Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we're without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth.  We ache.  Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby.  What confronts us now, now the excitement's over, is our own failure.  Mother, I think.  Wherever you may be.  Can you hear me?  You wanted a woman's culture.  Well, now there is one.  It isn't what you meant, but it exists.  Be thankful for small mercies.  (from The Handmaid's Tale, pages 163-164)

In the future, in a time of declining births, major pollution, and rampant sexual immorality, the U.S. government is overthrown and a new regime takes its place.  The government of Gilead places a high value on human life, and women are important only to the extent that they can conceive.  There are no sterile men, only barren women, and these Unwomen are sent to the "colonies," mainly to clean up toxic waste and essentially to die.  The new government insists it has freed women from the immorality that plagued their sex in years past (i.e. pornography, abortion, birth control), but it actually has taken away their freedom -- they're not allowed to read or write, for instance -- and made them prisoners.

There are different classes of women in Gilead.  The Wives and Daughters of the Commanders claim the highest status, followed by the Econowives, or the wives of the lower classes of men.  There also are the banished Unwomen, the prostitutes that entertain the officers at a secret club, the Marthas who handle the cooking and cleaning for the upper-class women, and the Aunts who are tasked with converting introducing women to the new way of life.  And then there are the Handmaids, who live in the homes of the Commanders and each month are forced to endure a freakish ceremony that hopefully will end with them becoming pregnant by the Commander -- which would ensure that they are never banished like an Unwoman.  A three-strikes-and-you're-out policy is in place for the Handmaids, who must endure the hatred of the Wives and turn any children they might have over to them to be raised.

Margaret Atwood's classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale, is told from the point of view of a Handmaid, Offred, whose name signifies that she belongs to the household of a Commander named Fred.  Readers never learn her real name, as she's been trained to do her "duty" and no longer think about or speak of her previous life, when she was Luke's second wife and the mother of a little girl.  Her family was broken up by the military instituting the new government, and she does not know the fate of her husband and daughter, only that her little girl is now someone else's daughter and that if she fails to conform, harm will come to them if they are still alive.

Offred's story drifts back and forth from the present to the past, giving readers a glimpse of what her life was like before the change in government and how she got where she is now.  Her memories torment her, and when opportunities present themselves to break up the monotony, she's not sure what to do.  There are Guardians and Eyes (similar to Hitler's Gestapo during World War II) watching every move she makes, and information must be passed through barely perceptible whispers as the Handmaids walk two-by-two on their daily errands.

I first read The Handmaid's Tale in college as part of a Women in Society Class at a time when I was writing a thesis on feminist theory.  It was my first foray into dystopian literature, and as a young woman studying the oppression of women over the centuries, the book made me mostly angry.  At the time, I had little in common with Offred.  As I read the book for the second time, however, I was better able to identify with Offred as a wife and a working mom.  Although it was hard for me to like Offred, mainly because she seemed cold and I wanted her to toughen up a bit and fight back, I could understand why she'd given in, how she'd do anything to prevent harm from coming to her daughter and husband -- despite the fact that the chances of her husband still being alive were slim.  The second time around, I found the story heartbreaking, as I couldn't imagine being torn away from my daughter so she could be raised by someone else and never remember me.

But what affected me most, and even freaked me out a bit, is how plausible the story seems.  Looking into the past, we see it's possible for power-hungry individuals or groups to upend lives, alter society, and control through fear.  We can understand how people could be dismayed at what they believe signals the falling apart of society and how they would want to change things for the better.  We see how politics and sex are linked and what happens when religion goes too far.  Atwood has a very vivid imagination, and she grabbed my attention from the very first page.  However, while I understand the limited viewpoint -- Offred is an ordinary woman, she could be any of us -- I was left wanting to know more about Gilead, how the new society and government work and how these people came to be in power.  Some of my questions were answered by the end, but readers shouldn't expect everything to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package by the last page.  Nevertheless, Atwood does a wonderful job balancing the horrific images and unimaginable scenarios with a bit of hope.

******

I read The Handmaid's Tale with Heather from Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books and Dreamybee from Subliminal Intervention.  Here's a bit of our discussion about the book:

Do you think Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale as a warning or for entertainment purposes? 

