Emily Rae Robles

the paradoxymoron

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, was one of those books that I picked up after hearing it recommended by countless book lists, but had no clue what to expect from the story itself.  Upon reading it, I immediately fell in love with Atwood’s writing style.  However, the problem with an enthralling writing style is that it takes much longer for me to read the book, since I have to savor every single word!  In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the words are well worth the trouble of the story, which for me came secondary.

The novel follows the life of Offred, a handmaid in a dystopian society whose sole purpose is to reproduce.  Over the course of the book, the reader becomes familiar with Offred’s life both under the strict regime of Gilead as well as her history before and during the descent of the new political powers.  Despite the setting, however, The Handmaid’s Tale is not just a cautionary tale.  It is an exploration into a human life, made even more powerful by the character’s removal from what we consider to be a normal setting.

One of the writing techniques I have found to be most powerful in novels is the author’s ability to create and explore not just a character but an entire life.  Margaret Atwood accomplishes this on a brilliantly high level in The Handmaid’s Tale by exploring even the parts of the mind that lie to oneself.  She delves so deep into the psyche of the narrator, Offred, that every detail about Offred’s life adds to a character so complex that the boundaries between her reality and her creations are blurred.

A creation in her own right, Offred makes it clear that her story is not clear, that it is a creation as flawed as she is and as life is.  Despite the external focus on the imperfect, from the dystopian world to Offred’s character flaws to the flaws in the story telling process, the entire novel is one that focuses primarily on beauty.  It is peppered with details about memories, the way something smells, tastes, looks, sounds, or feels, the ideas evoked by words, and the craft of story telling.  These details do more than merely flesh out the story; they provide the reader with insight into the observations that make humanity unique.

Although I generally find dystopian novels to be somewhat over the top and moralizing, The Handmaid’s Tale is for me an exception in that it is not the plot that stuck with me after completion, but the main character.  Offred comes to life for readers, telling her tale with an individualism that stands in stark contrast to the attempts at indistinguishability presented by the setting.  Overall, this was a deeply moving account of a deeply human life that was well worth the read.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | book review | , | Leave a comment