I cannot imagine that there is a book that I will read this month that terrified me as much as The Handmaid’s Tale. Perfectly paced and elegant in the unfolding action, Margaret Atwood’s modern classic is precisely the type of book I would store in a locked box.
The Handmaid’s Tale has a clear before and after. We learn through a haphazard timeline that our narrator was married and had a child before The Republic of Gilead. She had a job, her own money, an education, and the ability to purchase cigarettes. She could read and socialize as she saw fit. But after, after everything changes. She doesn’t even have her own name. She is now Offred, a handmaid who has been assigned to a Commander. She is allowed to walk with a paired handmaid to the market everyday with tokens to buy food that is labelled with pictures because women cannot be alone, they cannot carry money and they are prohibited from reading. Once a month she and the Commander engage in a ritual to make her pregnant because she is valued only for her ability to conceive. In a world with plummeting birth rates women have been boiled down to this one ability.
Well written fictional characters are fantastic in inspiring real feelings. A great deal can be said about the main character, Offred, and her ability to inspire sympathy, anger, and sadness. She embodies so many women’s greatest fears – that they will be valued only for the ability to procreate. Still, I found myself completely fixated on Aunt Lydia and the out Aunts, the wives, the docile handmaids, the Marthas, even Moira and Offred’s own mother. I hated Aunt Lydia on a level I thought was reserved for Dolores Umbridge and Nurse Ratchet. The other women were all, in their own way, part of the problem. What frightened me was that I could see myself making some of their same decisions.
And that is what makes this tale so horrifying. It is not as simple as saying, “I would never do this or that.” The lack of choices for so many of the characters, that feeling of being stuck in a situation forever, was so well conceived and written by Ms. Atwood that it is haunting me.
I don’t have a locked box in which to keep this book. Instead, I will store it on my shelf backwards so that I don’t visually trip over the spine and accidentally find myself back in Gilead. This is certainly put the Frighteningly back in Good Read!
Tell me, please!
Have you read this book? If so, which character affected you the most?