My reading this book had absolutely nothing with Hulu coming out with a show earlier this month. Watching the show was in no way because of how much the book shook my world and made me want to become a better woman and learn some marketable skills*. No seriously, I’d try to become a Martha and just live my days not even looking at Wives or Commanders or Handmaids. The setting of the book is America post take over. It is now the Republic of Gilead, it’s totalitarian and super religious and I get chills just thinking about it.
To be honest I actually checked the book out because I went to this website that took a writing sample and then told you which famous author you wrote like.I got Margret Atwood. I was a little surprised, I’d only every read Margret Atwood in pretty little quotes on tumblr. I thought she was some angsty poet or something. Because of the comparison I decided to check her out and out of all her books. The Handmaid’s Tale was the one I saw the most so my first choice was obvious.
I was a little thrown off at the first person, and then further thrown off by how the narrator, Offred kept jumping between her present future and past. But eventually the absurdity of what I was reading kept me enthralled. I felt like a I knew Offred, or I was hearing someone tell a really painful story, that they needed to get off their chest. Pretty soon I found myself stuck in a first person funk. Everything I wrote afterwards had to be done in first person or things got weird**.
This book truly left a mark on me. I found myself stuck reading it in horror and awe, even the most terrible moments couldn’t turn me away. I was stuck between terror and awe as Offred recounted her life living under a totalitarian theocratic regime. For one it’s fucking terrifying and nerve wracking. But the story isn’t just about the regime, it’s about what’s life like when you’re not a part of the rebellion***.
If you look at the movies that we’ve seen in the last six years or so, it’s about dystopias and teenagers toppling their government to free the people. We get an up close look at the protagonists taking action when things go wrong, like Katniss in Hunger Games Scott McCall in Teen Wolf and Tris Prior in Divergent. We were either in the resistance, put into the resistance, or had to learn to be the savior of people.
The Handmaid’s Tale is like taking a look at what happens if Katniss failed, if Tris had not made the ultimate sacrifice, or if Scott didn’t become the True Alpha. This is the story of Offred, the woman who desperately wanted to be reunited with her child and to survive the hell her life had become. When things go wrong, such as a radical group killing the the President of the United States and the Congress, there might not be a Katniss, Tris, and Scott to come to your rescue.
The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred, played spectacularly by Elizabeth Moss in the show, and it’s a retelling of her time apart of a totalitarian theocracy. Offred speaks in the first person and, although it’s not clear until much later, what we are reading is a transcription of an audio diary. It has all the usual flaws that an audio retelling of memory. Meaning that there’s always the possibility of a flaw.
Since reading the book I have seen an episode of the show and my thoughts are all over the place. The show does have key differences, such as making the Commander and his wife younger, leaving out a whole character ( Cora, another servant in the Commander’s household) and featuring more characters of color. The beautiful Samira Riley plays Moira, Offred’s best friend before the world changed. Her husband is portrayed by O-T Fagbenle, a black man.
When I saw Miss Riley as Offred’s best friend, I applauded the choice. I feel like Black Women are often times seen as strong and capable of withstanding adversity and coming out the other side stronger. Offred struggled a lot under this new regime, as did a lot of the women around her. The one thing keeping Offred from cracking up was Moira.
The show starts off fast, speeding through character introductions and explanations of how the world is now through flashbacks and Offred’s narration. We learn that Offred and her husband had attempted to flee the country, but were apprehended before they could get away. When Offred first enters the Center, there’s a lot of information dumped on us about the new world America has become. Including one woman, Janine, getting her right eye taken out for having a smart mouth.
Personally I feel like the book was very good at leaving information out, but allowing the reader to infer the true meaning. Offred didn’t always have all the information, so that meant as our narrator the information she gave us could have been wrong or incomplete. Which added more depth to the story and more realism to the horror because it felt like someone was telling you of a great tragedy that happened long ago in history. It was scary because that’s the same situation a normal person would be in, there wouldn’t be no conveniently timed eavesdropping.
This isn’t Harry Potter.
The casting of this show was also a bit off putting. I feel that by making the Commander and his Wife younger, they’ve taken away some of the desperation and neediness in these characters. In the books they’re older, in their forties and fifties respectively and Offred is only in her early thirties in comparison, which leads to a power imbalance greater than her technically being a servant of the house.
The Commander has all the power, but as the story progresses in the book Offred comes to recognize that even with all that power he is still like most men. He seeks her approval all the while thinking himself better and smarter than her. He begins an affair, allowing her special “privileges”. Allowing her to read and even challenging her to board games. The Commander tries to get her to desire him.
Despite having literal ownership over her life and body, he wants her heart as well.
All the while trying to absolve himself of guilt. Offred’s Commander was supposed to be a real high up man in the Republic. The book said that he personally had a hand in most of the structuring of the government as well. So there must be guilt in a sense. Or something approaching it? It’s obvious from the start that he wants Offred to tell him, with her friendship and her desire, that what he and his comrades did was okay.
Just another man, asking for the physical, emotional, and mental labor of a woman. All the while congratulating himself for her oppression. It makes you feel for his Wife.
In the case of the Wife she has her own host of issues. Including but not limited to insecurity, denial, and a devotion to her husband. Offred coming in to have their baby puts a strain on her relationship with her husband. The Wife blames Offred, and in the household she has enough power to make Offred’s life as hard as she liked. The Wife worries that he’ll be taken from her, and she pushes the brunt of that fear and anger on Offred.
What the novel did very well was showing that even in this society, where Wive’s are protected and divorce is unheard of, the Commander’s Wife still resents Offred. She bruises her during the Ceremony, an awkward affair where the Commander tries to impregnate Offred while his wife holds her hands and her head in her lap. She hates Offred for her ability to have children and she hates Offred for getting to have sex with her husband.
What’s more is that the Wife is unwilling to see that Offred has no choice in the matter. Rita, the housemaid, as well. She treats Offred as an inconvenience, a burden and personal thorn in her side. When in actuality their predicaments weren’t any better or different than one another’s. They were both still powerless under this new patriarchal regime. It’s just that as long as they were in the house, the Wife had a little more power than Offred.
I found myself constantly frustrated, both in the book and while watching the show, at the total lack of empathy between characters. Everyone treated on another cruelly for things they had no control over. It wasn’t their fault I suppose, the society they were living under didn’t leave much room for trust or friendship. Everyone was an enemy or a spy. It’s frustrating to watch these tense exchanges between characters and just know that there’s more to every situation than they’re willing to acknowledge.
All in all I highly recommend this book. It’s well written and will keep you on the edge of your seat. It has a timelessness that matches Orwell’s 1984. I would like to issue a warning for how graphic the book and the show can be. I certainly had to put the book down a few times to recover before reading on, so just keep that in mind.