Week 22–The Handmaid’s Tale

Let’s talk a little bit about how much this book freaked me out. I could probably write a whole paper on it, as I’m sure countless others have done in the past and will do in the future.  The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood held me fast in the grip of its suspense, but also forced me to only read bits at a time. It is so intense and powerful (and frightening) that I could not read more than a chapter or two at a time without being overwhelmed.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=Bibliograph07-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B004V6XC1I&fc1=F3EDED&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=040404&f=ifrFirst let me begin by disclaiming that I did not read this book because I thought the premise sounded fascinating. In fact, when I bought it, I had no idea what it was about (though I has guesses, which were completely wrong).  I bought it because it was on the BBC book list, and I’m trying to read through the whole thing.  So imagine my surprise when I began reading and discovered that this book does not take place in the past, as the use of the word “handmaid” in the title might suggest, but in the future.  Future is a relative term, because the book was written in the 80s, and I believe Atwood’s intention was to imply that the events happening in the book began in the mid-80s, and were in full force by the 90s and early 2000s.

Stop yapping and get to describing these events, you say? Alright, alright.  The basic premise is that the world goes from what modern life was like in the 80s–TV, pornography, women’s rights, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, etc.–back to a scene from humanity’s distant past.  Worse, even.  There are references to a war, which the narrator, Offred, does not know much about because she is rarely permitted to watch TV.  A powerful Christian sect (i.e. cult) has taken over the United States. The Constitution does not exist. Women have no rights. They are not permitted to read. They must always be covered from head to foot. They are divided into different groups:

–“Aunts” are the women in charge of educating women on their new roles, and indoctrinating them with the propaganda of the new regime.
–“Wives” are the women with the most freedom, although even theirs is limited.  They are married to the Commanders (men who play a significant role in the government) and therefore have the slightest bit of rank over the other women.
–“Marthas” are serving women, cooking and cleaning the houses of the Commanders.
–“Econowives” as best I can tell are married to men who don’t matter, but for some reason were able to remain married to their men.
–“Handmaids” are reviled by the rest of the women for the role that they play.  They are forced to wear red. These women are dragged away from their families for trying to flee, and placed under the care of the Aunts until they learn their place.  They are then assigned to a Commander, and once a month must sleep with the Commander in an attempt to get pregnant, for fertility among humanity has become very low.

It’s an atrocious thing to read about. The entire book serves as a warning against fanaticism in any faith.  It’s also, obviously, a heavily feminist commentary on the role of women, being an extreme case of oppression and mistreatment.  It is a novel in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World, where the government has absolute power of control and is dangerous to its people.  Where it differs is the religious aspect. In both of the aforementioned novels, neither religion or morality play a role in the greedy power of the government.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, it is everything. 

Normally I loathe stream of consciousness writing, but the style in which The Handmaid’s Tale is written had enough plot structure to be bearable, yet still fluid enough to show the distractedness and fear in the narrator.  Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are her flashbacks to the past, with her husband and child. Atwood does not reveal the entire story of the governmental take-over and Offred’s captivation all at once.  The suspense and questioning are part of what makes the novel so enjoyable.

I recommend reading this book, especially if you’ve enjoyed 1984. It’s got a great story line and deep characters. One can’t help getting emotionally involved in Offred’s story.  Atwood is a skilled writer with meaningful subject matter.  Loved it!

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