The Handmaid’s Tale (ISBN-13: 978-0385490818) was my first Margaret Atwood novel, and it did not disappoint. In fact, this book more than exceeded my expectations, being, in my opinion, fairly unique within the vast sea of dystopian literature out there. I had read this novel a while back, but I decided to revisit it due to all the comparisons to our current society during the 2016 American presidential election season. Our current political climate probably has a lot to do with it, but this book hit me so much harder emotionally the second time around. The lack of quotation marks in the narration style may be confusing at first, but eventually you get used to it, and it shows the blurred line between thought and reality. Atwood writes masterfully – her voice in this novel is understated, yet incredibly beautiful and moving. The frequent use of flashback and the non-chronological structure are employed intentionally, and she wants to play with the reader’s mind. You’re forced to question the reliability of the narrator – after all, she herself points out that she is recalling events from memory, which may often be unclear or reconstructed.
What was most chilling about this novel, for me, and what makes it stand out among other dystopian pieces, is the focus on women. The idea that women would be the first to lose their rights if society were to enter a form of totalitarian rule is haunting, yet not implausible. Even more eery is the suggestion that even the “good” men in democratic societies may quickly adapt, and even accept a world in which women have no rights. The parallels that we can draw to reality are what make this book unsettling. Is this book a piece of feminist literature? I think Atwood wants you, the reader, to answer that for yourself.
There are many points in the novel that force you to ask yourself what a truly realized egalitarian society should look like. It isn’t the society presented in the novel, yet it isn’t our present reality either. This tension is what makes this book a masterpiece; you’re not only left with the story, but with many important questions to consider regarding womanhood, feminism, oppression, and politics. The Handmaid’s Tale makes me look forward to reading more of Atwood’s writing in the future, where I hope she will continue to hash out some of the ideas she presented.