Before it was an award-winning Hulu original series, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” stood as a paragon of writing and craftsmanship in the 1980s, telling a timeless tale of oppression, rebellion and human nature.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of a dystopian America in which women are violently subjugated under a totalitarian theocracy. The brutal yet fascinating culture of the dystopia is examined through the perspective of protagonist Offred as she faces the trials of her own oppression, including the loss of her own bodily autonomy.
Within this dystopian regime called the Republic of Gilead, Offred is one of the few remaining fertile women and is thus forced to act as a surrogate mother for one of the high-ranking men known as the Commander. As a handmaid, Offred’s sole purpose is to conceive a child with the Commander while navigating the turbulent waters of Gilead’s strict social order.
Atwood’s attention to detail and emphasis on nuanced cultural features allow the fictitious world of Gilead to come to life, such as the popular affirmation “Praise be!” The slow burn of the exposition and rising action keep the plot engaging, and this combination of intrigue and setting allow Atwood to masterfully craft a tale rife with complex characters, conflicts and a treasure trove of deep thematic narratives.
In the novel, Atwood famously models all of her worldbuilding after past historical events, like public executions from the French Revolution and religious rule in ancient Egypt. The strict class structure, eugenics and shrewd resistance are all parts of the past Atwood melds into the perfectly horrifying Republic of Gilead.
The most prominent and well-executed of Atwood’s themes surrounds the weaponization of religion, which is the primary justification for all the violence and subjugation in the novel. Atwood specifically notes “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not intended to be anti-religious, but rather a caution against governments using religion for control. Atwood thoroughly succeeds in conveying this intended message about the dangers of political religious extremism without leaning on tired cliches about the marriage of church and state.
These themes of religious extremism are furthered by the intricate characterization of key players in the story. Most notably, the Commander’s wife Serena acts as a testament to the complexities of the human will with her experiences in the book.
Before the time of Gilead, Serena was an evangelical media figure who actively advocated for the changes brought about by the theocracy. However, throughout the novel it becomes clear Serena is not happy about her forced subservience to the Commander and the restrictions on her life, leaving her confused and ashamed.
Atwood excels in developing Serena’s character arc; Serena starts out as the malicious vixen but slowly morphs into the pitiable victim of a monster she helped make. As one example of the multifaceted characters in the novel, Serena’s storyline complements the prominent themes to create a provocative reading experience.
The theocratic regime of Gilead shines as one of the most entrancing aspects of the novel, as Atwood slowly unfurls the setting with rich nuance, mounting anticipation and intrigue throughout the plot. In particular, the norms of this strange world stand out as indicators of Atwood’s creative ability, and small details such as the apocalyptic garb worn by various castes add a level of salient depth to the book.
Atwood delivers a tour de force in literary fiction by crafting a narrative that continually questions and explores the human condition. Her amalgam of riveting themes, diverse characters and high-stakes situations in “The Handmaid’s Tale” showcases the depth and resilience of the human heart. Perhaps it is for these aspects that the novel remains so popular and beloved by fans — because the themes and perspectives are still relevant today almost 40 years later.