We don’t know much about our narrator when the story starts – not her name, nor where she lives, nor much about her background. One of the first concrete things we learn is that she is a Handmaiden, and that this defines her place in society. It dictates how she dresses, where she goes, to whom and how she speaks. It is the single most defining aspect of her life – but, we later learn, it wasn’t always. Slowly our narrator, ‘Offred’, reveals more details about her past, present, and tenuous future, and the reader realizes with horror just what kind of society she lives in.
I definitely picked an intense one for my first read of 2017. I was blown away by this book, as many told me I would be. The most interesting and terrifying aspects for me weren’t only about the narrator’s current life, but about quickly her world changed from one very similar to our own to one so vastly different. Especially considering today’s political climate, the transition was nothing less than chilling to the bone. The rationalizations, explanations, and excuses used by men to justify the transition of their nation from the USA to Gilead are sometimes on the surface reasonable and familiar – and all the more jarring because of it. I actually had trouble sleeping the night after I finished this.
One of the most troubling parts of the book was the ‘Historical Notes’ section at the end. Spoilers ahead: here we learn that the whole story we just read has been transcribed from cassette tapes, found more than 150 years after they were recorded. The transition from the deeply personal narrative in which the reader has been invested for 300+ pages to the cold discussions of academia is startling, and the debates about the authenticity of the document seem almost insulting after what we’ve just read. The academic presentation was also discomfortingly familiar – I found one particular passage particularly concerning, as I felt it could’ve easily been lifted from several discussions I had in college courses. The person speaking here is a professor addressing a conference audience:
‘If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (Applause)’
I mean, we can debate moral relativism until the cows come home, but reading the above statement after learning about things like the Particicutions, the fate of women sent to the Colonies, the fact that evidence from only one woman is inadmissible in court, and even simply the job of the Handmaidens itself, is nothing short of revolting.
The Historical Notes are in a way comforting, in that we learn that the Republic of Gilead does not last forever – but they are also an uncomfortable mirror, as we realize the possibility of analyzing such deplorable circumstances from a cold and dispassionate angle. And we are then led to wonder how many times we ourselves have done something similar. It became a moment of deep and unexpected self-reflection for me.
On a more light-hearted note, I was kind of proud of myself for guessing the novel’s setting based on the narrator’s remembrance of using the word ‘jimmies’ for ‘sprinkles’ – you only find that in New England. I’m looking forward to seeing how Hulu adapts this in their series debuting in April – the first images they’ve released are already powerful. In short, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to read this book if you haven’t already, or to re-read it. I bought it for $1.99 on Kindle a few days ago, so grab it while that deal lasts – this is one you’ll want to have under your belt for 2017.
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Dates read: January 2-3, 2017
Rating: Five stars