I will be very honest with you. I picked up this book in July, because the 3rd season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale was out. I had neither read the book then nor had I watched the TV show. So, engulfed by the hype of this masterpiece, I decided to watch the show and the book simultaneously. Unfortunately, my final year of college happened too early, and the reading was relegated to the bottom of my priority list. However, one of my dearest virtual friends happened to gift me a hardcover edition of this book during my birthday, and I couldn’t have been happier. So, I finished watching the show last month, and finished reading the book last night. Yes, there are a lot of differences between the show and the book, and I’m not going to compare and contrast these two. Instead, this post is about my immediate reactions after completing the book. And trust me, it wasn’t comforting at all.
This is a snapshot of the back cover. I ain’t kidding.
If there was a way to undo my Instagram post regarding The Handmaid’s Tale, I would have uploaded my opinions about it with more details. But, I just don’t want to delete it. I don’t know why. May be because I want it to remain as a reminder of my DNF (Did Not Finish) days. Okay, jokes apart. Let’s get to the point.
The Handmaid’s Tale seemed to be operating on a linear narrative, till I arrived at Chapter 23. Atwood designed the plot in such a manner, so that the turning point pops up exactly at the midsection of the storyline (there are 46 chapters in total, excluding the Historical Notes). No. Chapter 23 doesn’t welcome a new narrator, nor does the point-of-view change. The introspective Offred begins her 23rd chapter with a statement. —
This is a reconstruction.
While I continued reading the rest of the book, this phrase, or rather this word reconstruction, remained with me like a pebble in a shoe. No matter how much I tried to get in deep into what Offred saw or heard or thought or felt, reconstruction resurfaced every damn time. When the Tale concluded at Offred stepping into the “darkness within; or else the light“, I breathed a sigh of little relief.
Till I turned to the epilogue — the Historical Notes. This section unsettled me more than all the violence in the book and the show combined. Pieixoto, the main character in this portion of the book, presents his ideas regarding the validity of the facts presented by Offred in her series of cassette tapes. Yeah, cassette tapes. Therefore, whatever we had been reading since Chapter 1 is a transcription of the tapes. A transcription, written down by the Gileadean scholars themselves. So, should we expect a subtle tainted glass which possibly may have altered the original narrations during the transcribing sessions?
This is accompanied by the deeply-entrenched misogyny visible in the academic circle, that too in an international symposium ; this includes Pieixoto jokingly describing the Underground Femaleroad as the Underground Frailroad. And this is also received by the audience with a unanimous laughter. However, the worst part comes when this scholar go on to declare that whatever information was there in Offred’s tapes were neither completely accurate nor completely false. He uses the term “suppose” abundantly, instead. This situation in the plot compels the reader to reconsider his/her own ideas about Gilead from Offred’s perspective. Should we trust Offred’s words at all?
However, Offred shouldn’t be mistaken for an Unreliable Narrator like Tyler Durden. Palahnuik, in Fight Club, bluntly presents, through self-realisation of course, that the narrator was Tyler himself all along. On the other hand, Offred’s narrative does not seem to have a second voice, or a second entity, or an alter-ego, altogether. Her Tale revolves around this “I” and her quest to compose herself like a speech. For Offred, preserving her self and identity in a state like Gilead is the biggest challenge to accomplish. Most importantly, her identity is likened to language. Equating her “self” with “speech” is a unique way to look at the character. And this is where we come across the pebble : reconstruction. Gilead, like Ingsoc in Orwell’s 1984, had reconstructed language, but by making it sound more biblical. Gileadean authority might be dictated in a biblical language, but the Bible is not their source of authority; it is the Sons of Jacob, the founding members of the Republic of Gilead. If a reconstructed language prevails in Gilead, can Offred be viewed as a victim of reconstruction too? Becoming a reconstuctured self? The Sons of Jacob, I think, have not only reconstructed the language, but may have in turn reconstructed the people as well. During the course of the novel, we see Offred’s rebellious self within her. It is only during her regular interactions with the Commander that we witness her taking risks in her everyday life; whether it is asking about a Latin phrase or checking her new shopping partner whether she knows about Mayday. This inability to gain access to knowledge, information, or truth creates an atmosphere of doubt and suspicion . (Now, this we have seen extensively in the second season of the show). At one point we become more helpless than Offred, as we look for “answers in an answerless world” (*echoes of Hank Green’s Crash Course videos!*). This futility goes to a whole new level when we see Offred getting assimilated into the Gileadean society, even if half of her heart wants to burn down the Waterford household. We find this dilemma in the film adaptation of 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. Winston too underwent this dilemma — accepting that two plus two equals five, and hating Big Brother simultaneously—, though it lasted for about 20 minutes in the movie.
Yes. I am in no position to provide critical opinions about this dystopian classic (sorry, Speculative Fiction). I still have a lot to learn about the postmodern world and the multitude of theories which accompany it. This was just a small attempt at at. Looking forward to your views.