One unfamiliar with the novel, or unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood, might be understandably mistaken about what sort of book lies behind the unassuming title The Handmaid’s Tale. The name conjures up images of Victorian romance and understated drama which could not be further from the reality: a brutal piece of mid-1980s dystopian fiction about life in a theocratic America.
A decade and a half before Atwood won the Booker prize for The Blind Assassin, the Canadian author was nominated for the award (and a host of others) for this mid-80s work of considerable power and brilliance. Anyone who prizes the introduction of more traditional ideals into a country’s governance ought to equip an open mind and give this chilling tale a read.
The recollections and experiences of the eponymous handmaid, Offred, slowly but surely paint a harrowing picture of a stratified, carefully planned, and carefully policed society. On the surface, there may be elements of security and morality which many would find attractive. But a reader will not have even scratched the surface of The Handmaid’s Tale before the cracks and crevices of everything from the family structure to the city planning become apparent.
The driving force of The Handmaid’s Tale is the rich inner life of Offred, whose memories of time before and during the establishment of the new American order allow the reader to begin piecing together what has occurred. It is a novel of dangerous glances and tense moments, where every new revelation seems to come at a cost to the characters involved. The tension of this atmosphere keeps the reader on-edge, and continually reading toward a climax which is just believable enough to be horrifying. And although Atwood is skittish about classifying her work as pure science fiction, her writing here is a masterclass in careful world-building.
Another aspect of Margaret Atwood’s writing in The Handmaid’s Tale which should not be overlooked is the sheer quality of the prose on offer, which is every bit as poetic as Atwood’s volumes of poetry (also worth reading). Her imagery makes the grotesqueries depicted both real and troublingly memorable, and the stream of Offred’s consciousness is well worth following for the use of language as well as for learning about the interesting world she inhabits.
The Handmaid’s Tale was written at a time when America’s paranoia about infiltration by ‘un-American’ forces was as high as ever, and was standing at such an unhealthy level that for a short time Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority wielded considerable political clout. Atwood’s tale may not have seemed to her to be a total impossibility, and American society remains no stranger to the translation of fear into stringent or invasive reforms.
Where a classic dystopia like Orwell’s 1984 can generally not help but verge on the fantastical or unbelievable at some point in service of a theme, The Handmaid’s Tale maintains an air of eery believability through subtle crafting of worldly imperfections and minutiae. Atwood minds the details, and it pays dividends in the production of a short novel at times more subdued and at times more explosive than most works in its genre. If fear for the degradation of your society has ever influenced your opinion of what the best version of your government or your country would look like, then The Handmaid’s Tale will give you a slippery slope to consider which may temper the boldness of your claims.
The Once and Future America: