The Handmaid’s Tale: A Work of Empathy

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Work of Empathy June 14, 2017


As I write this, I’m eagerly waiting for the final episode of Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale to drop on Hulu. I wasn’t an Atwood fan three months ago. I barely knew anything about The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d read a short synopsis of the novel at one point, and it sounded ham-fisted, more like preaching than art. I hadn’t read book, seen the film or any of the other adaptations. However, I started watching the series when I saw all the positive reviews. After four episodes, I picked up the novel– and I put it down finished twenty-four hours later. The television series, though its plot differs from the novel in a few respects, has completely engrossed me from the beginning until now. I can’t remember a time when I’ve been this excited about anything, while at the same time dreading the horror of it this much.

What is it about The Handmaid’s Tale that I find so engaging?

Of course, it’s partially the fact that it’s very well-written. The novel The Handmaid’s Tale is barely over three hundred pages, and every page is written flawlessly. The television series builds on that firm foundation; the dialogue, battling as it often does with Offred’s cynical internal monologue, is spot on and extremely quotable. In a line that appears both in the book and the television show, Offred observes:

You can wet the rim of a glass, and run your finger around the rim, and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like, the sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.

Rarely have I heard trauma and exhaustion explained so deftly.

The Hulu series takes the material provided by the book and expands greatly on it; one-dimensional characters are expanded into robust, complex characters with their own side plots. Ends left suspensefully loose in the novel are tied up in the series, in ways that only lead to further questions and suspense. The actors are up to the task; Elisabeth Moss plays a stunning Offred, backed by a supporting cast equally up to the task. The cinematography nerve-wrackingly intimate, and refuses to let us look away. It’s the most beautiful portrayal of a nightmare that one could wish for.

But I think that what sets The Handmaid’s Tale apart, is its focus. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about people who are helpless.

Atwood’s novel and the Hulu series tell us next to nothing about the figures who founded the dystopian nation of Gilead. Their personalities are not revealed to us in any depth; their motivations are barely mentioned in passing. Nor do the novel or series spend any time telling us much about the powerful people who appear in the story itself– Commander Waterford, a powerful leader in Gilead, gets no character development at all. His wife, Serena Joy, gets a little in the book and significantly more in the series. But the real main characters are the Handmaids, a class of women who are worse off than concubines, “two-legged wombs” as Atwood puts it.

The Handmaids don’t have any power at all to shape their society. They are forbidden to read, as all the women of Gilead are. Their uniforms feature stiff bonnets that function like a horse’s blinders, making them barely able to look at their surroundings. They do not have their own names, but rather take titles derived from the names of the men they serve. They are forbidden to display any kind of personality. Other members of Gilead’s society are forbidden to treat them as friends. The Handmaids’ entire function is to be raped once per month, to become pregnant and carry a baby to term as quickly as possible, have the baby taken from them,  and then to be assigned to a new household where they’re impregnated again.

And these are the main characters of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the main character, is completely helpless to change her situation or anything happening around her in the book; in the television series, she is a little more plucky, but most often still powerless. Offred and her fellow handmaids are, for the most part, people to whom things happen to rather than people who do things. They can stage small acts of rebellion, like carving messages on the walls of a closet or rubbing butter on their skin when they’re denied hand lotion, but they ultimately cannot influence the world they live in. Even a horrific event halfway through the series, where a rebellious handmaid momentarily wreaks havoc and causes one grisly death, ends with that handmaid’s arrest and life going back to business as usual for the remaining women. The Hulu series has already been renewed for a second season, so I imagine that this will change and the characters will be involved in a large-scale rebellion, but as it stands now, with a few exceptions, the handmaids are victims rather than heroes.

And they are the stars of The Handmaid’s Tale. They are the characters we care about; the ones whose lives we’re allowed to see intimately. They are the ones the audience cheers for and suffers with. Margaret Atwood has crafted an exciting, suspenseful, deeply horrifying piece of art which is about the victims of a totalitarian state rather than the valiant revolutionaries or anyone else.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fascinating work of fiction, told from the viewpoint of the most helpless victims of societal upheaval. It’s a work that humanizes powerless people trapped in a situation of horrific abuse.

That’s the truly chilling, subversive and engaging thing about The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a tale about people who suffer at the hands of the powerful– people we’re not supposed to notice.

(image: a still from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, used in accordance with fair use principles.) 

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