The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopia in America after the fall of the ruling government. The book captures what ensues, in Margaret Atwood’s imagination. So what does happen? The Republic of Gilead – a society where social order has been reimagined, in which theocracy is the order of the day. Men are at the helm of things as they are, and women have been relegated to the role of child bearers.
For those women who are beyond the age of bearing children, a handmaid is assigned to do the job. And so, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman, and her journey from being a wife and mother to becoming a handmaid, without any knowledge of where her husband or daughter are.
When the story begins, Offred delves into the details about her daily life as a handmaid. You see her world through her (shielded) eyes. She takes you with her everywhere she goes. As the story unfolds, she gradually lets you in on her past, and reveals more about it.
The book reveals a society in which the women are ‘imprisoned’ in their circumstance, but their minds cannot be. Their minds are free to desire, dream, and roam through their past. Their need to survive, their hope for a better tomorrow and fear of death by radiation keeps them tied to their circumstances.
However, The Handmaid’s Tale is about making the best of these circumstances. It’s a story of small triumphs and victories that Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, and other handmaids have. Even when, under the Republic of Gilead women are not allowed to read or comprehend letters, and she gets the opportunity to play Scrabble, it’s a small but resounding victory.
The book brings to the surface some issues that women have perhaps faced decades or even centuries ago, and have overcome. The narration is simple, but powerful and made me wince a few times. Well, my only gripe with the book is in the way it ended.
Just as she did with Surfacing, Atwood has ended this book without giving the reader much of a closure. It’s really a sad place to be in, because after reading a story that is quite emotionally haunting, I would have liked to know what the fate of the narrator was, in Atwood’s imagination – even if it wasn’t good.