Updated: Jun 7, 2021
No Spoilers Section:
The first few words that pop into my mind when I think of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood are: hope this never happens. Yet, the story is based on an exaggerated reality, which makes it far more interesting and frightening to read at the same time.
I actually began reading this book because of a class. And like many of you, I don’t enjoy every single book I am obligated to finish in order to receive a good grade. Yet there are some books that stand out from the rest, the ones that stick to me late at night, the ones that I want to continue delving into even after I finish the designated reading assignment. And this book is one of them, which is why I know I must recommend it to my own students here at Read For All.
Because I believe that this novel is best entered in blind, like many novels, I will make a valiant attempt of summarizing the story in a few sentences without giving away too many important details. We follow a woman named Offred, a Handmaid, living in this dystopian world called Gilead. Her purpose, like other Handmaids, is to bear children for her Commander. Of course, Commander’s have wives. But in this world, the majority of those wives are barren (unable to have children). And thus begins the story of Offred’s struggles with her Commander, his wife, Serena Joy, and many more characters that will remain a secret unless you read the book!
There are so many little tricks in the names, social status, and objects all over the book. So when you read it, I recommend keeping an extra eye on those hints that really make the story seem like a piece of written genius.
Now, if you haven’t read the novel yet, I suggest you stop reading this review until you’ve finished it!
There’s going to be many spoiler’s below:
To say that this book is simply an enjoyable read would be an understatement. Atwood does an impeccable job creating this eerie dystopian world, with details going down to the names of the Handmaids (Of-fred). Perhaps what I love most about this novel are the characters, how I can’t seem to find the antagonist, because in reality, the antagonist is the totalitarian government. The Commander, Moira, the Handmaids, Serena Joy, even (although I say this begrudgingly), Aunt Lydia, are all victims of this way too male-dominated society. And while yes, there are characters I like more than others, Atwood always adds a feature to the characters so readers can sympathize or empathize. That’s important.
Now would I say Offred is my favorite character in this novel? No. Nevertheless, I do have my reasons. Offred is not a character I dislike. I remember reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time and hating Holden Caulfield and his winy demeanor (I did warm up to him the second read, though). But for Offred, our first encounter was amicable. However, as the story went on, I found myself getting frustrated with many of her actions, more specifically, her relationship with Luke. I get extremely annoyed when characters cheat or get cheated in a relationship. In this case, June (Offred) knew Luke was committed, but she still chose to pursue him, allowing Luke to be unfaithful to another woman and herself. Granted, we don’t know much about Luke’s prior relationship – it could’ve been mentally abusive, draining, plain unhealthy – but infidelity is still infidelity. Of course, I didn’t absolutely loathe the two characters after, but this flaw definitely negatively affected my perception of the two (quite a bit).
But of course, Offred and Luke’s adultery is nothing compared to the actions of Serena Joy. Wow, this character is a hard one to like! Yes, she does not live an easy life. Clearly, Atwood uses Serena Joy to demonstrate how even women living in high society still cannot be happy when one sex is blatently dominating the other. But she also uses Serena Joy to depict how women oppressing each other cannot solve this problem. Serena Joy, with her sad, dull, life, always coming in second place to her husband who gives her no respect whatsoever (see, this makes us sympathise for her), puts all her anger on Offred: luring her to be with Nick in order to bear children, showing Offred her daughter as a way to threaten her. But with all her issues, it points to a problem persistent today: exploitation because of social hierarchies and gender imbalance.
Now on a more positive note, I really enjoyed Ofglen’s character. In the beginning, I didn’t know what to think because she barely revealed anything about herself, and thus it was difficult to have an impression on her. But as we all know, we find out that she’s a part of Mayday. In all honesty, the conversations they had together were some of my favorite parts of the story. It showed just how scary their world is, but at the same time, how brave some women are by taking the step to do something about it. Their walks, to me, are like small glimmers of hope. Ofglen represents the activists out there, people who don’t simply hide in the shadows, but who are actually willing to risk their lives and do something about it. In a way, you could see our author, Atwood, as an Ofglen. She’s using her voice to say something about society. And isn’t that what great literature is all about?
To end this book review, I just wanted to say how the irony and satire in this novel is like white truffle on top of scrambled eggs: added perfection.