The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood: Critical Reading

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a story overflowing with moments of intense description – be it giving words to love or pain – is just begging to be read critically. I won’t rant on about why critical reading is important as I did in my post on Never Let Me Go, but in short, it’s a way of appreciating how your favourite writer made you burst into tears at the ending and want to throw the book out onto *named national highway*, how they made you flip the pages, root for the protagonist, so on. Good writers are powerful like that (evil laugh, I’m hoping to become one). Before you go ahead, I’d strongly recommend reading the book or two things might happen: 1) I might spoil the book for you (gasp) 2) My analysis may not make sense in some parts. Finally, please do not become a ‘plagiarising donkey’ and copy my work without my permission. See my copyright notice for more details. 

Introduction/Synopsis:

Imagine being a woman, covered head-to-toe with plain red garment, wearing white wings around your eyes, a white veil around your head. Your individuality, your independence, freedom to education, work (amongst many other rights): virtually non-existent. This is what Offred must accept as she is drafted into the ‘Red Centre’, a place to train ‘Handmaids’ once the Republic of Gilead has suspended the constitution, instead implementing a theonomic military dictatorship. Handmaids, or should I say, walking wombs, are assigned to the elite of Gilead society as surrogates, so families can get children through them. This presumes an ugly form as Handmaids are subjected to all forms of oppression, constant monitoring, threat of the secret police (The Eyes) capturing them and harrassment. We see an ironically sanctimonious dystopia, but within it we see Offred, not a victim but a survivor who has lost her family while attempting to escape the Republic of Gilead. I ended the story with no doubt that Offred may be raw, even unheroic – but her story is an example of the pain a woman may face undeservedly in such a society.  Far from considering her just a reproductive commodity like the Republic of Gilead does, we see her as an ordinary individual with an extraordinary story to tell.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

Without a doubt, Offred’s coping mechanism forthe denigrating situations she is put into as a Handmaid is pretending that it’s not affecting her directly, or influencing herself mentally using ‘litanies’. This is just one of the examples of the way she makes herself passive.

“I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.”

  • The separation of the words ‘my’ and ‘self’ show how she is distancing herself from her identity and trying to convince herself the situation is not really damaging her.
  • The imperative sentence could suggest she is constantly instructing herself in order to survive within the rules of Gileadean society
  • The simile ‘as one composes a speech’ suggests that like a speech is made for a particular purpose, edited to include parts and exclude others, Offred wants to exclude parts of her that don’t serve the purpose of being a Handmaid. I think in this situation, she’s being forced to sleep with The Commander at Jezebel’s so she would have to block out her humanity or feelings of disgust. In extreme, a speech might be biased and dismissive of valid counter-arguments – similarly Offred needs to be ignore justice, truth or her own morality and take the Commander’s side, just because he’s more powerful.

“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.”

  • The use of the word ‘flesh’ instead of ‘body’ suggests that for Offred, her body feels out of place and ungraceful compared to how she felt about it before.
  • I don’t know the technique name (oxymoron, antithesis, paradox?) but the words ‘flesh’ and ‘cloud’ have contradicting connotations. Flesh is supposed to cover you completely, but a cloud is hovering, unsure, capricious. This could signify the vulnerability of her body and her confusion at the way it reacts, unable to attain pregnancy.
  • Offred here gives us contradictions galore. How can your body (the cloud) be ‘hard and more real’ than you are? Is this the effect of Gilead’s manifesto being indoctrinated into the minds of Handmaids, i.e. only your womb is important, not you?
  • Then she goes onto say this cloud ‘glows red within it’s translucent wrapping’. Weird cloud, but I think what Atwood was trying to convey here was that Offred is bound by the connotations of red. Red is the colour of blood, fertility in women. Red is also sexual, however. The fact that her body (the cloud) glows red suggests that this is the only marker of her importance; without it she is just an ambiguous cloud-like presence.
  • This might be me getting a teensy bit far fetched but ‘translucent wrapping’ also suggests she feels like her body is packaged in plastic, like a product you can buy, not a real human.

The Handmaid’s Tale makes me feel a little better about using strange descriptions like ‘venomous screeching’ in my writing, because this book is full of strange and wonderful similes, metaphors, the lot. It’s also entrenched in the idea of oppression, because that’s the backbone that the Republic of Gilead needs to function. Here’s an ironic example of it, from Offred’s perspective:

“I’ve only been to one of these before, two years ago. Women’s Salvagings are not frequent. There is less need for them. These days we are so well behaved.

I don’t want to be telling this story.”

  • ‘I don’t want to be telling this story’ creates a sense of apprehension in the reader, making you think that something bad is going to happen to Offred as she goes on with the story
  • ‘These days we are so well-behaved’ is ironic, I think it highlights the whole concept of hypocrisy in the Gileadean system. On the outside, society here is supposed to be ‘sacred’ and supporting women. In reality, it’s corrupt and oppresses women for the benefit of fanatics, mostly men.

Extra thought: The portmanteau ‘prayvaganza’ interests me, since it seems to be a mixture of ‘extravaganza’ and ‘pray’. When something is ‘extravagant’, it’s overkill, even crude you might say. Maybe this reflects on the fanatic religious culture in Gilead?

You might be thinking I’ve only analysed 3 quotes, and the full book has a lot more to say then what I’ve discovered. My real motivation for doing this is not to analyse the whole book in depth, but just to exercise an imaginary “critical reading muscle”.  Hope this helped spark your own ideas – critical reading is an individual thing!

*The phrase ‘plagiarising donkey’ was coined by Amber at http://www.themilelongbookshelf.com. I don’t think there’s a more apt phrase to describe people who plagiarise! Again, just don’t.

Keep reading and read-joicing! 

Shreya

Categories: Reading

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