, lends hope to an otherwise hopeless story: although Offred’s own future, and those of the women who suffered alongside her, the world did eventually move on from the religious extremism of Gilead. It offers a relief from the almost claustrophobic circumstances of Offred, which I appreciated, especially after watching two seasons of the show where that claustrophobia is a major thematic element.

The world was, of course, richer in the novel, as it usually is in the source material from the adaptations. You have more room in a book, after all. I liked how fleshed out the world-at-large seemed to be, how much thought had been put into where the rebellions would be, the geopolitical landscape that would allow Gilead to exist at all, and the machinations of the government to raise money and keep the population in check. There was also a continual double-vision surrounding the city, since Offred lived there, in the time before, that reflected the double nature of a fundamentalist government like Gilead’s. I liked it, overall, though it took me a long time to read. The dreaminess, the lyrical nature of the prose paced the book slowly, making it hard for me to sustain attention. But it was exactly, I think, what Atwood was going for. It’s exactly what transcribed audio would sound like from someone who’s just escaped such an abusive society.