Reviewed by Christy H.
I’m not sure what can be said about Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic that hasn’t already been said plenty of times before. But as a first time reader of this book (and Atwood in general) I’ll try anyway.
In Gilead women are quite literally separated into distinct categories: Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, and, for less affluent men, Econowives. Wives are married to the Husbands and take care of the children. Marthas cook, clean, and serve the Wives and Handmaids. Handmaids bear the Husbands’ children. Econowives must do all of the above. When a Handmaid is assigned to a husband she takes on his name. Our narrator is Offred (Literally Of-Fred). While we don’t know for certain how long life has been this way Offred still remembers the time before. Her husband. Her child. Her real name. Before she and all her female coworkers were fired. Before her bank account was frozen. Before she and her family obtained fake passports and tried to escape.
In Gilead women aren’t allowed to read. Even the shop signs do not have words, only pictures. They are not allowed outside by themselves. When Offred goes to the market she must be joined by her walking partner Ofglen. When they pass The Wall, they check to see if there are any new bodies hanging from it – the fate of dissenters. It’s a bleak existence. Not even pleasant small talk seems to be allowed, at least for the Handmaids.
It takes a little while to get used to the setting and the new words and what everything means. But Atwood takes her time and treats her readers with respect. She knows they’ll come to understand eventually so there’s no point in rushing or talking down to them. The world she’s created with Gilead is stark but the imagery of the color-coded dress for women (Red for Handmaids, blue for Wives, green for Marthas) gives it a pop of vitality – even if the strength in that vitality is an illusion.
I really liked Offred as well. She’s a pragmatic, self-aware woman who feels that she should believe and conform even though she doesn’t really feel any of it deep down inside. The narration jumps back and forth in time so we see glimpses of her former life. How much she loved her husband. How he was unfortunately married when they first met. How she struggles to understand his almost indifferent reaction to her losing her job and all of her money just for being a woman. He wants to tell her they still have each other but she notes that nothing has been taken away from him.
It’s not exactly a feel-good read but it is not without hope. The ending, though abrupt and slightly incongruous with the rest of the novel, is fairly ambiguous. Because of that I’d like to imagine the best possible outcome for that situation. I really enjoyed this book, despite its depressing topic, and I can see why it’s a classic. It’s written in an interesting way and contains themes that are very much still relevant.
Note: a TV mini-series adaptation is in the works and should air in 2017. Read it before you see it!