Buckle up friendos, I’m here to talk to you about The Handmaid’s Tale, which I ~just~ finished reading with a group of people on Twitter. I extensively talked with Jess from Rereadablity and Jenna from JK I’m exploring about this book and I’ll be drawing from our chat for themes of this book. First about my basic rating, I will always give this book a glowing review. But to say I enjoyed it is a bit of a stretch. More like I understand the importance of reading it and learning from it. I think it’s important to read. It’s like saying, “I really enjoyed Night by Eli Wiesel.” No one is going to take you seriously. Night, like The Handmid’s Tale, is gruesome and disgusting and raw and showcases the worst humanity has to offer. That being said, I have many thoughts about this book.
There are ALL the spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t read it please do!! And then come back here and read my review/discussion. This post is kind of unorthodox. If I was going to review a book how I normally do, every bullet point would be “WTF” and that wouldn’t be very interesting to read about. So I’m mixing it up and hopefully it will be enjoyable (because it’s LONG) and you’ll be able to understand it.
Offred is a fascinating character largely because of how passive she is. Inside, we know she is quite resilient and outspoken, but when it comes to actually speaking or doing something she’s quite passive. For example, we know there were protests when the Republic of Gilead (ROG) started rolling out some of their changes (freezing women’s back accounts and such) but Offred never attends any of the protests. She mostly talks to her friend Moira, who we know attended the protests. Her complicated relationship with her mother adds to this. Towards the end of the book, after she has an illicit relationship with Nick and she feels more happy and fulfilled, she looses all desire to help Ofglen and the resistance. This passive attitude is very different to how Offred is portrayed in the new Hulu TV show, which is fine because I think there’s value in portraying her as outspoken and defiant. But I think Atwood purposely wrote Offred like this because, as readers, I think the majority of us identify with her. Inside, we voice our opinions vocally and fiercely where no one but us can hear them. But when it comes to attending protests or vocally objecting, the fear of being punished by the authority outweighs any action beyond our desire. In the beginning of the book, within the first 50 pages or so she says, “I intend to survive,” but surviving isn’t the same thing as living. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me this is a defining sentence of Offred. It defines her whole existence.
Let’s talk about Serena Joy and The Commander for a moment as well. Outside the context of the ROG The Commander is probably your average guy, he cheats on his wife and doesn’t have a happy marriage, but overall he has a good life, a good job and a comfortable home. But inside the ROG, he’s a perplexing character. On first glance, the Commander appears to be all business. He meets with Offred only during the Ceremony once a month. But then as the book progresses, he begins to meet with Offred at night. During these meetings, it’s hard to tell if the Commander is willfully ignorant or just oblivious to how twisted the ROG is. At best he’s selfish and insensitive. He finds Offred using butter as moisturizer humorous and seems largely unconcerned that the women who Offred replaced committed suicide. Readers are supposed to like the Commander because he gives Offred many freedoms she’s been denied under the ROG; she plays scrabble with him, he gives her a magazine to look through and he take her out of the house and to an evening club. But in all of these actions, he does it with his own interest in mind; for his own amusement, to exercise his power and to show her off to other members of the club, respectively.
Serena Joy is frustrating to me because she’s so dislikable. I read the Spark Notes for this book after I read the chapters (because I was hosting a discussion) and it noted something really interesting about Serena Joy. We know Serena Joy use to be an activist and promoted some of the ideas the ROG promotes. But now that the ROG has actually seized control, she’s realized she has even less power than before. “In many ways, [Serena] treats Offred far worse than the Commander does, which suggests that Gilead’s oppressive power structure succeeds not just because men created it, but because women like Serena sustain it.” Serena Joy knows where Offred’s daughter is. She has a picture of it, and she offers it to Offred, but only as coercion and blackmail. She makes everyone in the household, on the night of the ceremony, wait for her to arrive last (and late) to show that she can make everyone wait and she can waste everyone’s time, and no one can say anything. Is every way, she’s a person who is made out to be the antagonist; naturally the reader feels animosity towards her because she’s the most obvious obstacle Offred has to “overcome.” Yet she’s not a straight antagonist, because she only acts the way she does as a result of societal conditioning.
