On Reading: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

handmaids-tale-first-edition1I’m going to preface this review with a little personal disclosure. My mother, whom I love dearly, and her three sisters were raised by a heavy-handed and easily antagonized father, an oligarch, who demanded at all times that his feelings and thoughts take precedence over those of the women around him. By her 20s, my mother had developed into a semi-militant anti-patriarch with deeply cut inclinations toward early-feminist and prudish understandings of masculinity and femininity that have carried over throughout eras of her life. Deep down, she had always hoped to have a daughter to carry on her inclinations, but instead fate dealt her three sons. My brothers and I look back on our upbringing now and laugh at how she could emotionally support our female friends and cousins while distancing herself from us, how separate she would explain that she was from us as very young boys, or how often we were commanded never to violate the wishes of the women around us (despite being too little in some cases to have developed any inclination one way or the other).

I’ve now read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale twice. The first time, when I was younger, the book’s morality made sense to me based on my upbringing and the gender politics seemed less subtle: domineering men behaved terribly while playing victims, subservient women search for cruel or desperate opportunities for empowerment from sexual imprisonment.

This second time was different though. The aunts felt more willing, the Commander more trapped by the system he brought into place. In short, the victors felt as imprisoned as the captives. As I continued reading, the nuances of this greater theme pervaded each of the storylines more incisively. Serena Joy could only play the role of wife and socialite, her position in society rigid, her other nuances lost in the system. How Commanders should act publicly and privately are explicitly rigid, all of them domineering and formal in public, lewd in the same exact way in private, trapped by every one of his options. The aunts, though often meant to appear sadistic in their use of power, must abuse the women or else have no purpose in the Gilead system. The women murder because it is their only choice, not truly for empowerment and not because they are commanded.

Offred’s whole struggle, throughout the book, was to decide between two non-choices: victim or abuser. But the contexts of her tightly-sealed interactions would still only allow her one choice per scene, as though each of her actions were predestined. The only true option, one hinted at in the comments of Ofglen and in Moira’s behavior, was to leave the system, to reject Gilead, and what I found most interesting of all was Gilead’s only two possible reactions to these subversives: death (as though it were an automatic response) or, ultimately, a confused re-imprisonment. Oflgen is swiftly killed. Moira is a prostitute with a strange degree of sexual freedom in Gilead, despite her slavery in prostitution. This nuance, to me, was wildly fascinating.

In the far future, as researchers look back on Gilead, I felt a dark excitement to read though the dryness of their analysis (similar to the ending of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) but given the sexual politics, I sensed that the most interesting story, of the nuances shaded within this bifurcated understanding of sexuality best understood through Moira or another LGBT denizen’s perspective of Gilead, was disappointingly overlooked. Consider that from the far future, researchers feelings toward sociosexual advancement would upend any of our current identity presumptions. I was left sensing that the future was–essentially–not sufficiently futuristic or advanced, especially given the intellectual circle. This seemed disappointing… as though the book provided a grand opportunity to discuss the gender understandings of people who lived in a terrible past but, instead, focused on the validity of the character’s account itself. As if the myth of Offred herself was more important than the myths (or truths) of Gilead.

In the end, I sensed the book’s nuance was lost at the very, very end. Still, it was a phenomenal read rich with language careful and sensitive. I don’t regret either readings and, in fact, I may one day read it once more. Gilead may not change, but by then I certainly will have.