This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for awhile now, and I finally got around to it. I had even started reading it once before, but ended up putting it down. I’m not sure why though, because this is a really engrossing book right from the start. The world in the novel is so alien, even though it takes place in what used to be the United States that we know. It reminds me of a lot of contemporary dystopian novels that take place in the U.S. of the future that still looks similar and yet is inhabited by a very difference society.
The Handmaid’s Tale, however, was first published in 1985, so it’s not exactly contemporary. This novel also has something that many contemporary dystopian novels don’t. That’s a strong religious theme.
For anyone who doesn’t know, this story follows a young woman who serves as a handmaid to a prominent man in society and his wife. In this role, she is basically forced to have sex with the man, called “the Commander,” in the hope that she will bear a child for him and his wife to raise.
The whole story takes place in a society that has been completely overhauled. Old school Christian ideals and beliefs that have been twisted by problems in modern society have taken over. Women are no longer able to work or control any money. They are required to remain in the home in order to serve their husbands and families or the families of others. And because birth rates have dropped, many fertile women are arrested and required to become handmaids.
The universe of the story is one that is difficult to read about, but Atwood does such a great job of pulling the reader in and making you feel for the narrator. You also get a really good sense of where the narrator has come from and how she ended up where she is now, because Atwood intersperses current events with flashbacks from before society changed as well as from the narrator’s time at the “Red Center” where she was taught about the new society and learned how to be a handmaid.
But the story is very much centered on the narrator, since it’s from her point of view, so a lot of other details are left out. This is mostly because she doesn’t really know everything that’s going on. She knows what the public knew before society changed, what she’s been told at the Red Center, and what little she is able to find out from her fellow handmaids.
I mention this because you spend the entire novel with the narrator and her narrow view of the world, until the very end of the book. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that the main plot ends vaguely, but it’s followed by a historical note that goes into a lot more detail about the society in general.
The note is from the perspective of a historian in a distant future, talking about the main novel as a transcript of a recorded account. He believes that it’s a real account, but they’re trying to determine more details surrounding it, including who some of the people might have been. So in order to do all of this, the historian describes a lot of the background behind the creation of this society.
However, I’m not sure I appreciate the sudden enlightenment after spending the entire novel with very few contextual details. It almost seems like Atwood is going against what seems like the choice of obfuscation (which is supported by the fact that the novel is ended vaguely) to suddenly share a lot more information directly following the main section of the novel. And I’m just not sure if I wanted that information. At most, I would have liked a less vague ending, but the end note doesn’t even provide that clarity. So I’m just not sure what it does for the overall story, except to explain some details that the narrator couldn’t have known. But the story should be about the narrator’s journey, right? I think the narrator tells her story well, so adding an end note feels almost unnecessary (especially if it doesn’t answer any questions about her or what happened to her). If anything, it raises more questions about the future society than it answers about the society in question.
That being said, I did really like this book. It’s one of those sci-fi classics that’s definitely worth reading.
If you’ve already read this book, what did you think? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
(photo courtesy of Goodreads)