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“Autumn is the time of year when Mother Nature says, ‘Look how easy, how healthy, and how beautiful letting go can be.’”
– Toni Sorenson  
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  Volume No. 15 Issue No. 9 September 2018  

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Janice Tollini

  "The Handmaid’s Tale"
  By Janice Tollini

   “The Handmaid’s Tale” is authored by Margaret Atwood. Originally published in 1986, the book made a resurgence in popularity in 2017, when it became a television series under the same name. The setting of the book is an unknown date in the future in the Republic of Gilead, following the overthrow of the U.S. government by a fundamentalist religious group.
   
   In Gilead, women are placed in an interesting dichotomy in which they are thought to be the source of all evil, as well as the only hope for the future in terms of repopulation. They are divided into different classes: Handmaids solely for reproductive purposes, Marthas are domestic help (cooks and maids), Commanders’ Wives have the highest status, and The Aunts are government women responsible for the militaristic training of the Handmaids. The Handmaids are the lowest class and looked down on by all. They are viewed strictly as the property of the Commander to which they have been assigned, and as such are renamed to reflect this status. The main character is named Offred, Of-Fred, indicating her servitude to her Commander named Fred.
   
   Offred, we never learn her real name, begins by describing her life as a Handmaid. The majority of the book is dedicated to the details of her miserable existence; limited food supply, strict rules forbidding women to read or write, the expectation that she bear children for her Commander and his wife; and, perhaps most importantly, her complete subjugation and despair. She forms a friendship of sorts with Ofglen, her assigned shopping companion, as women are not permitted to be in public alone. Offred eventually earns Ofglen’s trust, and is told of a secret movement, The Mayday Resistance. Although fearful of even having this information, Mayday offers Offred some source of hope.
   
   The book is divided into sections that describe her interactions with others, and “night” when she is alone in her room. It is during the times of solitude that we learn of her life before the religious uprising. Offred had been married to a man named Luke, and together they had a young daughter. In brief flashbacks throughout the book, we learn that Luke and Offred had been captured when they tried to escape to Canada shortly after the government had been overthrown. Offred often reflects on what might have happened to her family, desperately trying to remember what they looked like.
   
   The main duty of the Handmaid is to provide children for their Commander. Offred clarifies early in the book that she is not a concubine, but rather “a two-legged womb.” The Handmaid is to be available for impregnation by this Commander. This occurs during “The Ceremony,” in which the Commander’s wife is also present, to ensure that the interaction is not one of enjoyment but solely procreation.
   
   Over time, Offred’s Commander encourages a more intimate relationship, bringing her to his study at night where they talk, consume alcohol and play Scrabble. He also provides her with reading material and a few select forbidden luxuries like lotions, which are strictly forbidden.
   
   Eventually, the Commander defines yet again a different relationship and takes her to a brothel, where she finds her old friend, Moira. She thought Moira had been killed, because of her repeated attempts to escape and blatant defiance for the new system. Moira embodies freedom and the hope for change through rebellion.
   
   When Offred is not able to get pregnant, the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, approaches Offred. She offers that it is the Commander who cannot have children. (In the Gilead society, women are held responsible for all sterility.) She instructs Offred to begin a sexual relationship with Nick, the Commander’s handsome chauffeur. Offred and Nick have been exchanging secret glances, but such a relationship, even the glances themselves, would be punishable by death. Serena bribes Offred into taking this risk by offering to show her a photo of her daughter. Serena shows Offred how to sneak into Nick’s quarters above the garage. Offred continues these nightly visits without Serena’s knowledge. This relationship with Nick provides her a single source of enjoyment and emotional connection, but could also result in her arrest and death.
   
   As Offred becomes increasingly reckless in her meetings with Nick, Serena confronts her one day when she returns from the market. Serena accuses her of betraying her trust. Offred is uncertain which crime Serena has discovered; the relationship with Nick or her meetings with The Commander.
   
   She experiences a sense of relief, knowing that for either offense, the punishment will be death. As she awaits the arrival of the black van, which contains The Eye of God (best described as the Gestapo), Serena reveals that she found the gaudy dress The Commander had given Offred for their excursion to the brothel. Offred is relieved that Nick has not been found out and will not be killed. She is also uncertain whether Nick had betrayed her.
   
   In the final scene, Offred hears footsteps coming up the stairs to her room. Instead of The Eyes, it is Nick, who tells her he is part of Mayday. Offred is uncertain if she should believe this, and is taken away by the occupants of the black van.
   
   The book was a slow, painful read. From a stylistic point of view, I can see how the short, abrupt sentence structure supported the illustration of the main character’s existence, but it was not enjoyable to read. The political and feministic messages are abundantly clear. Without reading reviews or literary analyses, I am certain the intent was to create a strong sense of discomfort in the reader. It had the desired effect. The book ends with a metafictional epilogue, which provides background information as to the events leading to the creation of Gilead. It also alludes to Offred’s escape, suggesting that Nick was indeed involved in the Mayday Resistance. “The Handmaid’s Tale” ended in what seemed to be yet another increase in conflict, but without a clear and satisfying conclusion. The ending begs for a sequel, which has yet to be written.
  
 
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