Book Cover
Title The Handmaid's Tale
Series ---
Author Margaret Atwood
Cover Art ---
Publisher Seal Books - 1998
First Printing McClellan and Stewart - 1985
Category Dystopia
Warnings Rape

Main Characters

Offred, the Commander, Serena Joy, Nick

Main Elements Dystopia

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, once the United States of America. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to the food markets, where pictures have replaced words because women are forbidden to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember a time when she lived with and made love to 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..

Funny, unexpected, horrifying and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.

Wow, there are so many concepts, so many things one can read into this book. As a Canadian, I figured it was time for me to get around to reading Atwood, what with the TV series coming up and I can see why people make such a big deal about it, to the point it is read in schools.

It all starts when the chemicals we pump into the air, the junk we put into our bodies, and who knows what else, cause most women to become infertile. As birthrates plummet, a group manages a coup to take over part of the US and create the Republic of Gilead, a religiously run state where Handmaids are prized for their fertility and shared amongst the elite men whose wives cannot produce children.

Now this sounds like a tale about repressed women, and that is indeed a key aspect to it. But also, if you take a moment to look at the men, you realize they aren't any happier. There's the driver Nick who has no woman of his own, and is forbidden to touch any female till he has earned the right to be assigned a wife. There's the Commander, who undoubtely is the person living the best life out of anyone, but even he longs for sexual freedom, and for what it's worth, desires a more human relationship with Offred.

And on the women's side...finally, a world where we can walk down the street at night and not worry about being raped. The Martha's don't have it so bad, they are servants, yes, but they go about their lives unmolested. You don't have to worry if you're pretty enough, if you're too fat, if you are wearning the most fashionable clothes, spend a fortune on makeup. In many ways, a simpler life. But at a huge cost, one must give up freedom to have security. And the Handmaid's? Well their price for safety is monthly consentual rape...

And the moment I learned about Serena Joy's background, being an evangelist who preached that women should do their god-defined duty and stay home and raise children, is now chaffing at having to practice what she preached. After all, before she had a career, she was on the stage in front of crowds, and thousands more on TV. Now, she sits in her garden pruning her flowers, not allowed to read, or even have any real purpose other than smile at her husband and follow him along to events. As a wife, she's probably the most useless and purposeless member of society. And she has to watch her husband "mate" with his handmaid every month, since she herself cannot produce a child. Frankly made me think of Sarah Palin who said similar things about women staying home to watch her kids, while she herself, who had several children at home, ran for vice president. Oh, it's ok if *other* women have to live the way you think is right, but you are special and above your own beliefs?

Another aspect are the Aunts, the women that train the Handmaids. It's not the men that beat the rules into the Handmaid's, but other women! It's hard to understand why they would do that, is it to avoid being sent out to clean up toxic waste, where infertile and otherwise useless women are sent? Or are they true believers, that they are training the saviours of the human race and following the dictates of a god that has punished women for the loose ways.

One of the weirdest moments is when a group of Japanese tourists come to check out some Handmaid's walking down the street. At this point you know that this is a localized thing, that the rest of the world is continuing same as before. A bit like when tourists nowadays go to gawk at the Amish communities. I'm surprised Gilead allows outsiders in, after all, keeping knowledge of the rest of the world away from their people is one of the most powerful tools in oppressing a group.

Offred is a narrator who doesn't know what's going on. We don't really understand how Gilead came to be, because she got swept up in it without warning or explanation. There's some war going on, but she doesn't know much about it. She hears rumours that she if she could make it north to Canada, she might be free. But she's about a clueless about things as the reader, which add to the mystery and the horror, since there no answers, no reasons for the way things are, they just horrifically are.

I couldn't help find it ironic how Canada figured into things. In the war of 1812, the Loyalists ran north to safety. During the war of Vietnam those dodging the draft headed for the border. In Gilead, women and men try to escape. And just a couple months ago, on the news, we have a flood of refugees coming up from the US due to the new immigration laws Trump is trying to institute. The reasons aren't the same, but history repeats, and we should take that as a warning. As an American president tries to control the media, moves towards isolationism, an prosecutes a subset of society we are seeing the baby steps towards a state like Gilead (do I think it will happen, no, but look how easy it is to move in that direction, because if you're willing to give up one freedom, why not more? What are you willing to pay for safety? And do you have any control over how far it goes once it starts?)

I'm about halfway through the TV series. Of course I like the book better, especially since many things are left unresolved, but to fill 10 hours worth they had to put in a lot more background, showed things from the point of view of other characters, and just plain old filler (including Offred's name which I think is NEVER given in the book). But on the whole, it is quite faithful to the book (flower references copy, which has such a horrible cover I'm using another for this review, was also someone's schoolbook since every mention of flowers is underlined...actually I caught a couple the previous owner missed!)

If you enjoyed 1984 or Farenheit 451 (or at least found them thought provoking), I recommend including The Handmaid's Tale to your repertoire.

Posted: July 2017


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