Heather:  I think that it is definitely a warning.  As I said in response to Dreamybee's question and in one of my own questions, I can completely understand how the society got to be the way it is.  That is due to Atwood's talent in drawing from our actual past and teasing out how that history might affect the future.  If that's not a warning, I don’t know what is.

Dreamybee:  I think there had to be some element of entertainment, otherwise it probably wouldn't have been very well-received; but I think the main motivation behind the telling of this particular tale was to present a cautionary tale and perhaps to start a dialogue about women's rights.

The women had clearly delineated roles -- Handmaid, Martha, Econowife, etc. -- and some carried a higher status than others, whether actual or perceived.  Do you think any of these women really had an advantage in the new society?

Heather:  Each class of woman seems to have advantages and disadvantages that the others don't necessarily share, but I don't see any of the classes as being "better off" than the others.  When your life is so completely prescribed, what is seen as privledge by others can actually be a punishment.

Dreamybee: There were probably some women whose stations in life improved with the implementation of the new regime, a poverty-stricken woman with several children who was on her second marriage to an abusive man, for instance.  Her fertility would put her in the ranks of a Handmaid, where she would be protected and taken care of.  Her children would probably go to someone who would take good care of them as well.  As Offred was fond of saying though, "context is all."  There were probably some women who were content, possibly even happy in the new society, and individual circumstance would dictate whether a Martha in one household had an advantage over a Handmaid or even a Commander's wife in another household.  Each position had its own source of power, but power derived from the position itself, not from the individual holding it.

If you were in the same situation, do you think you could be as complacent as Offred?

Heather:  I don't know.  I didn't feel a connection to Offred's character, in that I didn't really identify with her life (even her life "before").  That makes it hard to put myself in her shoes.  But I do think that regardless of what was going on around me, I would want to live.  My guess is that I would do just about anything to continue living, regardless of the conditions.  But that is just a guess.

Dreamybee:  I hate to say it, but I think so.  That's the other thing that's so scary about this book!  When the threat of rebellion is death or harm to loved ones and the situation that you're in isn't rock bottom, you do what you can to survive.  You hang on to hope because that's all you have.  Offred was around in the pre-Gilead days, so she knows how fast things can change; perhaps this is helpful, knowing that if things went from good to bad, there's a chance that they can always go back to good or at least get better.

**Please visit Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books and Subliminal Intervention to read the rest of our Q&A.**

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Handmaid's Tale ages ago…and the wear and tear proves it!



© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.

38 comments:

Julie P. said...

Fantastic review! This book deeply affected me as well. We read this for my book club a few years ago and it was a great discussion.

Serena said...

Interesting discussion gals! I haven't read this book, but I've known about it forever thanks to Anna. Maybe I'll have to borrow your copy!

Lenore said...

I've read this several times, but I'm due for a reread!

Cinnamon said...

I've been wanting to read this for a while!

Andi said...

I read this one way back when I was in my early 20s and it took some work to get into it. "Cold" comes to mind, but by the time I finished, I could completely understand that sort of tonal choice on Atwood's part.

This is one of those books I remember really appreciating, and I'm curious how my reading experience will have changed given many years of maturity and a baby on the way. It's on the re-read list, for sure!

Jo-Jo said...

Great review. I've heard of many book clubs that have had great discussions of this book, but I'm thinking that it wouldn't go over well with my group. Sounds like one I would like to read one day though.

Blodeuedd said...

I tried to read this book, but then I came to the first sex scene, freaked out and swore not to finish the book. I am so not ready for this book

Bonnie said...

Fabulous review Anna! I read this many years ago with my book club and it was a powerful book. It's one of the books that we still talk about as it affected us all.

carolsnotebook said...

I read this when I was a teenager and remember thinking it was great. I wonder how I'd feel about it if I read it now.

DCMetroreader said...

Your comment about re-reading a book and having different thoughts/feelings reminded me of a college assignment. I was assigned to re-read a favorite book from childhood and write a paper on my thoughts from then versus today. I didn't realize until completing the assignment how differently I viewed the book (it was for a Women's Studies Class so I guess it was for personal enlightenment and it achieved that for me).

