The protagonist doesn’t have a name any more, she is only known as Offred. Because she belongs to Fred. She’s a Handmaid, a woman who exists only to provide a child to the Commander, the man who controls her. Once she was free, once she had a family, jobs, property, a life – but all of that is gone in Gilead – now she is nothing more than a womb facing even greater ruin if she doesn’t produce that coveted child.
In her gilded cage, the only freedom she has is the memories of what was and a desperate fantasies of hope.
The writing has an interesting style, everything (except the very end) is in the woman’s POV (her real name is never revealed though she is forced to adopt the name Offred). This can make for a very confused viewpoint – but it’s an extremely good confused viewpoint. She spends so much of her time unable to do anything, expected to stare into space. She spends a lot of her time having to be silent and accepting of anything people force on her or as a silent witness to what is happening around her. She is a prisoner with no end in sight to her sentence – and she lives very much in her own head. The pasts she imagines for people, the memories she allows herself to be lost in, the possibly fictional futures she invents for Luke or Moira or anyone else around her all combines to really underscore the desperateness of her life. She needs these fictions, these fictions are the only things that bring her anything resembling hope and she needs that hope to keep going, to keep surviving, to hope to see another future.
Does it mean the narrative isn’t always easy to follow? No, because her life is very linear, it’s a life devoid of choices. It’s only when we follow the paths of her memories and dreams that we get the confusion that is inherent with freedom – because in her head is the only place she can be free. I think it’s a very deliberate writing choice and a very powerful one.
The pacing and introduction to the dystopia was excellently done, each part of the world being slowly revealed, wonderfully contrasting with how things were without ever having to be an info-dump. Everything is conveyed through natural thoughts from the protagonist - nothing felt contrived, nothing felt dubious, nothing felt forced. We see her helplessness not just from the rules of what she can and cannot do, but her petty little rebellions, even her dreams of rebellion - things which are so utterly minor but to her seem like such a grand transgressing. Just think obscenities of one in charge, dreaming of being able to steal a small, insignificant item just to have that power, just to be able to do something.
It’s incredible how many different issues are packed into this narrative without the narrative ever feeling either preachy or text book like or like the lessons have been pushed in. The overwhelming misogyny of the world has been displayed with all its inter-connecting intricacy. The emphasis on purity and chastity for women, reducing women to nothing but breeding stock – putting the Handmaids into gilded cages for their precious wombs – but still reviling and loathing them for having sex; needing them to have sex for that previous fertility, but still hating them for having sex all.
There’s a huge element of how the misogynist culture works because there are women willing to collude with it – whether through their own status being elevated because of it, or because they thought of themselves as the exception or even through genuine programming through “moral” values. One of the constant messages is that this “transitional” generation will be the only problem because future women will be raised knowing know difference. This power of youthful indoctrination is emphasised by things like the banning
But this also pulls into our world today as well – rape culture and the overwhelming victimisation of women and the vast sexualisation of women. Reducing women to objects, to fetishes, to things that so pervades society. From that it draws another excellent lesson – how people will use these issues, and other terrible issues, to enforce their own, equally terrible agenda. How oppressors will do “what is best for you” and in doing so push the oppressed further into cages; on multiple occasions the Gileadan powers that be are extremely good at invoking the horrors that are done to women as a motivation to further oppress, cage and, ultimately, control women in the name of “protecting” them.