Narrator: Claire Danes
Publisher: Brilliance Audio (2014)
Length: 11 hours
The world has changed. The US government has long since been deposed and the new Republic of Gilead has arisen. Told through the eyes of one Handmaid (Offred), the new world order is revealed and explored. Her memories of a time when she had a job, a husband, and a child are only that now. Her new life demands she gives the Commander and his wife Serena Joy a child.
There’s plenty of food for thought in this novel. Power now belongs to a handful of men and women and everyone else has to quietly and expertly navigate their way through the rules and whims of those in power. Offred use to have her own name, one she is forbidden from using now. Every time she is sent to a new station, her name changes as well. She now is in the service of the Commander and his wife and therefore her name is Offred for as long as she is stationed there. During her time at this station, she reviews memories of the past, before the new republic and of her training days.
When I first delved into this book, I made an assumption that men now held the majority of power. Since having finished it, I think that is incorrect. The balance of power is much more nuanced than simply one gender or the other holding the majority. Women run the training centers for the other women. It appears that women decide when a woman is not longer fit to be a Handmaid and is therefore demoted to a Martha (house servant) or an Econowife (for the masses) or is even deemed a Jezebel (nightclub worker) or an Unwoman (sent to the colonies to clean up toxins of various sorts). Women mete out the punishments on other women and women dictate what is or is not proper behavior for both men and women. On the other hand, we have a handful of Commanders (all of which we see are male), the only doctor in the book is male, and men do all the heavy lifting and gun carrying. Among the women, only the Aunts (teachers at the training centers) are allowed to read and write; otherwise that is a man’s domain. I quite enjoyed how complex the power play was between the genders.
Since Offred did have a full life before the change in governments, she has many memories of how things started to shift. For instance, her own mother was an activist for change, though I don’t think she was looking for what the world got. As a kid, her mother would take her to the park supposedly to feed the ducks, but it was also so she could meet up with her activist friends and burn magazines that featured women in heavy makeup and skimpy clothing. Scenes like this hint at something and I am not sure yet if I grasped the author’s intention correctly or not. Women themselves started to protest such magazines, perhaps seeing them as objectifying women. Eventually, that became this movement and part of a change in government. Now, it’s unseemly for any woman to be showing skin beyond hands and face and sometimes even that can be deemed immodest depending on the demeanor of the individual. If you forbid such a basic freedom, such as how to dress, then where does that lead society? Again, another interesting thought to mull over.
Offred is a Handmaid and that means her main purpose is to reproduce. She’s told what to wear (bright red, which makes it hard to disappear), what to eat (only nutritional food for her), and how much to exercise (a daily walk is required). On one hand, she is held on high because so few women are still capable of reproduction. On the other hand, her entire life is scheduled for her. She has a monthly doctor’s visit. She’s not allowed caffeine, cigarettes, or alcohol. Even the sex act is ritualized to the point that it is simply something to be endured as no one seems to be allowed to enjoy it. Other women, such as the Marthas, show jealousy over the ‘pampered’ life of a Handmaid. Really, this seems to be the epitome of objectifying women! Offred is no longer a person with her own hopes, ambitions, mistakes, vices, etc. Instead, she is a vessel for a potential fetus. The author does a great job of showing all this through Offred’s eyes.
Offred needs a baby to keep herself from being demoted and the powers that be happy. When it becomes obvious that the ritualized sex with the Commander is not getting her what she needs, the wife steps in with a suggestion. It is quite the status symbol to have child and Serena Joy definitely wants that prestige. Meanwhile, the Commander wants something else entirely. He secretly invites Offred to his study for late night Scrabble games and mulling over old 1970s fashion magazines. In a way, I think he’s looking for companionship, a thing that is no longer encouraged and is not something he has with his wife (her being so very proper and all). These diverging needs of the two people who essentially own her, if only temporarily, put Offred in a very difficult position.
Now, added to that, there are a few groups that are working the background to either smuggle women to safety and freedom or to bring down the Republic of Gilead. If you even hint at sympathizing with these groups to the wrong person, you can end up dead in a number of uncomfortable ways. Anyone can be a spy or informer to the Republic, so Offred has to be very very sure of someone before she makes even the smallest comment outside of the accepted proper responses. This cloak and dagger type stuff definitely added to the tension of the story and brought out another dimension, one that was especially relevant to the ending.
My one criticism is that the tale does jump around a lot on the time line. It makes sense as Offred’s daily life triggers this memory or that, so staying true to the character meant jumping all over the time line. However, there were pieces I had trouble fitting together until much of the story had passed and some other close-in-time-line memory was revealed. So on one hand I get why the author laid it out this way; on the other hand there is already plenty here for me to enjoy and mull over, so why jumble up the time line so very much?
Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. Some parts of it were a little tough to read. So many women losing basic rights and yet that appears to have been instigated by women. To some extent, this new government that oppresses women is held in place by women; not just their quiet acceptance of it but also by the active consent of many. The final epilogue provided some additional views on the Republic of Gilead. Without spoiling anything, I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book. It gave a satisfying ending to the tale.
Narration: Claire Danes made a very good Offred. She imbued the character with emotion, especially when that character was forbidden from showing any outward emotion. There’s only a handful of male voices, but they were believable. Danes never showed any hesitancy over the difficult scenes, of which there are several.
What I Liked: Plenty of food for thought here; Offred is a very interesting character; not everything is laid out and revealed at once; layers of control; Handmaids are set on high and yet have no freedoms; underground movements; the final epilogue.
What I Disliked: It does jump around the time line quite a bit.
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