By Padmaja Prasad
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is undoubtedly one of the most influential books of the last century, having gained great popularity in recent years following the release of a TV adaptation by Hulu. The story is set in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian version of the United States in which a fertility crisis and fundamentalist Christianity have taken hold and women are thought of as beneath men. Women in Gilead are only allowed to hold the jobs of being wives, domestic servants, or Handmaids — wombs. The Handmaid’s Tale follows the trials of Offred, one of Gilead’s Handmaids, who had a husband and daughter before Gilead’s establishment. She is torn away from the life she once knew and sent to live in the household of a Commander, one of the most powerful men in the Republic, to bear children for him and his wife, Serena Joy.
The Handmaid’s Tale is written in a style atypical of most books I’ve read. It focuses primarily on the thoughts of the protagonist rather than the events happening around her. While the events around her are discussed, they take second place to her reactions to them. She often goes on mental tangents, and these are described in extreme detail. I have read many reviews criticizing this particular style of writing, though I personally found this particular writing style to be beneficial to the overall mood of the story. The author does an exceptional job of immersing the reader in the character’s mind, allowing them to almost live as the principal character as he/she is the reading the story.
The plot of The Handmaid’s Tale primarily constitutes the experiences of Offred, the principal character, and her interactions with other characters. All of them seem realistic, with layers of conflict that don’t often go explored in other books. In most relationships I see between characters in literary works, characters are defined by a very limited set of personality traits and rarely go out of that box. However, Atwood adds a fluidness to her characters that I have never seen in any book I have read before. In Offred’s relationship with the Commander whose household she lives in, she feels a mixture of feelings towards him; sometimes she finds him tolerable, and at other times, she doesn’t know what to think of him. Her feelings mix between liking and resentment, and she is left unsure about what her final verdict of him should be. Even characters that Offred is known to dislike, such as Serena Joy, are humanized and appear like real people rather than caricatures of hatred. The frighteningly realistic characterization makes the seemingly fantastical world of Gilead appear like a personal setting, and this made me develop strong feelings about the setting and the way it treats people in general–not just the women.
Overall, I find The Handmaid’s Tale to be an enjoyable read primarily because of the characters. I prefer memorable characters to strong plots, if I had to pick one over the other. However, I will admit that the plot of The Handmaid’s Tale is often convoluted by the many tangents that Offred appears to go on.