Which leads me to my observation about the women of the ROG. Now, Offred almost exclusively interacts with women, she’s given meals by Marthas, goes shopping and does pretty much everything else outside of the house with another Handmaid, and goes to births with other Handmaids. Despite 90% of her interactions with women, she doesn’t have a single friend. Handmaid’s aren’t supposed to talk to Marthas or create friendships, and the wives are elevated above Handmaid’s; there’s no possibility for even polite acquaintanceship. In the Republic of Gilead everything is dictated and set up for keeping control, but that also means controlling relationships. At the beginning of the book, when Offred arrives at the Commander’s house, Serena Joy blocks the door and does not immediately allow Offred to enter. During this interaction Offred observes, “There is push and shove, these days, over such toeholds.” And later in the book Offred notes “In this house, we all envy each other something.” The Republic of Gilead makes sure all women see each other as enemies or threats; someone to mistrusted and treated with casual indifference. In this way, the government is able to quell uprisings and neutralize potential threats without even lifting a finger. Because it’s much more difficult to speak out if you don’t have even one person supporting you.
It’s honestly hard to pick an overall theme, but the one I’ve zeroed in on is control. Everything in the ROG is about control. Control over your own life (everyone), control over your own body (Handmaid’s and men); I would say close to 80% of Offred’s comments are relating to a choice, or the lack thereof, she has to make. Small things such as meals (when she wants to eat, and how much) are restricted and supervised and items, such as lotion, which are perceived by the ROG as unnecessary are withheld from Handmaids. Every little move between characters is about gaining the upper hand.
For example, between Marthas, Handmaids and Wives/Ecowives there is much animosity. The Marthas envy the Handmaids because they are allowed out to do the shopping. The wives resent the Handmaids because they can have children, while wives are barren. The Handmaids envy the Marthas because they have matches and knives. Between the Commander and Offred everything the Commander does is about controlling Offred for his own pleasure. The Commander invites Offred to his room, and he let’s her play scrabble and read magazine and even takes her out of the house. But it’s not because he believes she has a right to those things. It is only because he wants to control her; he wants her to act how he wants. Further, Offred engages in small power struggles with the ROG, from reading the one word inscribed on her pillow, to forming an illicit relationship with Nick.
In many ways, this world parallels our world, and I know a lot of people say, “this couldn’t happen here.” But there are already elements of the ROG in our society, and I’m not just talking about the last year in the United States. Little micro-aggressions, Luke’s casual dismissal of Offred’s concern when she lost her job, slut-shaming Janine/rape culture, and general distrust among women are all issues this world deals with. The Handmaid’s Tale might be “speculative fiction” (dubbed so by Atwood herself), but it’s roots are firmly in this world.
The last thing I want to talk about in this review is the ending. Although we don’t know exactly what happened to Offred; although we don’t know where she goes after she climbs into the Black Van and where it takes her; we don’t know if she made it through the whole Underground Femaleroad or if Offred made it to Canada or somewhere else outside of the ROG. Although there are so many different ways her escape could have gone wrong, I can’t help but feel hopeful. The fact that her record exists, at all, shows the ROG was overthrown; that it didn’t last and hopefully the world learned from it. Despite so many odds, these tapes survived and made it to the University of Denay and if they survived the Republic of Gilead, I believe Offred would have been able to as well.
A couple random notes here at the end because I didn’t know where to put them:
- I suggested this book to a male friend and after finishing the book, he said it was terrifying and shocking. But the thing is, women deal with issues in this book daily. It’s no shock to us how much of our lives right now we see in the Republic of Gilead. However exponentially exaggerated in the ROG, our world still has far too much in common with it. This isn’t ragging on my friend; but rather a silent plea to listen to women when we point out sexism and prejudice. Time and time again women are pushed aside and told “it’s not a big deal” or “the timing isn’t right” but as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” I know King was talking about the racial inequality experienced by people of color on a daily basis, but the message also applies to all women as well.
- When Offred says the Commander fucking her isn’t rape. That’s entirely untrue. It was still rape. She might have chosen it, but only because she either felt she had no other choice or she was threatened into it. She was coerced into it.
- It’s hard to keep in mind, but in the ROG EVERYONE is the loser. Even the men; even the wives. Of course, directly, women are the immediate victims. But for men, and other genders, they are also the losers. It’s difficult to feel sorry for the wives, particularly after witnessing some of their behavior, and the commanders as they stand the most to gain in the ROG. But everyone suffers. Which implies, as it should, feminism is for everyone; men, women, non-binary and genderless people, children and people of color. Feminism doesn’t care what ethnicity, race, sexual orientation or gender you are. All it cares about is that everyone is valued and respected as a human. Surely, we can all agree on that.
- Notable quotes:
- “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
- “We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
- “Nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from.”
- “But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.”
- “Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”
- “If it’s only a story, it becomes less frightening.”