In Praise of Old(er) Books: Part 2

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Tale of Two Handmaids


Offred’s Narrative and June’s Adventures

Rereading a book after watching/hearing/being exposed to an adaptation of the original can yield insights into both versions of the work.

What struck me on my latest rereading of Margaret Atwoords’ The Handmaid’s Tale?”

Without passing judgment on the recent television adaptation of Atwood’s novel, I implore anyone who has not yet read the book to READ THE BOOK before seeing either television or movie adaptations.

A well-made television series or movie can stamp on the minds of the audience a version/vision of the story so definitive that it is almost impossible for audience members to form their own independent images of the characters, places and plots of the original written work. (I first read the book mumble, mumble decades ago and yet, on my most recent reread, Aunt Lydia spoke with the voice of Ann Dowd.)

In the television series, we (and others) soon learn the ‘old world’ name by which Offred was once known, June. In Atwood’s book we never learn what her “before name” had been, and she pointedly never reveals it to anyone. For the rest of this piece I will refer to the Handmaid portrayed by Elisabeth Moss in the television series as June and the Handmaid whose narrative we read in Atwood’s book as Offred.

There are key and telling differences between June and Offred.

As Kit Whitfield writes in her analysis of the first line of the book  

… Offred is both an intimate narrator and a reduced one, just one speck in a whole society. Even in her first sentence, nameless Offred is part of a ‘we,’ at the mercy of others — even her creator. It’s the tension between the vividness of human experience and the cool wit of social commentary that creates so compelling a dystopia. If not even your author will grant you a solo spotlight, and not even you can speak of your experience in the first person singular, you are lost indeed.

Whitfield, Kit. “First sentences: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.” November 28, 2011

The television series attempts to ‘liven things’ and open them up. It takes Offred out of the limited environment (physical and emotional) she inhabits in the book, allowing that audience to see the differences between Gilead and our world. Effectively, the Offred of the book is NOT the June/Offred of the television series.

Offred says of her narrative, “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 more about love, or sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.” (Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale, Fawcett, 1985. p 343)

The television show is the story of June, a former wife, mother and worker. It is the story of what she does, how she responds, and how she fights back. It is a story of action and active attempts at self redemption.

The book is a Vermeer, a study in interiors. Offred is reactive, not active. She chooses NOT to share her name from the ‘before times’ with the putative audience or with other characters in the narrative. She positions herself not just as an unreliable narrator but working from an unreliable memory. She is unmoored (purposely, by the very society she inhabits) from anything that would ground her in ‘the facts of the world.” She looks forward to the glimpses of news she sees in Serena’s sitting room without believing the accuracy of any of the reports.

June is an active agent. She does things, she confronts. The Serena Joy of the television series is also an active agent, someone who took part in the planning and execution of the coup that initiated Gilead and the designing of its laws and social structures. Moira in the television show is an active agent, fighting back against the system and escaping to the promised land of Canada. She attempts to change things. Rather than being shown as an active participant in the creation of Gilead, the Serena Joy of the book is older, arthritic, spending her time gardening, smoking and socializing with other wives. And the Canada of the television series is a promised land for its current citizens to be proud of, receiving Gileadean refugees with almost openly defiant arms.

All of these are different in the book. Of Canada, the ‘scholars from the future’ describe Canada’s stance quite differently from that envisaged in the TV series. As they discuss the ultimate fate of Offred, “it remains obscure. Was she smuggled over the border of Gilead, into what was then Canada, and did she make her way thence to England? This would have been wise, as the Canada of that time did not wish to antagonize its powerful neighbor, and there were roundups and extraditions of such refugees.

I am not arguing that people should not watch the television series or that it does not have something to offer that the book does not. I am arguing that the book and television series differ so fundamentally that one can argue that that they are the tales of Two Handmaids, both called at one point in their life, Offred.

Or one could argue that both the book and the television series are works of science fiction and each of them takes place in an alternative timeline to our own.

Atwood’s book is not diminished nor made redundant by the existence of the television series. For those who would like to to explore the similarities and differences between the two, argue with me as to my conclusions or simply enjoy Atwood’s writing the book (along with critiques and analyses) is available in a variety of formats at the Chatham-Kent Public Library as are DVDs of the television. Those who would prefer to own a copy of the book an purchase it through A purchase through this link supports Turns & Tales.

Maggie Young

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top