'The Handmaids Tale' by Margaret Atwood

Monday 1 August 2016

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I am very late to the Atwood party. 

Prior to picking up ‘The Handmaids Tale’ at a charity shop with a bunch of other Atwood novels I’d only read ‘Cats Eye’ as part of a contemporary fiction module in my final year at University. Now i’ve finished the novel I just wish I had read it then as it would have gone perfectly with my final essay on unreliable narrators.

I do not want to give anything away on my reasoning for wanting to compare those novels in that way but if I come across some free time I may tackle it, you know, just for fun. 

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale

The theme that has stayed with me the most from ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is literacy, or lack of it. Being stripped of literacy and defined by your reproductive organs terrifies me. Throughout the text Offred, our narrator and protagonist clings to the written word in memories of shop names, her job and is teased and rewarded with illegal magazines from her commander. The idea that a woman is not capable of controlling her own body and the written word is debilitating. Just considering being a sum of your body parts is horrifying but to have that define your role in life and education made me realise how privileged I am when this could easily be today. 

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale

Memory is Offred’s only relief from a life defined by fertility and blind faith but even those fade with questions of her reality as facts blur into one and another.  Offred clings to memories of her husband Luke, her daughter, her job and knowledge as if she is clinging to her sanity. With her sole purpose only to reproduce she lies still for hours kept alive by her inner life. 

In her memories Offred talks about women, their bodies and their clothes but within the Republic of Gilead she is ashamed of her body, it becomes a discomfort to her. As Offred is defined by her body she has become reluctant to look at herself. She has to bathe before she is annually raped, held down between the commanders infertile wife’s legs whilst he fulfils his ‘duty’. It is in these moments that Offred disconnects further from her body extending the Republics power further as she no longer associates her body with her previous self

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale

People often mention that ‘The Handmaids Tale’ changes their lives and without describing the plot I think the above themes I have touched on reveal why Atwood has created such an iconic text.  Alongside those that resonated with me for a novel that was published in 1985 it holds so much  over the political climate we’re currently in, the blind patriotism and overwhelming belief in extremism that warns of these views taken into a logical conclusion. 

I found myself living in Atwood’s dystopian world, fearful and trapped in Offred’s internal state. Atwood convinced me of Gilead, of a world that could have happened or may happen. A world where actions are taken to make human life survive. What she does almost beautifully is build the world up around Offred as she becomes stifled and suffocated by her circumstance but left me hanging on for to every word and sentence until the very end. 

Have you read ‘The Handmaids Tale’? How did it effect you? 

Get it here: The Handmaid's Tale (Contemporary Classics) 

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