on 24 December 2012
The Handmaid's Tale is set in a future America where epidemics and pesticides have made the majority of the population sterile and in the face of catastrophically declining birthrates a right wing, Old Testament fundamentalist theocracy have used this crisis as a pretext to completely reorder the social structure of America. Only a handful of women are able to have children: the so-called 'Handmaids' who form a sort of slave class and act as 'second wives' to rich and powerful men so that they can reproduce. The Handmaids are indoctrinated beforehand as part of a special religious order and much of the novel is concerned with their conditioning process. Although ostensibly a Christian dictatorship the women are 'covered up' and they live their lives under something akin to an extreme form of 'Sharia' law as outlined by, say, the Iranian Revolution or more recently, the Taliban.
The story centres around one of these handmaids, 0ffred and her life as a potential surrogate mother to a childless couple: a high ranking commander and his wife, Serena Joy. In this future American dystopia, as set out by Margaret Atwood, sex is very tightly controlled (under pain of death) and yet in spite of this powerful disincentive Offred is drawn into a complex web of transgressive relationships that are bubbling away under the surface of this supposedly perfectly ordered society. The political vision outlined in this novel is genuinely terrifying and Margaret Atwood has shown much skill in highlighting all of the potential tensions and contradictions that would be likely to occur in such a society. However, the 'religious right' in America are a declining cultural force and I'm not sure many people today worry about a fundamentalist Christian take over of America (America has changed enormously since the book was written) but I still found it to be a very compelling read about what can happen when the wrong people are in charge.
on 10 October 2011
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was recommended to me by a friend, and I was bowled over by the novel. I devoured it in a few days (a feat itself as I have a youngish family) and was left with that sad feeling, an almost a bereft feeling, I get when finishing a truly great novel.
In this dystopian alternative present, Offred is a handmaid, assigned to a Commander and his `infertile' wife. Her only reason to live, to be allowed to live, is for procreation. In the land of Gilead, once the United States, women have been suppressed almost entirely. Eyes watch for anyone behaving out of the allowed norms that have been established, and punishment is either execution, to later be hung on display on the wall surrounding the centre of Gilead, or to be sent to the poisoned and radioactive lands and for an untimely and painful death. For now, Offred is avoiding the latter fate, but only by performing a monthly ceremony, the culmination of which involves the Commander inseminating her.
But her time is running short. If she does not fall pregnant soon, she will be sent to the poisoned lands in disgrace. When she continually fails to fall pregnant, Offred, aided by the Commander's wife, looks elsewhere for viable sperm.
What stayed with me after finishing this novel, other than the desperate need to find out the rest of her tale, and my feeling of abandonment by the author in not finishing the handmaid's tale (she left me hungering for more, much more), was the method in which the book was ended. Without giving too much more away, I was offended by the documentary style finish. Not offended as in unhappy with the author, but offended by the last characters I met. How dare they refer to Offred so casually, laugh at her issues, make light of her life. She had become very real to me, and I wanted to stick up for her pain, her solitude, all she gave up to become a handmaid.
What I came away with was a better sense of my own past, of the real people who have lived through adversity, a bigger respect for their struggles and their courage for these real people who made their real stories known. I still hunger to know what happened next, and probably will for some time yet. One thing I do know, I will be thinking about this novel for a long time.
on 3 September 2006
I still don't know what inspired me to take this book home from the library that day back when I was 16- up until then the only "grown up" literature I had read had been formulaic historical romances of the Catherine Cookson variety.
I can now credit this book with opening the door to a whole different world of books from what I was used to- books that demanded me to THINK.
And, being only 16, and not reading this book as part of my English class but rather just for myself, I was swept away by it.
Then, a couple of years ago, I got hold of a copy and read it again, curious if it would still seem so mind-blowing (I remember re-reading my beloved Narnia stories as an adult and getting the shock of my life).
And I can say that, half a life later, this book remains one of the best books I have ever read. Why?
