The Handmaid’s Tale ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is set in a nightmarish dystopian America where the government has been usurped, its leaders murdered and the Constitution discarded. People no longer have individual rights, except for the right to serve. If people are not exactly slaves, they are chattel. Everybody must live in fear because any perceived infraction can result in exile to the Colonies (cleaning up dangerous hazard waste, resulting in death) or hanging in a ritual execution called a “Salvaging.” Dead bodies appear overnight hanging from hooks on a wall for everybody to see, and it’s not always certain what the people hanging there did to deserve such a fate.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not, however, about revolution or the overthrow of a government. It’s a personal story about one “Handmaid” whom we know as “Offred.” (We never learn her real name.) She’s thirty-three years old and had a husband and young daughter in times before. Offred is narrating the story in her own voice. We are privy to her private thoughts and inner feelings, which she must keep secret to go on living.
Childbirth is in decline. The country needs babies to replenish its dwindling population. Since Offred is known to have reproduced before, she is chosen as a “Handmaid.” She lives with an older couple and her job is to provide them with a baby. (She must wear a red habit-like dress and a stiff white headdress with wings, rather like an old-time movie nun.) The man is known as the Commander and his old lady is the Wife. Offred and the Commander copulate mechanically, fully clothed, and with the Wife present, of course. Offred is supposed to bring forth a baby from these couplings. She has three chances and if she fails she will end up in a much worse place, being forced to do very unpleasant work that could easily end in her death. It’s better to be a Handmaid than not.
The Commander has a young chauffeur named Nick. He flirts with Offred surreptitiously when he has the chance. Offred knows that any association she has with Nick could be dangerous. When she fails to conceive a child by the Commander, the Wife arranges a clandestine session for Offred with Nick in his room over the garage after everybody has gone to bed. Nick is happy to oblige—it’s part of his job—but he makes sure Offred knows there is to be no romance involved. Offred develops “feelings” for Nick anyway. He represents for her what her life was like before her world was turned upside down. Where exactly do his loyalties lay? Will he help Offred to escape to another country, or will he betray her in the worst way by turning her over to the authorities?
The obvious comparison of The Handmaid’s Tale is with George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Both novels are about the individual in a world where individuals don’t matter and survival is never certain. It’s a harrowing world and one that most of us, thank goodness, will never have to experience firsthand. You experience it, without any danger to yourself, by reading the book.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp