In the current climate it is very easy to focus on the big picture of the Handmaid’s tale: a take over of the US by religious fanatics leads to the wholesale oppression of women. This would however, be a disservice to what is an incredibly personal tale. At its heart, this is a book about what happens when you treat people as things, and what people in that position will do to survive. By focusing the story down to one person, the misogyny in the Handmaid’s tale expands beyond its setting to stand in for the depredations leveled against women in the past, present, and most distressingly, the future.
It’s not a spoiler to say we never learn the real name of the protagonist, and Atwood is judicious in doling out her past, and by extension, how the world fell. We start with a character who has chosen sexual slavery and forced motherhood over some worse fate and who appraises her room for the ways to commit suicide. Surprisingly however, the tone of this book is, well not upbeat, but not bleak either. The horror of the setting is both softened and sharpened by the pedestrian nature of much of Offred’s life and her attitude as she goes shopping and potters around the house; the familiarity is comforting, but being constrained to these roles is just another form of oppression.
This is an explicitly feminist book, and it is impossible to separate Offred’s traits from her gender. We see a range of responses to becoming a handmaid from outright defiance to broken acceptance, and almost all of them have terrible endings. Offred is strong in a way that is unusual in popular culture, in that she always tries to make the best of her situation no matter how terrible, and improves her lot by leveraging small advantages rather than making grand gestures. She fights, but she fights in inches, in a society where defiance will literally lead her to be declared unwoman.
Through all these battles Atwood does not ignore the oppression of other groups, from the “gender traitors”, to the Marthas, but they all exist at the periphery of Offred’s perception.
The Handmaid’s tale is a masterpiece of narration, and an incisive look at discrimination, whose relevance transcends the current political climate.1
All of which makes the epilogue such a disaster. In the end, the Handmaid’s Tale is a series of audiotapes found in a locker that is being discussed at a history conference in the future. I think the impulse was to use it as a framing device, placing Gilead as a small kink in the long arch of history, and make clear that even in her personal tale, Offred’s tale was slanted and obfuscated. But placing the Republic in context robs it of some of its terror, and the writing always makes it clear that it is a narration. The ending feels like a cop out, the sort of thing tacked on to a bad (usually American) movie to explain what happened.