Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative fiction piece taking place in a dystopian world. After the government has been usurped, the main character, known by her fake name of “Offred”, lives in the reformed country of Gilead. Gilead is based on strict but warped Christian fundamentals. Men and women are assigned roles in society—men having roles in government or security, women the roles of housekeeping and simple wives. Offred is a Handmaid. Her job is to go from household to household and become pregnant with the household’s Commander’s child, give it to the Wife, and move to the next house. If she does not succeed in pregnancy within three households, she will be shipped off to the “Colonies.” Throughout the story, Offred looks back on her past life, laments her lack of independency, and wonders if an uprising is on the way.
The story is told by jumps between the present day and the past. The restrictive, “women-aren’t-allowed-to-raise-their-voices” world is juxtaposed to our modern day world. Though the difference is great, the novel rarely goes overboard with it. The few times that Offred laments her restrictive life are used to effect, as opposed to coming up every other sentence. The overall world and how it works are also told in a simple “this is how it is” fashion. The book, after all, doesn’t need to inform the reader that what is happening is not okay—the reader knows that—so Offred doesn’t need to bring it up all the time.
The fact that Offred rarely shows how she feels makes the moments of her falling apart all the more effective. Atwood describes the environments with just enough detail to leave the exact image up to the reader, and because of this, leaves things simple enough to understand. Handmaids wear red, Marthas wear green, Guardians wear black, etc., etc. The reader also isn’t told every single practice of Gilead, but the ones they are told are enough to fill in the blanks. This is a tricky thing with dystopian novels like this and The Hunger Games and Divergent—getting across just how bad the government is without spending half the book on exposition. THT does this very well.
The more we find out about Gilead and the rest of the world, the more things click into place, as opposed to it all coming at once. The last few chapters also cement how things are not always one-hundred percent cemented, either. Not everyone is going to listen to the “system.” And not in the straightforward, uprising rebellion way, just twists in the system way. The fact that the world is speculative also lends to its effect. Nothing about Gilead is too technological or fantastical, and is intentionally realistic enough in function and design. While it’s also clear that the rest of the world is not exactly like this, the book wisely leaves out how other countries react to Gilead, as any explanation would probably be unrealistic.
Characters in this book are tricky. The only ones with straightforward personalities are Moira, Offred’s best friend; the Commander of Offred’s household; and Serena Joy, the Wife to the Commander. Moira is almost like the character who’s supposed to be the protagonist—she’s not vocally rebelling against the system, but she’s sneaky about it, and unlike Offred, retains her personality after the change. The Commander is intentionally mysterious and hard to figure out. Serena Joy is almost the same, as it’s unclear exactly what her motivations are. These characters are primarily what sets the plot forward.
Offred herself is hard to place. It could be argued that she’s simply a shadow of her former self, and that years of abuse and despair have worn her too far down to recover. Her acceptance but bitterness of the system, for example, and having more curiosity than hope in regards to change. This is reasonable, as like I’ve said, she does have her moments where she crumbles a bit. Her reactions to change are not hope or joy, but rather caution in case she gets in trouble.
Because of this, when she thinks back on her former child and husband, it can be a bit hard to take seriously. She doesn’t fear for them, rarely expresses hope that they’re alive, and seems to just accept that they’re gone and she’ll never see them again. The memories she has of her child are tender, but regarding her ex-husband, she talks about him as if he never really mattered. It can be confusing and conflicting at times. This problem is especially tedious towards the end. Offred is put into several very emotional situations that she doesn’t react very emotionally to.
The book can be slow at times, because progressions of the plot are coupled with the unspoken thoughts and feelings from Offred. Understandable, considering this is first-person, but rather than the two being interlaced with each other, one chapter can be wholly plot, and the other wholly thoughts. It’s hard not to skim through some bits (sorry if this is literary-sacrilegious.)
The book, without giving away anything, has a semi-happy, semi-ambiguous ending that ties everything nicely together. There’s no grand battle with explosions or anything, but it does end on as pragmatic of a good ending as possible. I didn’t feel like time had been wasted, and its open interpretation gives a lot to think of.
So, in conclusion, THT can be slow and tedious at times, but it still offers some thoughtful insight and capturing worldbuilding.