The Handmaid’s Tale. Where to Start…

The Handmaid’s Tale left me speechless for awhile.  I’m already halfway through my next literary endeavor, and it’s only now that I thought maybe I can begin to collect my thoughts on this beast of book.

It isn’t a beast, lengthwise. There’s just so much going on–not least of which is the experience of reading the book.  To read The Handmaid’s Tale is to become lost, and it’s difficult to think analytically when you are lost.

If you’ve not familiar, The Handmaid’s Tale can be horrendously, embarrassingly oversimplified by yours truly as being 1984, with gender as the central planet around which the dystopia orbits. Caste systems, regressive fundamentalist religion, and (considering our narrator) especially concubines play a part in this world crafted with as much precision as Orwell could boast. I don’t feel too bad attributing this much influence to Orwell, seeing as Atwood herself cites him, among others, as inspiration in a 2013 Guardian article. The main character is a handmaid used by a high-ranking officer for breeding purposes.  And as repugnant a life as that sounds, she doesn’t have a half bad lot compared to some alternative designated societal roles in this wretched imagined instance of a possible future.

The story pushes and pulls with such vigor. Maybe that’s just my personal experience. I’m the kind of person who hides her eyes when there’s a really intense scene on T.V. I can’t bear to watch.  I’m also the kind of person, left to my own devices, who will rewind and watch scenes I relish over and over. Likewise, I read parts of The Handmaid’s Tale as if I was word-starved, hanging on every sentence, dying to know what happened next. At other times, I scanned paragraphs, squinting my eyes to impair my ability to make out the words, flipping pages, hoping to god what I was reading would soon be over.  Surprisingly, it was the moments set in the immediate past–the current events, as you’re reading–that I hung onto.  It was the memories of the pre-dystopian past scattered throughout the narrative that I couldn’t stomach. The protagonist’s life before this quick revolution and totalitarian takeover was described with such understandable alternating numbness and pain, numbness and pain…it seemed so very believable.  That such a takeover could happen and such quick and complete change (penetrating so deep into the psyche of the women converted) could be implemented as quick as Atwood’s timeline indicated it did–not so believable.  But her protagonist makes it real. And it hurts to remember with her.

I lived for what would happen next, in the protagonist’s future. Those are the passages I read ravenously. It seemed unlikely that there could be any escape for her, but I wanted so badly for an escape opportunity to arise that I kept pushing on, hoping. Like the narrator, I clung to every moment, however small, that broke the monotony, that showed a glitter of humanity under the shells walking the desolate planet Atwood created.  And I think those glitters are what I most wanted to write about, out of the dozens of things I could have written about after reading this book. (Another reason this post was delayed–I was paralyzed with options.)

There’s a really smart thesis out there. I’ve only scanned it, so I hope I’m not misrepresenting it in any way.  (I plan to read it front to back when I get a chance.) It’s by a San Jose State U grad student named Alanna Callaway, and you can find it here. She has a very interesting reading of the book as a clash of the branches of feminism. Feminists, on the whole, can agree that women should be in a position other than what they currently are. That’s (kind of famously) where all agreement starts and ends. I really like her reading, though I think it’s one of many. It really shed light on some of the individuality issues that most intrigued me in the book.

All women are dressed according to their caste, and so women are differentiated that way. Women are, in general, supposed to be pious and submissive. Their castes dictate the subtle differences in the permissions allowed them–wives, for instance, are allowed to garden.  But women’s actions as a caste are supposed to be identical. You, in theory, could not tell one handmaid from the next. They dress the same, have the same canned responses to most inquiries, walk the same way, have the same naming convention (they are “of” whatever man’s child they are supposed to bear, so our narrator is Offred.) The narrator, looking at another handmaid walking away from her, feels she may as well be a mirror reflection of her companion. She feels soulless, like a body and nothing else, like she’s being erased.

And yet, such individuality between handmaids begins to emerge over time. It’s what the protagonist’s owner described as bad math: for women, one plus one plus one plus one doesn’t equal four. It equals one and one and one and one. Individuality will not die. The handmaids are all clearly actors playing their roles, with personalities just underneath the hardened surface–hardened out of self-preservation, but never calcified enough to permanently keep secret the desire for connection, expression, experience, and rebellion. These personalities really do manifest themselves in ways I can connect to branches of feminism.