Thanks for spotlighting a classic that I need to read!

Ti said...

I read this ages and ages ago. I need to pick it up again as I am enjoying all of the current dystopian fiction but it would be nice to re-visit some of the older books as well.

Suko said...

Excellent review and discussion. I haven't read anything by Atwood yet. This sounds like a very thought-provoking novel.

Diane said...

Loved this book and thought it was a warning.

bermudaonion said...

This is on my "bucket list" of books to read. Fantastic review!

Melody said...

Great review! This is one of the best MA book I've read so far (not that I've read all of her books), LOL.

Staci said...

The whole scenario is so very plausible and I think that is why this book scared the *#&*% out of me!!! Great post!

Jennifer @ Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I really enjoyed your review. The Handmaid's Tale is a favourite of mine, I read it recently and was blown away by the novel. I'm not an Atwood fan but I loved this one. I may give her other books another chance.

Stephanie said...

I read this when I was a senior in college -- it was recommended as part of a Religion in Politics course. I found it powerful and eerily believable. Thank you for sharing this fascinating discussion.

Veens said...

Fantastic review! It is so good to read about your feelings on re-reading a book. I never thought it in this perspective.... different phases in life make us think about a book differently.

I totally want to read this one someday!

Dreamybee said...

This book was scary for me just as a woman. I can't imagine how bad it would be for someone with children. I'm glad you mentioned that in your review. Thanks for the read-a-long-it was fun!

prashant said...

This book deeply affected me as well

Work from home India

Mystica said...

I've not read any of Atwood's books and have been keeping an eye out for them. I think this is a bit sad for me. Sometimes a book depresses me for quite a while! Maybe I should give it a miss and look for another of her books.

Bybee said...

I haven't read this since the year it came out. Time for a reread!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I agree with you -- the scariest thing about this book is how it doesn't seem completely outside the realm of possibility. I've only read this book once, but I really want to try it again.

Alyce said...

I read this post and the discussion over at Age 30+ too, and I thought you guys all did a great job talking about the book (which I haven't read yet). I've got it on my must-read list for this year though.

Tracey said...

I watched the film years ago and remember finding it quite creepy. I haven't read the book but have always meant to and am tempted by your great review!

Jeanne said...

I don't think Offred was complacent at all. She was just trapped.

Often my students repond to her this way, and I tell them that that's the reason Moira is so integral to the plot. Look what happens to you if you try to escape the handmaid's fate. She has 3-4 years until "her twat wears out" and then it's off to the Colonies for her.

Mommy, I'm Home said...

One of my favorite Atwood books!

Dawn said...

I read this ages ago too and it's still in my bookcase. I don't quite remember exactly how I felt about it then, I just remember it being odd and a bit chilling.

Dana said...

I read this book when I was in high school, and I feel like I should maybe go back and give it a reread, like you did, as there's so much I might not have picked up on back then. Great review, and I really enjoyed reading the discussion!

Marie said...

GREAT review and discussion on this very powerful book!

Wrighty said...

Wonderful review!! This post was so impressive! I really liked that you added highlights from your discussions. I've never read this book but have always wanted to. Now I have to get it!

Dar said...

Great review Anna. I read this book a few years back with my book club and it really freaked me out as well - like you said, just seems so plausible.

prashant said...

We read this for my book club a few years ago and it was a great discussion.

your healthy choice

justicejenniferreads said...

I just have to say, I love this book. I mean, I know that it's disturbing, but it is the first Atwood that I ever read and since then, I have been hooked. She is such an incredible writer. Her vivid descriptions are amazing: the way she takes what we take for granted and turns it all upside down. She is amazing at showing us the, although terrible, extremely real possibilities.

Lisa said...

I'm going to try to get to this one this year. So many people rave about this one; it's good to get a more grounded p.o.v.

Isabel said...

I either heard or read somewhere that fiction authors sometimes see things that the rest of us miss.

In the beginning of the novel, it mentioned that an Islamic terrorist attack was one of the factors for the government to take over! This novel was written way before 9/11. How creepy.

My book group just discussed this novel. I'll post something very soon.

Anna said...

Thank you all for stopping by and participating in the discussion. I'm going to seek out the movie to compare.