Offred (Of Fred) remembers life before the world was destroyed by toxic chemicals and nuclear fallout. She was married with a daughter, fought often with her mom, and had a career. But in the new Republic of Gilead, she is one of a small number of women who can still get pregnant, and her only job as a Handmaid in the new repressed Christian fundamentalist regime is to bear children by the man to which she is assigned.
Credited as the feminist dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale is often compared to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The elements of this new society are even more outlandish than traditional dystopias, but the story evokes powerful images that are the stuff of nightmares for proponents of women’s rights in an era of religious dogma and big government. I see what makes this book so popular and timeless, but several things rub me the wrong way.
The prose is unique, probably because Atwood considers herself a literary author and does not think experimental prose detracts from a story. In addition to run-on sentences and inconsistent quotation marks, the first-person narrative is extremely vivid and visceral. The descriptions and metaphors are quite good, but they are so overabundantly plentiful that they are distracting. Offred notices the weight of the red robes, the cool smooth surface of a doorknob, the tulips opening their cups and spilling out color, the curtains in her room that hang like drowned white hair, the mirror on the stairs that seems to her to bulge outward ‘like an eye under pressure.’
Logically, I find it difficult to imagine a society that has turned so quickly. Offred remembers wearing flip-flops and sundresses, but is now completely familiar with her full-body religious habit, color-coded red to match her subservient fertile role.
Offred does not grieve much for her lost husband and daughter, although she wonders if they are alive or dead. She misses reading, but when given the chance, chooses a Vogue-esque magazine. She longs for independence, but does not pine for her old career. Her new existence centers around the passionless sex she is forced to endure with a man she doesn’t love, while his jealous wife watches to ensure the act remains strictly professional. So what does Offred desire most? Not creativity or intellectual thought, not her husband or daughter, not even to be liked by the other women in the household and be a part of a community; no, what she desires most is the touch of a man who loves her, so she risks everything for an affair. I find Atwood’s representation of the average woman wanting.
Recommended as a classic piece of dystopia, especially for fans of feminist fiction!
To have them putting him on, trying him on, trying him out, while he himself puts them on, like a sock over a foot, onto the stub of himself, his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate stalked slug’s eye, which extrudes, expands, winces and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a little at the tip, traveling forward as if along a leaf, into them, avid for vision.