When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was a teenager. In a few years, I would start to keep records about my reading: a log and handwritten (or typed( passages that I favoured along the way. The log in a notebook (usually practical rather than pretty) and the notes beginning with a light pencil line in the margin and a list of page numbers so I could relocate the passages and copy them (finally, erasing the pencil marks after notetaking).
These handwritten pages are either from my 1993 or 2004 reread (what you can glimpse in the photograph). I’ve always reread the same copy, a 1986 oversized paperback, Houghton Mifflin U.S. (maybe the American paperback was released before the Canadian paperback, sometimes that happened). And I have an e-file with passages too. So the page numbers correspond across the years.
It’s been interesting to see which passages resonated with which reading. At some point, the disruption in Offred’s relationship with her husband and her memories about their married life (pre-Gilead) were of particular interest. At some point, I found the intrigue (would either her present-day romance or the Commander’s illicit behaviour be discovered) most appealing. At some point, I was fascinated with the glimpses of the resistance efforts. At some point, I was obsessed about the small snippets about how Gilead worked: no single siege of world-building, but in small snippets, we learn about everything from currency and grocery shopping, to education and rituals.
Over the years, the writing of the book – the shaping of it, the crafting of it – became the most interesting element for me. I still wanted to read the story, but (maybe partly because I remembered what happened, increasingly clearly) I wanted to study the storytelling.
Once I began to recognize other layers to the book, I peered harder, eager to see more. So, about the world-building, for instance, once I realized that the way that Atwood releases that information to us, as readers, in glimpses, reflects the way that even the most observant handmaid assembles her knowledge of the world (i.e. what is visible from the restricted vision offered by the winged headpiece). Well, I was all in, keen to unravel more details like this.
It’s not necessary. One doesn’t have to peel back the layers of Margaret Atwood’s construction: one can simply enjoy the story. After all, it’s a compelling story. An archetypal story. Can she endure? What is she enduring? Will she survive? Maybe she’ll resist? How might she escape? These are burning questions.
For readers who read primarily for entertainment: this is a page-turner. And for readers who read primarily for information: the story being based on real-life events, invites historians and social scientists to recognize the author’s recreations and allusions. For writers: there are plenty of layers to consider (structure, characterization, language, themes, threading). These different access points are one of the reasons that I believe this book has endured.
There are a couple of elements which particularly have caught my interest on this read. The way time is dealt with and experienced.
Did I even notice this before? The way it’s measured in bells, yes. But also the references in the story (like when she imagines the Commander’s wife’s knitting being ripped out nightly so that she can reknit it the next day – weaving allusion, anyone?).
Maybe I’ll share more about this another day. It seems like half my notes are related to this. And also the way time’s experienced by readers. Not least of which being that the contents of the book seem to fly past. What a grim tale: how quickly we devour it. (I’ve heard some readers make this observation of The Testaments too.)
Something else that I hadn’t registered the same way on earlier readings, is the attention Atwood pays to the idea that the tenets of Gilead may resonate with some elements of Christian theology (the Puritans were an inspiration) but that Gilead was warring with some Christians as well.
As a younger reader, I was not attentive to this kind of distinction; I wasn’t equipped to recognize divergent views within a religion. Over the years, I must have gradually come to understand how divergent belief systems can be, even among theists who share a belief in the same creator: this stands out to me now, in an era when so many people are overlooking or misunderstanding or ignoring the distinction between the religion of Islam and radical and extremist Islamic sects.
Which leads me to the aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale which caught my interest hard and fast on this rereading: “Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or.”
So on page eight, I am interested, yes, in the idea that, in the mid-80s, readers have a glimpse of Atwood’s early interest in prison systems. (Soon after, we would meet Grace Marks in Alias Grace. And, more recently, we have her retelling of The Tempest in Hag-Seed and The Heart Doesn’t Last.)
But what I am most interested in here is how she has identified this tendency towards either/or thinking, which seems, to me, to be at the heart of the divisiveness that proliferates on- and offline these days.
This is what I’m thinking about most at all, as I continue to turn the pages in my rereading of The Handmaid’s Tale in 2019. My notes this time around are more fragmented, more disconnected from the text itself: I put down the book more often. To revisit, to revise. To fret, to reframe. To question. To wonder.
If you, too, have been rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, what has stood out for you in this reading? If you have recently read it for the first time, what drew you to reading and surprised you about the book?