I’m not sure I can really explain how much “The Handmaid’s Tale” means to me. (To clarify: I mean the book. Always the book.) I certainly wasn’t able to explain its significance a few years ago, when I met Margaret Atwood during her visit to Penn State. All I was able to get out was “Thank you. This is my favorite book,” and I knew that was inadequate.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” follows a woman living in “Gilead,” America’s new patriarchal regime. It’s set in the near future, when most women are mysteriously sterile. Women who have proven fertile are forced to be the surrogates—or “handmaids”—for the government’s leaders. “Offred” is given a new name after the man of the house, and is no longer allowed to read or write. Her survival in Gilead, where everyone could be a traitor, depends entirely on her ability to procreate.
I first read Offred’s story when I was fourteen, and—as most people are in high school—absolutely, profoundly miserable. Admittedly, having to survive three more years of cafeteria food, math classes and extreme awkwardness aren’t on the same level as dictatorship, oppression and total lack of reproductive freedom. But still, being a teenager is horrific, uncomfortable, and at times agonizingly embarrassing and painful. I had braces, acne, no self-confidence and an inability to speak up in class — do I really need to describe it, or do you wincingly recognize what I’m talking about?
I address you, the one who’s listening to this, because when “The Handmaid’s Tale” broke the fourth wall to speak to “you,” it felt like Offred wanted to hear my own thoughts as badly as she wanted to share hers.
Reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the first time felt like a relief, like the first gasp of breath after a long time swimming underwater. The book’s ending—with an ambiguity that at first frustrated me—offered hope for a character I’d become connected to. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” brutal and beautiful, was salvation until I could get to college. If there is a patron literary saint of teenage girls who want assurance they can survive high school, Offred wins, hands-down.
Today, Atwood’s story has swept through television screens across the country. The story is lauded for its parallels to issues in our current society – so much so that Atwood herself has addressed it. The book, like Offred’s story, has survived long past the time when it could have gone extinct. I helped, very slightly, with this when I organized a collaboration between Hulu and Penn State’s chapter of our collegiate blogging site, Her Campus, to screen the “Handmaid’s Tale” television pilot on campus in 2017.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is not just a tale for women—we don’t live in Gilead, and the ability to recognize strong writing isn’t gender-restricted—but its themes resonate most for women. Offred isn’t a character you want to become: her life isn’t magical, or enviable. She wants freedom. Flowers. Love. Oranges. The power to express herself.
And that’s what she’s helped give to me, and countless others.
Reviewer Gabby Barone is a junior at Penn State majoring in print and digital journalism.