Reed Books: The Handmaid’s Tale

Jess Reed, Editor

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood uses a collection of historically oppressive tools against women to tell the tale of a distant, but possible, America. The story is told by narrator Offred, who is a handmaid used for reproduction by her Commander, a man. She tells her tale through a myriad of flashbacks, memories, and real time plotlines. What struck me about the novel, though, was not the horrors of its society, or the historical basis from which they’re drawn, but the emotional stability of Offred through her ordeal.

First, let’s discuss what Offred has been through. After losing all of her money and her job, she is forced away from her husband and daughter and into a reeducation camp, where she learns how to stay in her place as a woman and serve men through reproduction, despite not taking any pleasure in it. While she makes a few friends at the reeducation center, they are scattered after their departure, and many she never sees again.

However, Offred is (relatively) stoic in the face of everything. While she misses her family terribly, she does not seem to resent the Commander or any men in her society for her position; she even comes to sympathize with them. During the Ceremony, in which the Commander attempts to impregnate Offred, she does not consider it to be an act of rape, as she made the choice to become a Handmaid. The idea that consent at one time does not mean constant consent, and that her only other choice was to be shipped to the Colonies where she would work in a concentration camp, does not cross her mind. A public beating of a rapist only occupies a page or two in Offred’s tale, and she quickly moves on from it.

But why make this choice for a protagonist? Why make the horrors of Gilead (the country that was once America) seem less horrifying?

Atwood’s point in this choice is that people adapt, even to worst-case scenarios. During any given historical moment, people were still living their daily lives, and had their own problems – not unaffected by the world around them, just not as involved as the figures we learn about in history class. This doesn’t mean that Gilead’s oppression of anyone other than cishet white men is morally tolerable, but there is nothing else for Offred to do but tolerate it.

Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example of people’s ability to adapt, and how politics affects the personal lives of citizens around the world. In letting Offred grieve, but also giving her small moments of happiness and sympathy, Atwood creates a realistic protagonist, one who is just as interesting as the political climate surrounding her.