I first read this book soon after it was published and just re-read it a quarter century later. This is a seminal work about gender roles that is often mistaken as a rant against religion. Atwood needed a dystopia in which to set her tale of Offred. She chose a religious dystopia, perhaps because there was a raging paranoia about the “Religious Right” in the 1980’s that gave it a natural audience. But despite most comments you see posted about this novel, it is about gender roles, not a religion rant. It could as easily have been set in a dystopia like Orwell’s 1984. Atwood chooses a single pov focused on Offred (excluding the last section) so we can view this society through a woman’s eyes; however, Offred’s development in the narrative shows her realizing that she was just as trapped in a role in the former “free” society as she is in the totalitarian regime.
This comes to the second misconception about this novel, that it is a feminist rant against men. Also not true. And by the way, if you don’t believe me then listen to Atwood: (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/20/handmaids-tale-margaret-atwood) The narrative lays out that the men in this society are just as tied to their inescapable roles as the women, and that the society could not exist without the large scale collaboration of women. So if you harbor ill will against religion or men, then I feel you will be very disappointed in this novel. What this novel does best is what science fiction does best, speculate a possible future that highlights an issue. If you want a serious study of gender roles in society, any society, then you’ll find it in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The only thing that makes this novel a little difficult is the narrative mode. Atwood mostly abandons quotation marks, but that is fairly easy to get used to when reading. The more serious issue is that the narrative has a distant telling mode, more like a diary, compared to a more immersive showing mode. I believe this choice is very deliberate. The Handmaid’s world is very cloistered and lived largely in her interior world. If this were told in a deeply immersed mode, it would become claustrophobic and hard to read. So I believe Atwood made the right choice here.
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A study of gender roles in a dystopian setting
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