"The Handmaid's Tale" is a novel that is largely dependent upon creating a bond between it's characters and the reader; in my opinion the novel would not reach it's full potential or have full impact unless the reader was empathising with the characters and situation throughout. Ergo, Atwood uses several literary techniques to ensure that all but the most hardhearted of readers cannot fail to empathise, not only with the plight of the handmaidens, but virtually all other characters in this bleak dystopian novel.
The most immediately obvious technique is discovered straight away when the reader turns to the contents page. The novel is set out in the form of a diary or journal, instantly a sense of empathy will be created, as Offred, the main character, is communicating directly with the reader, "I", or "We" are the terms of reference used throughout the novel, as Offred narrates, and this enhances the personal feeling. The opening sentence of the first chapter is startlingly bleak, "We slept in what had once been the gymnasium." From this the reader can instantly surmise that something is amiss, and thenceforth views the dystopian world of Gilead through Atwood's intensely vivid descriptive prose, which is another technique that is used to great effect throughout the novel. Atwood describes Gilead through almost every sensory medium, in minute detail. Staying with the description of the gymnasium that the handmaidens sleep in; "The pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls.", and "...a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style....a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light." Atwood pummels the reader's imagination with these sensory perceptions, and places us firmly in Offred's world, and as we are drawn in, we can experience the emotions of the characters.
As this journal continues, Offred's innermost thoughts are expressed, as one would only express a true feeling to oneself. The reader has access to these feelings and thoughts, and so can begin to learn just what it is like to live in this world. Offred knows that she should react in certain ways to any given situation, and does so with the air of long time practise, but the reader knows what she is really feeling. This is shown numerous times throughout, an example being in chapter 6, where we are introduced to "the Wall", a wall where the non-conformist members of the society are hanged from hooks, with cards describing their sins, "[We] stand and look at the bodies. It doesn't matter if we look: We're supposed to look..." The situation requires a reaction, and Offred gives the correct one, whilst knowing in her thoughts that she is not doing this because she wants to, but because it is expected of her. As well as allowing the reader to experience Offred's inner non-conformism, the reader is also submerged in her sense of loneliness and isolation, which Atwood reinforces in almost every situation. Offred cannot bear her solitary existence, and although she tries hard to block out her feelings, this proves an impossible task, in chapter 2 she imagines the simple act of making small talk with the household helpers, the Marthas, and concludes, "How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An exchange, of sorts." She hungers for the most simplistic of human social activities, which have been denied to her in the name of conformity, and the reader cannot help but feel her agonising loneliness
Although the novel is obviously fiction, the reader can empathise with Offred in that her life before the Republic of Gilead was created, was much the same as the lives that we lead now, she has tasted our freedom, but has now had that ripped away from her, this is particularly eminent during chapter 5, when Offred and her shopping partner encounter a party of Japanese tourists, the women wearing knee-high skirts, "...and I can't help staring, it's been a long time since I've seen skirts that are short on women...the legs...nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant..." Offred's amazement at this site is a stark reminder of the highly puritan attitudes in this society. Offred feels, "repelled" by the "nakedness" of these women, which is completely alien to the reader, as their dress seems perfectly normal. Offred then muses, "I used to dress like that. That was freedom." This indicates to the reader just how much Offred has lost, even her clothing is now dictated to her. This kind of repression is shocking and reminds the reader of how much we take for granted, and how it must feel to be in Offred's position.
Despite her confusion and loneliness throughout the novel, the reader cannot help but be impressed by Offred's strength. Her determination to resist the social conditioning imposed by the government of Gilead despite the soul destroying life she is forced to lead is heartwarming, and more than once the reader must question themself, could they stay sane and handle the pressures as Offred has done? In spite of the mind nullifying boredom and isolation that she lives with daily, Offred attempts to cope with it in several ways. At first she refuses to attach herself to the situation, "The door of the room - not my room. I refuse to say my...is locked." By refusing to label anything as being her own, Offred is attempting to detach herself from her own reality, she is not part of it, and will not associate her own being with the situation, rather, she is just a character in a story, although later, as the society begins breaking her down, she admits that she cannot uphold that way of thinking. One of the techniques Offred uses to staunch her boredom is so desperate that the reader comes to realise just how stupifyingly monotonous her life really is, "I divided the room into sections, in my head. I allow myself one section a day. This one section I would examine with the greatest minuteness..." The lengths that Offred goes to in order to keep sane is quite staggering, and provides food for thought for the readers of the book, who live in our world of hundreds of television channels and other distractions to cure our 'boredom'. Atwood here shows us what real boredom can be, and to what extremes one may go to stave it off. Also, as mentioned earlier, Offred lives many of her waking hours in her past, memories of her this giving her the strength she requires to cope with her present, and providing a spark of hope that perhaps one day things will return to as they were.
I feel that Atwood has quite brilliantly created a strong sense of empathy between the reader and the text. By constantly contrasting the future with the past, and displaying what effect an existence such as Offred's can have, along with powerfully evocative descriptive language, Atwood has painted a portrait of an unimaginable dystopia. Yet through Atwood's prose, one can imagine all too vividly living in it, indeed, it is a shocking reminder of just how much we take for granted.