The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Coming at the climax of the story as it does, and providing Offred at last with some measure of happiness and warmth, it would be perverse to argue that the author does not wish her readers to respond positively to the passion between her central character and Nick. If this were not clear enough from the presentation of their relationship, it is surely so symbolically from the fact that the two are the only mating couple in the novel to successfully conceive a child, and, furthermore, that Nick helps Offred to escape from the power of the Gilead regime. It is her extraction from his household, moreover, that seals the Commander’s fate. This is certainly the implication behind Serena Joy’s final words to Offred: ‘“Bitch,” she says. “After all he did for you.”’ (46:276). The reader may assume that Nick will attempt to blame the Commander for Offred’s sudden disappearance, and, by now, he will have plenty of evidence of wrongdoing against him to make his accusation believable. The ‘Historical Notes’ reveal that Waterford ‘met his end’ for, among other things, ‘harbouring a subversive’ (not, be it noted, two subversives) – and this, it can be presumed, is the sole surviving official reference to Offred herself (291). The complexities of romantic love have led to the fall of one of the leading figures of Gilead – and, within less than a decade and a half, the whole regime will be gone.

The Handmaid’s Tale has much within it to provoke the thoughts of readers on such issues as feminism, power, gender, fertility, sexual politics and the like. It is a great deal more than a piece of romantic fiction, but it is nonetheless fascinating to appreciate how much the inner workings of this text – its plot and characterisation in particular – work around recognisable types from that genre, and – even more significantly – how the text seems to treat romantic love as a force powerful enough to topple even the most brutal of totalitarian regimes. In this respect, it offers a very human riposte to Orwell’s far more pessimistic Nineteen Eighty-Four , one of the most abiding images of which is Winston shouting wildly to his torturers, ‘Do it to Julia! Not to me!’ (Part 3, Chapter 5). Love, in The Handmaid’s Tale , does not offer the reader a ‘happy-ever-after’ ending, but it does at least offer the possibility of Offred’s survival and freedom, and the survival and freedom, too, of her child, as well as the success of her lover in undermining the stability of a tyrannical regime.

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