The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

>> Saturday, July 07, 2012

TITLE: The Handmaid's Tale
AUTHOR: Margaret Atwood

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Futuristic version of the US
TYPE: Fiction

In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....
This is a 1986 book, but set a few years in the future. There have been big changes in those few years, and the US has become a theocracy, where women's bodies belong to the State and their childbearing capabilities are efficiently and systematically managed. Women of childbearing age, like our narrator, Offred, are farmed out to the elite.

This is a harrowing and terrifying read, but it was also excellent. It might have been written over 25 years ago, but it is scarily relevant. Atwood's vision of what had been happening before the revolution and the making of Gilead has quite a few elements that are definitely recognisable as the way our own world could potentially go. There's the environmental disasters (although the ones in the book are the 70s/80s-style water pollution and nuclear contamination kind of thing, rather than climate change), the increasing pornification of culture (with the easy access given by the internet, it's, if anything, more accessible these days - there's a whole generation of young men growing up with a mental image of the desirable woman who's got no body hair and pneumatic breasts and who'll engage in anal sex at the drop of a hat). I thought the fact that Atwood didn't portray the previous society as an utopia made her vision of the future much more believable.

Part of what makes it all especially awful it's that because it takes place so soon after the establishment of the new system, Offred can still remember what it was like before, when she had all those rights she didn't particularly value. The most chilling scenes for me were the ones told in flashback, when we see the beginning of the end, when rights started being taken away from women. The impotence, the disbelief that this could be happening, the sneaking suspicion that Offred's husband is not quite as appalled as he should be, all those hit you hard. In my case, even harder than what the world then turns into

There is only one element I thought wasn't great about this book. I had mixed feelings about how it becomes clear, both to us and to Offred, that her commander and many of the top elite aren't as devout as they appear, and are in fact quite corrupt and don't really believe in the doctrine they're preaching. Don't get me wrong, that was very believable, and it gave rise to some fantastic scenes (think Scrabble!), but I thought they would have all been even scarier if they had been true believers. Eh, well.

Finally, on that post-script. I heard an interview with Margaret Atwood not too long ago, and she spoke about the post-script being about bringing in some optimism, showing that Gilead was, indeed, gone, and also giving us some overview about what had happened, what the rationale had been, because Offred had such a narrow range of observation. She also spoke of the importance of recording women's history. I got all that, but to me, the main thing that struck me was the contrast between the detached academic tone, the little jokes the historians made about the events, and what we'd just been reading, the desperation and horror of actually living in that time.

Hmm, rereading what I just wrote, it's a very disjointed review, more random thoughts than a real review. Oh, well.



Lori 7 July 2012 at 08:14  

Scarily relevant is a good way to put it. Here in the States, you could see that this is where many would like to see us head. Terrifying.

It's a really great book, and when I first read it, I never would have thought we'd be living in a time where it moved into the realm of possibility. Maybe it's time for a reread.

Good review!

Lori 7 July 2012 at 08:14  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lori 7 July 2012 at 08:14  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rosario 7 July 2012 at 08:54  

Yep, terrifying that some people would see something like this as more a wish list than a dystopia!

Rosario 7 July 2012 at 08:56  

PS - Lori, I deleted the duplicates for you.

lakaribane 7 July 2012 at 14:25  

Ro, I love this book so much!!! And for many of the reasons you like it too.

Your comment about the husband makes me think of a recent discussion with my students. This is at an elite secondary school. And these girls think it's a logical and viable idea to sterilize and/or emprison the poor who have too many kids.

Two things. First, I really appreciated how realistically (IMO) MA portrayed the implementation of the dictatorship. That's EXACTLY how it happens. At first, you don't really notice, and when you do and contest, you get slapped so hard and so fast in the face, you are stunned. Then you learn to shut up and endure. Or die, physically or metaphorically. But the rebellion lives on in your head.

Also, about the ending. I felt it made the book even more scary. Because you've just lived it on the inside and now these people are questioning if it was real or if it was really "that bad". I saw it as an indictment of revisionism.

I had a brief difference of opinion with my friend T's husband. He's Scottish/English (as if that makes a diff to me but don't tell him that LOL) and he had this attitude that slavery was centuries ago and we should be over it or something. Oh, really?

I think this book poses the right questions on human rights, freedom, politics, femininity, survival, equality and "otherness".

The answers are up to us.

Rosario 8 July 2012 at 09:26  

lakaribane: thanks so much for your comment, quite a lot to think about. I think it's hard for people in well-functioning Western democracies to understand the slide into dictatorship. It feels like there's always a niggling "how could you let it happen??" thing there. And I do agree about the ending. It's stayed in my mind, and I always think of it when reading scholarship or journalism about earlier times.

Anonymous,  8 July 2012 at 13:49  

Adding my voice to the others: loved reading this book and I read it a long time ago. I would love to read more by this author but wouldn't even know where to start. --Keishon

Darlynne,  8 July 2012 at 17:00  

I had the same reaction many years ago when I read the book for the first time. The ending, with its disbelief at the then-situation was as shocking as anything else. You're right: readers of the book lived through it and fictional historians couldn't get their heads around it. This schism served two purposes: reassured me as a reader that we might weather something similar and simultaneously terrified me that the inability to recognize the symptoms would lead us right back there again.

Horror fiction doesn't always come from the pen of Stephen King and Paul Wilson.

Rosario 9 July 2012 at 06:57  

Keishon: I'll definitely be doing that myself. I've heard The Blind Assassin is good.

Darlynne: I think that's very right. We always think we're much cleverer that those people all those years ago. Oh, no, WE wouldn't let that happen, unlike them. And yet, as you said, we might not even recognise the signs that we're headed that way. And yep, this is scarier horror than anything those authors could come up with!

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