What I love most about The Handmaid's Tale is the hidden breakthroughs of emotion along the way. The narrator is a young woman full of memories, thrust into a world where suppression is survival. Her “real” name and appearance are never revealed (although, for this blog, I’ll call her by her “fake” name, Offred). Her tone, as shaped by her circumstances, is often matter-of-fact. She accepts that “...there’s no escaping it. Time’s a trap, I’m caught in it” (152). Her use of short sentences is reflective of her self-discipline and ability to keep herself from dilly-dallying on anything beyond her control. Although she often thinks about the past, she is very grounded when trying to cope with the present. She rarely cries, never complains, and she is constantly on watch for small moments of freedom and possibility. One such example is her routine of smuggling her dinner butter into the toe of her shoe and using it later as lotion, under the hope that “as long as we (the women of society) do this...we can believe that we will someday get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire” (105). Although this is a quiet, discreet action, it is still solid rebellion. Although Offred is calm in this routine, my heart races on her behalf; as a reader, it is a breakthrough to see this character, so talented at dealing with and accepting difficulty, show defiance. Her tone has shifted from matter-of-fact to slightly more wistful and hopeful. However, above all, one of the most emotional moments of the book was when Offred sees a photograph of her daughter, whom she has been separated from since infancy, and she realizes that her daughter does not even remember her. She describes herself as “nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a care-less child too near the water...I can’t bear it, to have been erased like that” (242). In this moment, Offred has entirely shed her matter-of-fact, collected demeanor, and she allows emotion to wash her over. She is no longer using short sentences, and she describes herself in an open manner, using long analogies and touching phrases.
The reason that countless women, such as Offred, are forced into prostitution in The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening drop in fertility rates. Although there are many developing countries where overpopulation is a demanding problem, there are also many developed countries where the opposite is true. According to The World Factbook, Singapore currently has the world’s lowest total fertility rate at .83. Higher than Singapore, but still below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1, the United States has a fertility rate of 1.87. Given these numbers, it is possible that in some countries in the future, decreasing population size will become just as urgent a problem as it is in this dystopian novel. Unlike in this novel, prostitution may never become the primary solution, but governments may still be tasked with finding solutions and strongly encouraging women to childbear may still become part of the future culture.
This book was particularly special because it not only highlights timeless emotional struggles about loss, nostalgia, and hope, but also depicts a young woman living in a world that has chosen a difficult solution to a population problem that our world may one day face.
MLA Citation:“Country Comparison: Total Fertility Rate.” The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 2017.