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The Handmaid's Tale : “Nolite Te Bastardes Carburondorum”


Symposia : 8.8/10

Goodreads : 4.1/5

Margaret Atwood’s, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, stands as one of the most renowned works of feminist fiction and dystopia. Nominated for both the Booker and Nebula prizes, the 1985 novel amplified patriarchal and sexist issues in society. In the totalitarian state of Gilead, repopulation relies upon the handmaids, who are the only fertile women remaining after chemical devastation. Revolving around one of these women, Offred, the story goes to show that no amount of restriction can prevent human desire, and yearning for freedom. With time manipulation and a unique writing style, Atwood parallels the reader with the protagonist, making the story uniquely compelling. 

I recently read this book out of my love for dystopia and it certainly did not disappoint. Unlike many dystopian novels that encompass a complex society, the one in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ primarily revolves around the landscape of women. Atwood’s illustrations of the emptiness that comes with totalitarianism are remarkable. With just the perspective of one woman, the author cultivated a story that makes the reader so deeply invested in not just Offred, but everyone that inhabits Gilead. 

The novel is widely considered a psychological study and I wouldn’t stop to diverge. Atwood’s atypical writing style, although sometimes impeding the storyline, twists the imagination and likens the reader to Offred. For instance, Atwood’s consistent use of symbolism isn’t something that many other authors utilise. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, she symbolizes flowers as an escape to a world of normalcy, beauty and freedom. They remain a constant reminder to the protagonist and even the reader, to always have hope for a better time and a better place. This simple device made the story that much more impactful and profound to me, as a reader.

As a handmaid, Offred’s only goal is to reproduce. This degradation of women to their mere functions is extraordinary. Although often bringing about some sexual and religious controversies, her illustration of the handmaids is without doubt, striking. Atwood’s use of costume description plays a major role in this as well. The conspicuous all red outfit and white bonnet, signifies an incongruous power. The portrayal of this in especially the TV series, dressed worldwide protests against misogyny. If a paltry 311 page novel can establish such change in the real world, its potency is unquestionable. 

However, like all dystopian novels, there are some significant drawbacks in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Firstly, the most criticized aspect of the story: its ending. After a long recount of Offred’s life in Gilead, the closing just didn’t seem sufficient. There are, frankly, too many loose strands left to the reader’s imagination to tie up. This stands as a great defect to many readers, but in my opinion, it didn’t really flatten the storyline much. However, after the ending is an appendix. Likening to one in Orwell’s celebrated ‘1984’, the appendix puzzled many readers. Much of it seemed unnecessary and the aspects that did connect to the story were slightly unclear. For me, it was the appendix rather than the story’s ending, that instigated ambivalence.

Moreover, Atwood’s distinguished writing style, consisting of long descriptions, is said to bore many readers. I’ve seen critics refer to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as “one lengthy sentence” due to this. Her writing is rather eccentric, but as the plot is driven forward, the lengthy segments in the beginning start to tie things together for the reader. In addition, the author’s odd lack of quotation marks tends to throw readers off as well. I don’t understand why it was done, but neither do I concur with critics that say that it ruined the novel. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, Atwood’s take at feminist dystopia was certainly unputdownable. 

I am currently reading the sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ : ‘The Testaments’. I’m not too far into the novel but it’s easy to say that unlike many duologies, this one remains consistently riveting. The novel is a slightly heavy read due to the Atwood’s writing style and the discussed topics; but I would recommend the book to just about anyone. Comprising an uncanny prophecy and standing as a monument to human resilience, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ does great justice to the genres of speculative fiction and anti-utopia. 

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