The Handmaid's Tale, the book, the series, and the sequel

Margaret Atwood is on another level. Truly. I have never had the pleasure of reading the work of a truly singular and well-versed author, with a special talent for vocabularies.

I actually watched the television series first, sometime ago when it first came out. Only the first season, and I found it truly remarkable. But I lost touch with the following seasons, until the release of season four last year. With the pandemic, and a little too much time on our hands, I decided to rewatch it from the first season to the fourth.

And then, I decided to read the books. Just to see how the series came to life from the original pages of the book.

Imagine being Atwood, to start writing it in 1984, as an afterthought of World War II. How controversial it must have been to create a theocratic totalitarianism government out of the ruins of Cambridge. But it was certainly a genius of her to create a dystopian world from an account of a survivor, or witness. To write in such a way that makes the readers fully resolved to empathize and reimagine the nuance of it from the perspective of a victim, or a heroine.

A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. -- p. 8 Handmaid’s Tale

Above is a striking example of how efficient and concise her style of writing. In one paragraph, not only did she describe to her readers the room of our precious Handmaid, but also her state of mind. Our heroine is clearly in a survival mode. She also described the heavy restrictions and suffocating pressures imposed on an individual living in Gilead.

After reading through the pages, I applaud the producers and writers of the show. As someone who have read the books and watched the shows, I certainly thank them for filling in the gaps and shadows created by the book. As it was a testimony, and rightfully written as such, there were certain gaps and undescribed technical accounts of “how” events unfold. The writers of the show, have taken great care in filling in these “intervals”, in a plausible yet theatrical way, which makes it a most engaging television series.

There were certain differences, such as the story of how June escapes Gilead with Baby Nicole, or how June helped the escape of many children out of Gilead, or the death of Commander Waterford by the hands of the escaped victims, that were not inscribed in the book but exists in the series. These are additional breath of fresh air to the story, I think, though people may not agree.

Another thing I took a note of was that the creators of the show retained most of the original narrative inscribed in the book. The above paragraph, for example, was spoken for by our heroine in the show, as she was standing in her attic room.

Now girls, a little of fangirling won’t hurt anybody, right? But I have to say, I really love the chemistry of June and Nick portrayed by Elizabeth Moss and Max Minghella in the show. In the book, we have a sense of the attraction between them, but as our heroine was (supposedly) recording the statements for Luke (her husband, pre-Gilead), she did not describe in much detail what else happened between them. We also understood enough that she was making a life out of anything she can hold on to while she was in Gilead. And both the book and the show truly pictured that melancholy love and attraction in such a subtle but almost like a necessity, something to keep our heroine sane in the twists and turns she had to endure.

The Testaments

The sequel of the story, The Testaments, was another proof of Atwood literary accomplishments (as if she needs another). The book is a compilation of witness statements from the three central characters of June’s story, Aunt Lydia, Baby Nicole, and Agnes Jemima. Now imagine this, you have to tell three perspectives in one book, one of which was an Aunt, a leader of a heretic brigade, another was a girl that grew up in a bubble that is Gilead, and an oblivious survivor that grew up observing Gilead from the outside world.

I was disappointed at first, because I was looking forward to continue June’s journey in the sequel. However, as I went through the book, I realized it was probably for the best. We have to understand that the Handmaid’s tale, although it was a personal story of our June, it was also a story of a silent uprising, against the tyrannical violence of men that governs Gilead. June, represented the fate of Handmaids that had to endure myriad of injustice acts, imposed upon them by self-righteous people of power. We were reminded once again, that this was a war on Gilead, and what they claimed to be their holy (yet hypocritical) values, which became their foundation to govern.

Atwood was very proficient in switching between the language of an Aunt, who was once a Judge turned Mayday spy, and teenagers that are now the present of Baby Nicole and Agnes. It takes a great deal of empathy and energy to go into the minds of these three characters, and figure out what they would do and how they would think, whilst witnessing the many deranged things that usually happen in Gilead. There were many Bible reference and inscriptions, and made up hymns and nursery rhymes, which truly resuscitate and enriched the theocratic cultural nuance of Gilead.

I was slightly confused about the timeline and the age of our characters (Aunt Lydia must be pretty old in this book), and about the switching perspectives of our narrators. And only because of this, I may say I prefer the first book. However, both are equally beautifully written, especially due to the many vocabularies I learned from Aunt Lydia. She was truly erudite! You will like her in this book, maybe.

It’s certainly exciting to see what the creators of the show will come up with for our next season of the Handmaid’s tale. We might see more of Nick and June, as they try to overturn Gilead, from inside out or outside in. And I believe, we might also see our dear Aunt Lydia, growing into an even more fearsome character to behold, as she reveals her true intentions as written in the Testaments. I am not really sure if we will see Baby Nicole and Agnes, as they may want to try to keep them for later seasons. However, I do think we will understand more about Mayday and the Underground Femaleroad.

To conclude, Margaret Atwood, in my eyes, is truly a masterful literary proficient that is singular in her style of writing. And she has made a fascinating dystopian world and a whole new government with only a pen in her hands, in a time where wars and unruly leaders still resonates fear and pain in the minds of her readers. As such, she deserves the highest recognition, as the best female writer for me personally, and that you will not regret picking up these books in your spare time.


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