The Handmaid’s Tale

Let me start off this review by apologizing for apparently not reviewing any books since I finished will grayson, will grayson in September. Whoops. I promise I’ve actually read quite a few books(Mia can testify, since I returned all the books she has sent me, up until the ones she brought out in November), but I keep forgetting that this blog is ALSO about books! Whoopsidoodles! I started reading this one in Mexico, got a little bit more reading done on the place from Tucson, and then finished it up while utterly and completely sick as hell this weekend.

Despite that rather silly introduction, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve read in a long, long, long time. The novel takes place in America(Though it is not called as such, but considering specific states are mentioned and escape is suggested into Canada, it is definitely the US). I’m not clear if when the book was written it was the future, because the publication date is 1985, but there really aren’t clear dates, just hints(use of cassette tapes but additionally mentioning compact discs). It is a rough read. Not because the prose is unpleasant: Atwood’s style jives well with how I like to read, and the first person narration is an intimate way to tell this story. It’s rough because the world created is one that fills me with dread.

One day, a law is passed that says women can no longer hold property: their bank accounts are frozen and collectively, they are all “let go” from their job. Essentially, the government has stripped women of their rights, but there is, to me, a twist in how this is played. The protagonist, Offred(as she is called in the new world), lived in a time where women worked and had the vote, and was able to laugh at her mother’s feminist ways, and then had all of her rights taken from her. She remembers wearing jeans and working and going to university and so the world in which she lives is as strange to her as it is to us. This is what made the book so painful: envisioning our own government stripping women of their rights. From there it only gets worse: a creepy Christian sect becomes the official religion, first shipping Jews out, and then killing anyone who doesn’t convert/leave the country. This religion makes illegal sex for recreation, with the focus on procreation, to the extent that military men unable to make babies with their wives are given state-sanctioned vessels like Offred for the purpose of having a child.

It…isn’t as hard for me to believe as I wish it was, which is what makes it scary. Not to get too political, but between the NDAA eliminating due process for suspected terrorists(a term which will as likely as not be expanded greatly) and a new bill being considered in Congress that would allow citizenship to be revoked for convicted terrorists(frightening when you consider that movements like Occupy might be considered terrorist organizations by less savory governments for daring to protest), I struggle to conjure the disbelief necessary to make The Handmaid’s Tale just a book. For me, it is almost a warning, a reminder to be more aware of what the government is doing.

I would certainly recommend this novel to anyone. It will make you think, deeply, about the freedoms you currently have and how easily they can be taken away.

13 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. OMGOMGOMG I love this novel so much. It really is an amazing work, particularly if you read it side by side with Orwell’s 1984. THT is very much the feminist counterpoint to Orwell’s arguably more misogynistic (or at the very least male-centric) tale.

    Did you by chance read the Appendix at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale? If you didn’t, you absolutely should. It forms what I would argue is the linchpin of the story’s framework. I would argue that the Appendix is fundamental to any understanding of the novel’s larger point and purpose. =P

    Oryx and Crake is another fantastic Atwood novel.

  2. I read it many years ago, almost forgot it. Thanks for reminding me:)
    Great novel, pretty scarry. I remember the feeling I had back then, reading it.

  3. Margaret Atwood is a national treasure, and The Handmaid’s Tale is gut wrenchingly chilling. The calmness with which the laws are enacted and enforced makes it that much scarier (and, given the current political climate, that much more believable).

    If you’re looking for more Atwood to read, I really like The Edible Woman too.

    • *shudder* Oh dear. That and the news about whichever State in the US trying to make all abortions performed for any reason except mother’s health illegal. >_> Urgh.

  4. museumsaskew says:

    This novel takes place where I grew up in MA. When I was a freshman in college it was on the syllabus and (for some reason, I still don’t know why) the prof showed a slideshow of photos he’d taken from the area. Including…drumroll…one in which you could see me and my friends sitting in front of the town library! I remember shouting “Hey, that’s me!” and being really embarrassed as I tried to explain why I was in his photo.

    I highly recommend following Atwood on Twitter, and reading Year of the Flood, but you have to read Oryx and Crake first.

  5. rubybastille says:

    I feel like a failure of a feminist for being less than blown-away by Atwood. I had to drag myself through “Year of the Flood” (possibly because I had no idea it was a sequel) and “Handmaid’s Tale,” while chilling, just…put me off.

    My big problem with it was how the dystopia came into being. Maybe it’s me being naive, but I had a very hard time believing that the men would react to the new laws the way they did. Offred’s husband especially – I haven’t read it in a year or so, but doesn’t he basically just shrug off the fact that she no longer has a job or money or rights? Atwood wrote it so the populace just kind of rolled over and let it happen, and I couldn’t get past that. It struck me as paranoid and too unrealistic, even for a science fiction novel.

    It was also really really really dark and depressing and I still need to recuperate before I try to read it again, at which point I might change my mind.

    • I think the reason I don’t read it as too far fetched is because I’m sure there were -some- dudes that were affronted, but I’ve been exposed to waaaay too much Men’s Rights campaigns to believe that there wouldn’t be enough men who would just gloat. That, the sheer number of pieces of abortion legislature that have been introduced in various states, and the number of dudes that I know who are either actively antifeminist or just don’t really care about whether women have equal rights…it isn’t so hard for me to believe. Which is really sad, and I want to expect better of 50% of the population. :/

      On the other hand, not liking a particular dystopian writer totes does not make you a worse feminist, anymore than enjoying films that fail the Bechedel Test makes you a worst feminist. :)

  6. I read THT in high school, was totally amazed, and I’ve been meaning to reread it for years. The only other Atwood I’ve read is The Blind Assassin and I highly recommend that, too.

    Also, in response to Ruby and your reply, there are plenty of women who fight feminists, too, that cancel out the male feminists.

  7. Margaret Atwood is a genius. Isn’t it wonderful that we have all of these rights to worry about losing, now, when for millennia we didn’t? Her other books are excellent, too.

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