I am still amazed at the author's imagination. How did she manage to describe the menace of a totalitarian regime so well? Science Fiction often dates quickly, seeming at best naive decades after it was written. And for me, reading this book 20-odd years after it was written, in this older and wiser post-9/11 world, certain aspects of the book took on new meaning (religious fundamental regime, strict rules about women's dress, football stadium executions).
It may not be a perfect book, but I think it is worth reading for its ideas (and warnings). And all that aside, it's a gripping read!
on 28 September 2013
New to the genre of dystopian literature, I wasn't sure what to expect when told by my English Teacher that my class and I would be studying "The Handmaid's Tale" by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, as part of our A-Level study, but this intense and powerful book had me gripped from the beginning.
The Handmaid's Tale successfully explores a range of themes to enable the reader to question the totalitarian state system and fill their heads with `what if' questions as to what would happen if our lives were dictated by a ruling authority. Two particularly significant themes in the anti-utopian novel comprise of women's role in society and society's control over its citizens in the "Republic of Gilead", a futuristic USA, but instead of a United States symbolising freedom, Gilead oppresses its citizens and instead emphasises racist, homophobic and traditionalist Christian morals and attitudes, so much so that going against the ruling regime is just asking for death.
Considered special as she is one of only a few fertile women, after infertility caused by AIDS and other diseases swept across Gilead, the novels protagonist `Offred', has just one function: to breed. Known as a `handmaid', a role Offred chose purely to escape being sentenced to `the Colonies' (a place full of pollution and nuclear radiation), along with those classed as `incapable of social integration' including feminists, lesbians and nuns, Offred is allocated a high-ranked couple and is employed by them to sleep with the husband, known as the `Commander', in order to become a surrogate mother for his wife, who is presumed to be infertile in a society that blames all problems on women.
Offred (Of-Fred; the `Of' to symbolise she is under total control by her commander and the regime of Gilead and `Fred' being her commander) tells us her story in first person narrative, allowing the reader to really connect with Offred and understand her feelings and actions as she describes her life under authority and also occasionally has flashbacks to her life before being a Handmaid, when she was married and had a young daughter, allowing the reader to begin to compare life with freedom and life without, ultimately allowing the reader to feel increasingly involved in the novel as we are able to imagine what our life would be like under this totalitarian system.
Offred's life as a handmaid is extremely significant in the novel as it shows how much oppression there is in society and how women are always being watched and scrutinised. However, what truly makes the novel intriguing is the Commander and Offred's relationship. Although starting purely professional - the Commander submitting to his role in society to get Offred pregnant in a process known as `the Ceremony' where his wife is present at all times, but this relationship soon becomes an illegal arrangement between the pair as they begin to meet secretly in his study, where he allows her to read fashion magazines, something Offred takes with appreciation as reading and writing is totally banned for women in Gilead. The Commander's wife, Serena Joy, a former televangelist, also has a part in Offred's life, arranging for her to sleep with the chauffeur to increase the chances of Offred falling pregnant, as the monthly `Ceremony' hasn't made Offred pregnant yet.
Through Offred's `shopping partner', `Ofglen' (the Republic of Gilead ensures women walk in pairs to ensure women are never alone and can watch over each other's behaviour), Offred learns about the resistance to the regime, known as Mayday, an underground network hoping to overthrow the dangerous and controlling authority in Gilead.
The novel's conclusion is unique and ambiguous, allowing the reader to decide his/her opinion on what really happens to Offred and read a fictitious `historical notes' section that explains the events of the novel in the context of a speech at the International Historical Association Convention in 2195, that ultimately suggests that the totalitarian regime in Gilead is eventually overthrown, but the rest is left for the reader to decide.
This fantastic book really made me think about how we and society looks at people from different backgrounds, occupations and classes and I, personally, found it really interesting to think of what life would be like if living under a totalitarian regime. The Handmaid's Tale is thought-provoking, interesting and I would really recommend reading it to get a flavour of life in a nightmarish, dystopian future.
on 27 May 2012
I really enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale. I am drawn to Atwood's idiosyncratic style, and I can tell why this novel has been lauded. You have to be prepared to throw away the rulebook when reading it - speech isn't indicated, it hops about in time, it explains integral features of the plot at irregular intervals, changes narrator a couple of times... But that's part of its attraction for me - picking it apart, working out what's going on. It probably isn't beach reading but it's definitely compelling.
