I’m about to start teaching this novel to an A Level set, and so I’m re-reading it for the first time in about ten years. I loved it when I first read it in the late nineties, and I love it now. There isn’t a notebook big enough for all the ideas it generates. Since my last reading, we’ve had the brilliant TV adaptation, and the very satisfying follow-up, The Testaments. All this means that this read is very different to all the previous ones – I now have very clear ideas of the Waterfords’ house, the look of Gilead itself, and Aunt Lydia is now indelibly Ann Dowd.
Whilst it is a fact that I cannot now find my own visual version – so successfully did the TV adaption work – I am surprised by how much I had forgotten of the original. Luke is far from the perfect husband – Offred’s memory of him wanting to have sex the day after she has lost her job, an event which prefaces all the other freedoms she will lose, is telling. Professor Pieixoto is insufferably smug. And, as a handmaid, Offred is at first not as rebellious than she will become later on, certainly less so than she is when played by Elizabeth Moss, who does supressed insolence better than anyone. The dry observations about her predicament are present, but she is also still learning how her predicament actually plays out, and she is scared.
The narrative is constructed carefully by Offred, who is aware that the way she tells her story is one of the few things she can try to control for herself (although Atwood’s epilogue later plays with this too): ‘It didn’t happen that way either. I’m not sure how it happened, not exactly. All I can hope for is a reconstruction’. It is clear that this is a woman struggling to maintain her own sense of identity. She wants to get her story straight, but she cannot see how her story can end, or who she can entrust it to.
It is not until Chapter 16 that the reality of the Ceremony, and Offred’s role in Gilead, is fully confirmed, and I still remember the visceral shock that I had as a young woman when I read that chapter. The shock in reading it today is how much closer the world of Gilead now feels – far closer than it did in the late nineties. Although I knew Atwood had said that everything in the novel had already happened somewhere, it still felt remote. Now, well …
I’m looking forward to seeing what my students make of it – I almost envy them the very first reading – and I’m very glad it’s on the syllabus. It is a very important book.