Book Report: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaid

I remember reading this in college and not liking it. This time around, I savored thhe delicious language and diction and descriptions. It’s like a beautiful but ominous watercolor. Offred’s world is so full of longing and loneliness that everything -because it’s unavailable to her- becomes a vivid romanticized version in her mind.

Synopsis: Faced by an infertility epidemic and plummeting birthrate, the government is overthrown by a (violently) orthodox religious sect where the patriarchy rules and traditional gender roles are strictly enforced. Fertile women become reproductive servants for high-ranking men and their barren wives. Other women become econo-wives issued to lower ranking men, and some become household servants or work the fields. Every woman wears a colored uniform to denote her position.

Characters: It’s hard to talk about the characters when individuality is strictly forbidden. The story is told through June, who is taken from her husband and daughter and processed as a Handmaid. Issued to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy, June is renamed Offred (Of Fred) to honor the patriarch of her post. She tells her story of her old life and her current life with The Waterfords to remind herself she is a person, or at least, she was. She speaks to an unnamed “you.” She says this makes her real, like writing in a diary. There must always be an audience for a story to be told. Her strength is almost unbearable as she holds onto hope and sanity, as she endures constant trauma and fear in her environment. Offred made me wonder what I would do in her situations. I wanted to be different. I want to be able to say I’d never be her, but… she wanted to say that too. That’s what makes it such a disturbing read.

Themes
Purpose as Identity
In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are defined by their ability (or inability) to produce children. That’s it. Women who can’t produce are sent to “the colonies” where they perform hard labor. Some lucky ones become housekeepers for the families in power. Everyone is issues a purpose and a uniform that decides who and what they become. Individuality is a risk. Anyone who doesn’t fit the mold is killed as a warning to all others.

Survival
Ruled by fear and violence, society submits to survive. How much is Offred… are women willing to give up to live in this new society? And is the life they’re living worth the sacrifice? What if they organized and fought back?

Questions to consider:
Who would you be if your life were reduced to one true purpose?
If things are better for some, but worse for others, are things really better?
What would you do if you witnessed gender or racial discrimination?

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