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The Handmaid's Tale: Book Review

TW - mentions of rape and sexual assault

With the world being as divided and seemingly bleak as it is right now, I thought it was best to delve deeper into cynicism and delight in the complicated and often controversial world of gender politics and feminism. There have been very few books which have fed my morbid curiosity surrounding inevitable downfall of society as we know it whilst at the same time illustrate gender in such a literal way: by grouping women according to their uses.

The Handmaid's Tale is unavoidable as a novel when you study feminist critique as a part of an English Literature module so I was aware of this book well before I read. However, I didn't buy until this year which was probably somehow linked to the release of the TV series adaptation. As a lover of books, I do feel slightly shameful for waiting this long to read such an important one but at the same time, now is when I needed to read this book. My brain is the most critical and the most aware of the world than it has ever been in the past. I was both emotionally and intellectually ready to read this book.

A book is on top of some leaves and two flowers. The book cover has a black background with a silhouette of woman where her white bonnet and red dress are emphasised. The text reads 'Margaret Atwood' 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Source: Wonderfully Bookish

The story is set within a world, as mention before, that sees women for their uses as opposed to their identities, and separates them according to what they can provide. Offred, the protagonist, is what is known as a handmaid whose duty it is to bear children for a married couple. Through her eyes, I was taken to see the hyperbolic separation of a woman's identity, split into distinct roles: wife, mother, homemaker, whore. It is through this world where women are literal second class citizens that we see a dystopia that seems so far from us in the west but is and could still be a reality.

A prominent scene is one which depicts the handmaids-in-training being made to berate a woman for being raped, convincing her that it was her fault. This scene feels horrifyingly too real though deliberately literal in order to emphasise the brutality within our society towards rape victims. What this emphasises is the subtle way women are blamed for being sexually assaulted, often pointing towards 'what they were wearing' and 'how much they'd had to drink' instead of focusing on convicting a rapist. This technique used by those in power could be said to maintain an inadequacy within the female population to keep them deprive of power and agency; degradation is proven in this story to keep people submissive.

One of my favourite books of all time is 1984 by George Orwell because of how deals with the realities that come with oppressive governments and the bleakness with which it presents the world in general. Margaret Atwood is able to create a similar kind of futility within her world-building, placing the protagonist within an inevitable story that only seems to be heading further into repression. Rigid structures and roles imposed upon women are shown to affect all facets of life, portrayed in the alienation between genders and disconnect between the protagonist and the world she inhabits. 

Using a postmodernist structure, Atwood is able to put us in the mind of the protagonist, framing the story as if it were Offred's stream of consciousness. Furthermore, the style of story-telling is able to represent the dissonance between the protagonist and the world she lives in. Offred is shown to jump between tense and build a sense of longing to return to the life she once had. As I moved with her throughout her chores, I was made aware several times of the unreliability of the narrator and her memory, sometimes restated events with different, bizarre endings. What was established was the subjectivity of existence but also the doubt within the population to be able to trust what they think, particularly if these thoughts intrude on an already established and rigid order.

Exploring a totalitarian regime seems more and more needed in today's political climate, especially in recognising the devices used by governments to establish and maitain control. These are explored in this novel: cutting off money for anyone with an 'f' on their ID, bringing the military into towns and cities, banning sexual thoughts and activity and encouraging violence. I feel this reaches its climax towards the end of the book where the handmaids are encourage to kick to death a man they are told is a rapist. By replacing a judicial system with mindless hate and violence, Atwood shows the true barbarity of society whilst also criticising radical feminists whose solution to the problems women faced is to simply get rid of men all together. This is most evidenced by the fact that the women need no viable proof before they decide to attack this man, even though it is revealed that he was not rapist at all, but a rebel spy. People become detached from their conscience when they feel obliged to obey what is expected of them. These women are not encouraged to form critical opinions of the world; they most simply listen and assume that what they are being told is true.

The lack of knowledge at the very end as to whether Offred will be lead to her death or towards revolution keeps the reader ignorant in the same way the people in the novel are. Without definitive answers, they are less likely to know what is really going on, much like us. Additionally, the ambiguous ending signifies the ongoing nature of the gender conversation, how it needs to be continued and that people must be alert and critical of enforced roles and ideas.

A fantastic exploration of gender and totalitarianism that truly forces its readers to look at how it is they view themselves and how closely their own actions resemble that which is depicted in this book. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how the divided the world seems to be on the topic of gender and those which want to see society in something more than just a binary.