Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"

Utopia. Paradise. Perfect society.  What is it about "blissful" societies that cause so many dystopian images?  And what is it about these dystopian images of society that draws readers in?  There is an attraction.  The Hunger Games and many of the trilogies that follow it in popularity are definite evidence of that.  The readership is captivated by worlds that are altered from current existence.  As these societies begin, their goal is perfection, but in seeking perfection, existence for their inhabitants becomes frightening and unbearable.  The strange thing is that readers are as enticed by these horror stories as they are by fairy tales and happily-ever-after--especially when these stories are as well-crafted and personal as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
First published in 1986, Atwood's story is as gripping and poignant now as it was over 25 years ago, because its outcome is more possible now than it was then.  It is a world where reading, especially for women, is prohibited.  The narrator of the story, Offred, is not an activist.  She wants to live quietly, keep her head down, and survive.  She thinks constantly of her past, of "the time before:" her husband and daughter.  For her, there is no future that she can readily imagine.  She hopes only for a glance of her former family.  As a handmaid she gets caught in the politics of a world that has become Biblical by Old Testament measures--there is no Christianity anymore.  It has been wiped out by the sect wars and the government has been wrenched from the hands of open-minded reason and grabbed in a manner reminiscent of Hitler's rise to power.  Society becomes idealized in a way that is bleak, colorless.  Individuality is swallowed up in rites, uniformity of dress, and down-cast eyes.
Though the story is dark, the reader comes to love Offred.  She had dreams of love and a career, of family and home.  She rebels in small ways.  Her narration is an act of rebellion.  She constantly tells her reader that she is not brave and looks at those she perceives as courageous with mild envy.  The reader loves her, and is caught up in her story, because the reader is led to ask what he or she would do in the same situation.  That is what draws the reader in. She sees Offred and she sees herself.
The ending of the story is indefinite, and this reader believes that Atwood composed the ending precisely this way so that the reader can decide what happened.  At the end of Offred's record, there are notes from a conference of scholars, from a future generation that deliberates the possibilities of what happened to her, why it happened, and how.  Any of these possibilities are feasible. Was she taken?  Did she escape?  Did she survive?  Readers can choose, and choose their own destiny as well.

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