Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published by: Vintage
Publication date: 1985
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Source: Bury Library
Offred is a Handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, a religious totalitarian state in what was formerly known as the United States. She is placed in the household of The Commander, Fred Waterford – her assigned name, Offred, means ‘of Fred’. She has only one function: to breed. If Offred refuses to enter into sexual servitude to repopulate a devastated world, she will be hanged. Yet even a repressive state cannot eradicate hope and desire. As she recalls her pre-revolution life in flashbacks, Offred must navigate through the terrifying landscape of torture and persecution in the present day, and between two men upon which her future hangs.
I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale from the local library after watching the first series on Amazon. I thoroughly enjoyed the series and, much like Starship Troopers, enjoyed the talking points that it brings up. The book… not so much!
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian science-fiction book set in the near future, where society has all but collapsed and reformed due to the fact that children are no longer being born. Only a small number of women can successfully carry babies to term. As such these women are coerced into becoming Handmaidens for the right gentry, under the guise of religious pretext. The Handmaids have babies for those that cannot have them themselves; however, the setting of the dystopian universe is far from idyllic. The life the Handmaidens have chosen for themselves is puritanically based and their rights have been stripped from them. The life they lead has been sold as freedom but is everything but. Forced to have sexual relations with men they don’t choose in some form of ceremonial ritual.
I DNF’ed this book at 38%. It’s not because of the uncomfortable content within, as I watched the TV series and found the ideas fascinating; in a manner that you can’t look away from a car crash. It’s uncomfortable to watch in a lot of respects because the setting is so alien to how we live now. It was gripping due to the world-building and the drama and action that takes place – I highly recommend giving the TV series a try if you like to be challenged.
The book, however, did absolutely nothing for me. The TV series is accurate to what happens in the book, as far as I read; where the main character Offred, the Commander of the Household, and his wife enact their first ceremony. Then I gave up. I had no sense of understanding coming from the novel. Everything I read, I understood from the series. The flowery, poorly formatted prose hurt my head to read. The lack of decent punctuation and grammar in large sections of the book made it difficult to read. I understand why the book was presented in this manner – we’re reading Offred’s thoughts on the life around her, reading anecdotes that she has committed to memory rather than paper. This understanding doesn’t make the book any easier to digest.
I think what is successful about The Handmaid’s Tale – in either format – are the questions it brings up. Is it credible to go from a free-living society we (generally) have now, to something so restrictive and controlling? Would women submit to such a level that their bodies are no longer classed as their own? I’d like to state a hard no, but it’s amazing to see the amount of control that we give to others in such a short space of time. Looking back over the pandemic, how much of our daily lives and freedoms did we give up without a second thought? The Handmaid’s Tale pushes this question to the extreme but allows the reader ample time to speculate.
The leading section of the book I read, was dreary, not much really happens other than Offred, introducing other characters and the bare basics of what she does and has to endure. From creepy doctors offering to impregnate her and the Commander of the house taking too long in reaching a climax while ‘fucking’ her. Shock value comes into play a lot in this book and seems to be the main hook that keeps the reader invested. While there are conversations to be had about religious extremes and modern feminism, it’s the shock and awe that’s meant to keep the reader going. Sadly, shock tactics aren’t something that keeps a jaded soul like me overly interested.
I think it was, other than the prose/formatting, the distinct lack of substance to the book. These so. much left unexplained; such as the main character’s name Offred. Of being the prefix of the Commander’s name, so Offred means Of Fred, belonging to Fred. The basic settings of what happened in the world were unexplained; maybe this comes later in the book, but I’m not convinced. It felt like we were wrapped up in a small bubble of existence and shown only a blinkered piece of the world in which the characters inhabit. It didn’t make for engaging reading and honestly, it was all rather dull. Nothing much at all happened and when it did because of the terrible formatting it was confusing and hard to tell where it all fit in, in the grand scheme of things. This made the main character hard to relate to, she came across as disjointed and unhinged. She was difficult to relate to and I don’t know if that was due to her position in society, or just an aversion to the character in general.
For me, something just felt a bit ‘off’ about the whole reading experience. I prefer the fundamentals of book reading; characters that develop, plots that move forward, and engaging, non-flouncy, prose. I found these lacking in the pages that passed, so I put the book down with no intention of picking it up again; the series, however, feels a lot more successful in these departments, I shall certainly keep going on with it!
Flowery prose and unconventionally formatted text made for a difficult read. Lack of traction stifled the reading experience and generally, the whole experience wasn’t enjoyable. I’ll continue to watch the TV series and engage with this unusual society there.