Unlike many of our other GeekyNerdy Book Club meetings, I’m not entirely sure how to start this one. This is likely due to the fact that I am still trying to process my own feelings on the book, which were compounded this evening by some disappointing political news. Believe me, I don’t want this blog to turn into some sort of soapbox (I think we all could use a break from the noise) – it’s just that living in the DC metro area and being a federal employee make everything feel more immediate and personal to me than to, say, someone living on the West Coast. Anyway, all of that aside, I know that our latest read, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, is going to stay with me for a while.
As I mentioned in my selection post, I picked up the classic dystopia on a number of occasions, but never actually read it. At first, I was a bit self-conscious about this, especially as more and more people began reminiscing and writing about the first time they had discovered Offred’s tale, but as I read the book, I was really glad that I had waited. For I don’t think Atwood’s writing would have resonated with me as much before. I think it would have seemed like an interesting think piece, but that probably would have been it. Today, it felt extremely current and I could see myself in more of the passages. In fact, I did a whole lot of highlighting as I went through the chapters and even handwrote notes in the margins, something I haven’t done in years. (Personally, this always feels like I’m defiling the book, but here, I wanted to connect my thoughts to the pages themselves for future readings).
It was also interesting to read the book in conjunction with watching the Hulu version, and though there are two episodes left, it seems to me that they’ve been fairly true to Atwood’s original. Oh sure, there are some creative licenses here and there – mostly with things being shown out of order; it also provides backstories for the other characters – but it predominantly tells Offred’s story as it was written. Of course I have no idea what they are going to do for season two, but hey, maybe it means we’ll actually get to see what happens next!
On top of watching the show, and getting somewhat ahead of where I had read to, I inadvertently spoiled the ending for myself when I looked at the novel’s Wikipedia page to try to answer a question for the Mysterious Mr. C. This wasn’t too bad though since I wasn’t sure how Offred had gotten to that point, but it did enable me to pick up on some clearer foreshadowing starting at Chapter 23.
The shift at that chapter, especially Offred’s admission that what she is sharing are reconstructions, was a bit jarring at first. Of course, any of our recollections are told from our point of view and leave out other people’s perspectives, certain nuances, etc., but there was something disconcerting to me about Atwood turning Offred into a prototype of today’s unreliable female narrator. Her tale suddenly became a lot less straightforward, though I’m sure that was probably the point.
I was also not a fan of much of the “Historical Notes” that close out the book. I mean, I appreciated Professor Pieixoto filling in a few gaps, such as Gilead’s influence in reshaping the map of the world/hemisphere, Offred’s story being found on 30 cassette tapes, and the Commander’s backstory (in fact, this was when I realized he had never been identified in the book [he is in the show]), but I found his criticisms of Offred to be a bit discomfiting. His “whiff of emotion” comment on page 303 was obnoxious enough, but then his wish that she had looked at her world more like a reporter or spy (but let us “be grateful for any crumbs” she did give us) made me want to smack him. None of us, especially him, know what we would truly do if we found ourselves in her situation, so the judgment just seemed petty and unfair.
Overall though, I liked the way Atwood left everything open at the end. We’re not entirely sure what happens to Offred, though we can make our own guesses, based on Pieixoto’s findings and our personal observations. It seems fairly clear to me that she did escape at some point, but the painful references to being betrayed and her ignorance of the consequences also suggest that her transition wasn’t as smooth as simply crossing the border into Canada. Like Offred’s conflicting beliefs about Luke – he’s dead, he’s alive, he’s fighting to save her – she becomes our own Schrodinger’s cat. We can apply myriad interpretations to her ending and because Atwood doesn’t make it clear, she can be both free and not free at the same time.
Perhaps that’s why The Handmaid’s Tale will stick with me for a while – I’m not entirely sure how I want Offred’s story to end. Because whatever ending I choose for her is more clearly a reflection of how I see the world than anything Atwood herself could have written.