What I learned from Margaret Atwood

This is by no means a comprehensive discussion of all the elements and style that I admired in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s merely meant as a sort of reminder for myself of what I admired and hope to possibly incorporate in my own storytelling.

In my previous post I talked a lot about the element of truth in story. There’s a phrase used to describe the type of narrator Atwood used. She’s a mildly unreliable narrator. Mainly because she does not deliver basic facts (like actual names, places, details). Sometimes she’ll get most of the way through the story and then admit that she really has no clue and has only imagined the details of the story she shares. It makes for a fascinating narrator. Especially if this device is used well.

Offred’s unreliability is established near the middle of the novel after enough of the story has been told, yet I didn’t feel betrayed or annoyed by the shift. It seemed organic. Atwood created a situation that allowed Offred to reveal her story realistically, in pieces, as she grew more trusting of her audience.

This brings me to an element that I admire so much and hope that I’ll figure out how to do. Revealing the story. Or one of those words that work-shoppers hate “pacing”. It’s a struggle.  A common critique of books and movies is, “Well it slowed down somewhere near the middle, but the ending was really good.” Or as my friend Pam puts it, “Once I hit the denouement, I’m over it.” I didn’t feel that way about Handmaid’s Tale. Offred only offers glimpses of her history, yet the narrative is not hindered by these flashbacks.

(I’m sorry if that last paragraph may make no sense because I’m distracted by Stacy & Clinton on television. The woman on this show is unbelievable. )

Finally, Atwood has guts. Or maybe it is the nature of dystopias to have a dangling, open to the imagination ending. So, Offred, true to established form, doesn’t tell the end of her own story. But the reader is given a consolation prize in the form of an academic discussion of the Gileadean Coup and Offred’s transcribed memoir. It offers several possible endings for Offred and the other characters. And the thing Atwood has striven to make clear throughout the novel is that all three of them could be true, or not, but either way we’ll be prepared.

How do you feel about hanging endings? Unreliable narrators? Dystopias?


Summer Reading – The Handmaid’s Tale

So, I finally finished

I was so absorbed by the novel that I really ended up taking my time and enjoying it. The story is haunting, beautiful, and perfect.

A few years ago I read The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien.What I loved most about that novel appeared a little bit in this novel as well. That is: the nature of truth vs. story. What is true? And if the story you tell isn’t exactly true, can it still be truthful? For instance

The things I believe can’t all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way  of believing seems to me, right  now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.

This is also a belief of mine. This also may be untrue.

Fascinating! What Atwood is saying here through Offred is powerful stuff. Reading this so closely to Maus I & II already had me thinking about what it takes to cope through a traumatic event. Offred, having been removed of everything she has known, develops the best way she can to survive the Gileadean Takeover.

The story then chronicles Offred’s discovery of a way to thrive under oppression. Surviving and thriving are accomplished differently. In Offred’s case it seems easy to believe that her thriving is a disloyalty to everything that came before. But is it a crime to fall in love, to find hope again, when you’ve believed for so long the world around you was basically hell? It’s all speculative, to ask yourself what you would do in Offred’s situation. But that’s why this novel is so powerful. If the reader can imagine for a moment what they would do in Offred’s place, essentially how they would react to a totalitarian takeover, it may provide the reader an awareness of the world.

I’m not aware enough to conjecture the actual likelihood of a theocratic takeover outlined in The Handmaid’s Tale, however I believe that robbing anyone of the right to choose how to direct their own life is a great crime, one that I do not want to be part of perpetuating.

In the same vein, here is another part of the story that I loved:

Here is what I’d like to tell. I’d like to tell a story about how Moira escaped, for good this time. Or if I couldn’t tell that, I’d like to say she blew up Jezebel’s, with fifty Commanders inside it. I’d like her to end up with something daring and spectacular, some outrage, something that would befit her. But as far as I know that didn’t happen. I don’t know how she ended, or even if she did, because I never saw her again.


I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were more about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.

If you’ve been reading my blog posts for very long, or ever at all, you’ll know this idea of storytelling is a huge part of how I think. And let’s be honest, who hasn’t thought something like that second part? I’m willing to bet most people wish they could tell their stories to be more fascinating, grander, or more heroic. When faced with the opportunities to make our lives those things, we often back down. I’ll talk more about what I learned from her writing style Thursday. But for now I definitely suggest reading this book if you have the time.

I give it a  out of 5 for instruction and entertainment. I was pulled in and intrigued. That’s pretty good for a slim book.

Stop by tomorrow at 5 pm for another original poem by your’s truly .

Summer Reading – The Handmaid’s Tale

I’m 144 pages in to the 295 page The Handmaid’s Tale.

I don’t want to write anything in the way of a review until I’m finished. So, until then check out the trailer for Blue Like Jazz: The Movie. This is a project that I helped make happen. The movie is something I’m not only terribly excited about, but fiercely proud of. There’s something amazing to me about Don Miller and how he tells stories. I’d like to grow up to be like him… sort of.

See you tomorrow 🙂