However, the main reason I'm writing this review is to try to counteract a few earlier comments which compared this dystopia with 1984 and Brave New World. I don't think it's fair to compare Atwood to Orwell or Huxley - not because she falls short, but because she's trying something totally different. Both 1984 and Brave New World bring characters and devices in to explain the functioning of their new political and social systems, but outlining a new system isn't Atwood's goal. Some people have commented that her world needs expanding, which I think could be missing the point slightly. Atwood is dealing with a character who is utterly insignificant, who has been plunged into confusion by the reformation of her country, a woman who can suddenly only experience the world as an underling. Atwood's is a psychological study of the key characters within her dystopia, so it's flippant to read it and compare it directly to more material descriptions of dystopian societies.
on 16 June 2005
Following a Christian fundamentalist coup d'état in New England at some point towards the end of the twentieth century, a Handmaid is one of a tiny minority of fertile women in a society which has been devastated by unspecified environmental catastrophes. Her function is to provide offspring for the ruling elite, and to be sent to her death if she fails. She lives in a nightmare world of public executions, lynchings, propaganda, impregnation ceremonies... "The Handmaid's Tale" is the story of her inner rebellion, and her struggle to retain her sanity and her memories of "the time before".
Margaret Atwood has been at pains to stress that her novel is not "science-fiction", but "speculative fiction". In other words, it is not about little green men arriving from other planets, but about what happens if men from the planet Earth decide to take some of their more extreme ideas to their logical conclusions. The novel was published in the mid 1980s, against the background of the rise to prominence of the religious right during the Reagan years. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, it has lost none of its relevance. Au contraire...
"Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently." The novel constantly testifies to the vitality of the human spirit and its ability to survive in extreme adversity. "The Handmaid's Tale" has repeatedly been compared to "1984", but in fact is a much richer and deeper novel. Orwell's story is an important landmark in the novel of ideas, but Atwood, in addition to her ideas, has written a highly wrought poetic story, incorporating intensely moving meditations on love, loss and memory.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is without question one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It demands to be read again and again and, in reading it, we must hope and hope that it never comes true.
on 26 April 2001
This book has to be one of the most powerful, terrifying, and insightful books ever written about a very plausible future, where religion and politics win over morality. Margaret Atwood, has shown a deep understanding of the threats that women have faced in the past, and what they may possibly face in the future.
on 25 January 2004
Atwood's work is enjoyable on a number of levels. The first of these is in her talent as a storyteller. Her narrative constructs are rich in multiple layers that move through time with abandon, employing the use of flashbacks, dreams and distorted memory to go in and out of the story to re-examine the clues that are being left for us. Her work always has strong ties to the detective/mystery genre, even if the surface level would suggest otherwise. Here the story begins in a manner akin to film-noir; as we are thrown into a setting that we do not understand, whilst a myriad of stark and constantly free-flowing evocations are thrown at us in an attempt to leave us as bewildered and disturbed as the central character. It works. This subjective opening vignette was enough to persuade me to initially give up on the book as I waded into the unknown. Too ambiguous I though... too directionless. I stuck with it though, and gave the book my full concentration, so that by the time I'd reached the end of chapter two I really couldn't stop. I was engrossed.