The protagonist’s mandatory companion (handmaids have an imposed buddy system to keep each other accountable) turns out to be a quiet insurgent, hoping to bring down the system she so despises. The reader doesn’t find this out until far into the book, since this woman is very good at keeping her secrets. But even she eventually reaches out to the narrator, hoping to find her as rebellious as she is–hoping to find an ally in her espionage and eventual takedown of the oppressive regime.  This woman wants to take the traditionally male role of hero and reclaim it. She’s an underdog spy, hoping to bring an entire system to its knees and save her fellow women from this injustice with the strength of her intelligence, will, and devotion to her cause. This, to me, is the liberal feminist.


The liberal feminist faction is anxious to throw off previous perceptions of women as the weaker sex, hopelessly sentimental and unable to be pragmatic or powerful. (The criticism of this faction is that women are trying to overcome inequality by acquiring traditionally male characteristics, thereby accidentally acting in compliance with a patriarchal system that sees male characteristics as superior.)


The protagonist’s companion seems to fit this role perfectly, and it makes her relationship with the equally rebellious Offred rocky because they are not rebellious in the same way.  Our narrator handmaid is summoned to see her owner during forbidden times, as he seeks her companionship. Offred’s spy-buddy sees this as a tremendous opportunity for reconnaissance and begs her to learn all she can from him. But rebellion in this way–intelligence-gathering and heroism–is not Offred’s form of rebellion.

Offred is different. What is missing from the construct created by the coup-executing masterminds, in her mind, is love. She dreams of her old husband, of her child, of touching, of romance.  Her mind is consumed with pleasures not exactly sexual, but certainly sensual–drags of a cigarette, kisses, lotion on her skin. When she truly rebels, it is to escape to the room of the young male caretaker and lose herself in the closest thing she can find to love.  She is not interested in being a hero. In fact, she wants so passionately to be alive that she feels she would do anything, any degrading thing at all, just to keep breathing. So when her spy buddy asks her to jeopardize her life and her one comfort–the only surrogate for the kind love she needs, the embrace of the young caretaker–she refuses to rock the boat. She won’t sacrifice her only relief for this greater, noble cause; she won’t take any risks by stealing information from her owner or prodding him for information.


Cultural feminism is a faction that believes that women are different from men and that those differences are glorious. But they believe women’s differences do not make them inferior to men in the slightest. They instead think that the capability to bear children comes with natural differences from men, such as a loving nature, a particular movement of the body, an inherent interconnectedness, ability to almost telepathically commune with others, grace, empathy, all that jazz.  These are things to be celebrated, not, as they historically have been, ridiculed or used as a reason to give women lesser rights. In some circles, these things that make women different are even to be worshiped. The problem with this is that it pigeonholes people into performing gender characteristics, whether they feel it true to their personality or not. (“I really don’t feel like hearing you cry over the phone about whatever at 4 AM, but I should feel like it because I’m a girl, and I’m supposed to be caring, and you expect sympathy, and it’s pretty much my obligation, so…”)


Moira is the radical feminist. She isn’t a handmaid and this post is turning epic, so I’m going to just throw that out there and wrap up.

To sum up, individuality among those who were supposed to be one personality-less mass was prevalent, and I thought Atwood showed it in ways that were very believable, in accordance with her story. It was about bottled-up individuality that feigned invisibility but couldn’t help but bubble to the surface.

I feel very much for the protagonist, I do. I don’t have quite the same ideas about love that she does, but I wanted so badly for her to have what she needed. And I understood her self interest. I understood that her desire for little moments to make her life bearable were more important to her than grand causes, sacrifice for the greater good, and righteous (quite genuinely righteous) indignation.  And I don’t think she was the one who deserved to be escorted to freedom, as one interpretation of the ending goes. Her companion, who was brave enough to fight, was the one who should have been set free. And yet, whether she deserved it or not, I am so, so happy to think of once-Offred’s freedom. I dance at the thought of her being ushered out of hell.  I really didn’t want this one to end in tragedy, and I choose the interpretation that it didn’t.

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