by Margaret Atwood
It’s interesting to me when similar techniques employed by different authors elicit vastly different responses from me. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, the ending is reminiscent of one such technique I loved from Omar El Akkad’s American War, in that the whole final chapter reads like a transcript from a lecture. Where El Akkad’s “real-world” touches peppered throughout add so much to his world and his plot, however, Atwood’s final chapter literally lectures in order to explain what was happening, to me ending things in a way that diminished her story, a story that, up to that point, I loved.
And this isn’t the only thing the two stories have in common. Like American War, The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative novel taking place in the United States in the near future. Unlike El Akkad’s story that looks at how conflict and violence breed terror, Atwood’s is a caution that religious extremism will be used by those in power to remove rights, the rights of women, specifically. An “unnamed” narrator––known as Offred in the new world, though she never reveals her true, original identity––has the privilege of working as a handmaid, a pregnancy vessel to the society’s elite. Severely limited in every aspect of her life, Offred cautiously seeks her freedom, though she can never be sure who’s listening and watching, or whom, if anyone, she can trust.
I found it interesting how––much like El Akkad again––Atwood so effectively subverts the modern-day East-West dichotomy, in the way that religious extremism took hold in the North America of her story, yet at least some places in the East remain free of it, shown with the brief interaction with Japanese tourists early on. I wonder how much this affects the weight of the story, whether the terrible things happening were strong enough to sit deep with the reader on their own, or if it had more to do with exposing readers to things that are very real but easy to push out of the mind due to a lack of proximity in the West, that these things happen to “others.” One thing I do know, however, is that the author makes the most of a first-person perspective. She seems to effortlessly step into the shoes of her narrator, observing the world through her eyes, influencing the way the reader experiences the world and the other characters in the process. And this makes an important story effective in its delivery.
Keep in mind that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a warning of what we stand to lose in this grim future, but of what we take for granted in the modern world. It’s a sobering reminder of what makes life worth living and what in our lives is worth fighting for, and there are at least a few expressive passages that really send this all crashing home. It’s just too bad I really didn’t like the ending, because it otherwise could have been something phenomenal.