The story is pretty much non-existent... in the same way that the story to such classics as the Bell Jar and the Lord of the Flies was an excuse by the author's for an emotional journey, so too is this. Our focus for attention is a mysterious woman known as Offred... not wanting to give to much of the character away, her name comes from a slight Swedish/Russian translation of the word sacrifice. She becomes our guide to this alien world, and we become her confidant. In the same way that Alex shares with us his exploits in A Clockwork Orange, so to does Offred, who shares with us her pain, her fragmented memories and her desire for some kind of escape. The central enigma is the discovery of her name before the construction of the colonies and the disintegration of society. This ties in with Atwood's other great talent, that being her fierce knowledge of social and political history. This gives her work an even starker emotional relevance that makes the usually far-fetched confines of science fiction seem almost like documented history. Her attention to detail in creating the world in which these characters inhabit is completely mind-blowing, being both an original, imaginative construct but also a horrifying reflection of our own world.
The book was first published in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and we can clearly see the shadow of AIDS hanging like the sword of Damocles above the central social ideology and the aggressive treatment of sex and sensuality. There are also many allusions to the treatment of the Jews during the holocaust, the civil rights movement and unified segregation... all shot through with the many pretensions of that particular decade and it's NOW generation. The story builds slowly but we never feel bored by what is happening. Through the use of the slow-burning detective lay out, Atwood is able to get the reader interested in these characters and ask ourselves questions throughout the book... by the half way point I was demanding answers, moving through the book faster than any other I've ever read but at the same time trying to savour every last evocative detail. By the time I'd reached the closing chapters I was completely in love with the character of Offred... Atwood is able to embody this woman with a 'real' spirit that makes us care about her like no other literary figure before (slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean).
The dénouement of the book is a stunning example of Atwood creative use of storytelling. Not wanting to give anything away, I'll just say it's one of those endings that places an entirely new light on the proceeding work and leaves you desperate to go back to the beginning and start again. All of this is tied together by Atwood's stunning use of language... honestly, if you ever get the chance to experience her poetry do so. The use of description here creates a kind of atmosphere that few books can equate, carefully setting up a level of mechanical degradation during the scenes within the colonies, whilst simultaneously giving the memories of Offred and her moments of tranquillity a down to earth beauty that is still totally real. This book moved and gripped me like no other, taking me on an intelligent and deeply compelling journey into the soul of one of the most significant tortured heroines ever created. To dismiss it as a copy of 1984 and Brave New World is a great injustice... this book has an underlining degree of beauty that those works could only dream of.
on 17 October 2005
I was very excited to begin reading this book. I loved the premise and thought that it would be interesting, but as I began reading I was looking for answers that Atwood didn't seem to want to provide. I wanted to know how this society where women were allowed no freedoms and were torn from their families and friends came about. How America, once the land of the free became the land of the oppressed. Call me impatient but as I read every chapter that left these questions unanswered the more bored I grew with this book. Until Atwood began to slowly reveal the events that led up to the existence of such a society and it was almost like a punch in the stomach when she did. It is impossible not to compare the events in this book with the events of the last few years and how our world is slowly changing, not necessarily in this direction, but it definitely makes you see how anything is possible.
I was only seven years old when this book was first published so I am not sure if Atwood was that prophetic or if the direction that this country was headed in was clear even then. I am sure the case is true more of the latter than the former. If you haven't read this book already I definitely suggest that you order a copy, it is worth the read. Personally I plan to pass my copy on to all of my friends and anyone else who may want to read it. This may be a hard title to find at your local bookstore but order it if need be, it is worth it!
on 27 July 1999
For me, The Handmaid's Tale is not only an expansive work of fiction but a timely warning to modern day society, one of the most important novels of recent years written firmly in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984. Atwood offers an erudite dissection of the human psyche against the backdrop of a cold and faceless futuristic world. A society which is, as she illustrates in the Historical Notes, a not implausible successor of that in which we live. Themes such as religious extremism and the effects of isolation are covered, but Atwood is primarily concerned with humanity's capacity to inflict pain and suffering on it's own kind, irrespective of gender. Although The Handmaid's Tale is often categorised as a 'feminist' work to do so is to marginalise it's message. However, illustrated in both the meticulous characterisation of Offred and the nature of Gilead itself is the human capacity for survival, and in this respect a message of hope emerges. This is one theme of the novel, there are many, many more - a thought provoking, emotive and entertaining work.