Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale (1985, 389 pages) is the first work by Margaret Atwood that I have read.    It is in the genre of the dystopian novel. It is about an alternative future in which a church group has taken over the United States, which they rename "Gilead".   The setting is the late 20th century in what used to be Cambridge Massachusetts.  

The narrator of our story, which begins right before the church take over, is married to Luke.   She and Luke had an affair while Luke was married to another woman.  Luke divorced his wife and married Offred and the two of them have a three year old daughter.   One day she goes to use her ATM type device and it will not work.   The clerk in the store tells her that it is saying invalid account number.   She is indignant and says she will call her bank.   When she gets to her job at the library she calls the bank over and over for hours but she cannot get through.   Her very nervous male boss calls the all female work force to a meeting.   Everyone is being fired as of now.   All libraries in Gilead are to be closed.   When she gets home she finds out that it has been declared illegal for women to have bank accounts.   Their balances are to be transferred to their husbands or fathers.   If they have no husband or father the government will keep the money.   Women should never have worked in the first place.   This is explained as a blessing to the women as they will no longer have to burden their minds about money.    From now on it will be illegal for women to have jobs, read or for female children to receive any sort of education.   This is all presented as a wonderful lifting of burdens by the very paternal government.   Luke vanishes one day.   Her child is taken from her as only children born in a first marriage may stay with their parents.  Divorce, birth control and abortions are strictly illegal.   In order that children may be born in a religiously proper fashion, no pain killers of any kind are allowed at child birth

Women can only be in certain roles in society.   This is explained to them as a wonderful thing and woe unto a woman who does not love these ideas.

The highest status position is that of Wife of a government official.   There is a shortage of men in Gilead due to the very large number killed off in the civil war that the church take over produced.    High status males, called Commanders, are allowed to set up grand households.   Below Wife is  the position of Econowife.   That refers to a woman who may marry a lower status male but has to do all the house work herself and must have her children herself.   Next we have the position of Handmaiden.   There is a very low birth rate in Gilead, far below the replacement rate.   This is in part because atomic bombs were dropped on parts of the USA that resisted the church take over and radiation caused massive sterility as well as a very high portion of genetic defects.   Handmaiden's job is to have sex once a month with their Commander.  The wife is present and has a degrading  role to play.  The handmaiden wears a cloth bag over her head so she cannot see the Commander and to prevent any hint that this is a personal encounter.   Wives tend to hate handmaidens though it is illegal for them to directly kill them.   If someone does not fit into this new society or shows any sign of lack of enthusiasm for the new way of life they can be sent to what is called "The Colonies".   The colonies are those parts of the USA that did not accept the new government.   They were laid waste by atomic blasts.   Workers are send their to clean up the damage and bury millions of dead bodies.   Because of the radioactivity, the disease brought on by the unburied corpses that are everywhere and the extreme envirnmental degradation life expectancy in the colonies is three years.   That is also where the food is grown for Gilead, which may account for the low birth rates and the very high rate of severe birth defects.   Even though abortion is punishable by death defective babies, called "Shredders", are destroyed at birth.    Below the status of Handmaiden is the Martha who is a household servant that is not allowed to have children or marry.   Like the Romans and the Nazis, the rulers of Gilead know that subject people are best controlled on a day to day basis by their own kind.   The work of monitoring the women is done by Aunts, all of whom carry cattle prods on their belts and are fond of telling the women how lucky they are that there is no longer any degrading pornography, that they no longer have to strain their minds with decision making, that they no longer need fear rape  and that they are protected by their wonderful Commander.   If a woman does not agree fast enough she gets the cattle prod and worse maybe will be sent to the colonies.   We only learn gradually how the society works and how it came into place.   Everything is narrated by the handmaiden and she has access only to limited information, after all she is not even allowed to read any more.   Women cannot trust each other as they are trained to inform on negative thinkers.  The informant is showing herself to be a worthy daughter of the Republic of Gilead.   Men have various roles to play also.   Everyone but a Commander, who is also watched, has to wear a uniform based on their role in society.   If a Handmaiden fails to have a child in six years, she is rotated every two years to a new Commander, she is sent to the colonies.   Any child she has, as long as it is not a shredder, will be raised by the Wife or another family.   Once she has had a child and done her six years she can even dream of becoming an Aunt.   If she fails to have a child, most of the men have very low fertility rates, she is sent to the colonies.  

Gilead is beautifully realized and I at once believed it could exist.   There are a lot of questions that one will have in mind about how Gilead works but remember the story is told in the first person by a handmaiden who can ask no questions and is forbidden to read.   The Aunts tell the women  it will be easier on girls born in Gilead as they  will not have the burden of confused thoughts that the foolish custom of allowing women to be educated caused.   Now the women have no worries,  no decisions to  make, no children to rear (maybe Econowives raise their own children but we do not learn much about them or the Marthas), and a wonderful government to take care of them and protect them.   Of course every woman tells all she meets that she is so grateful for the changes.

This is the background in which the Handmaiden's Tale unfolds.  People being people not everything is really perfect in this paradise.   The unfolding of the story is wonderfully clever and imaginative.   Shocking and brutal things will happen but there is hope and the human spirit is far from defeated.    We will get to know the local Commander, his wife, some of the other women.   A commander can have multiple Marthas.   Barriers break down, the women compare notes and some strange relationships develop.   I was very taken when I saw the joy of the handmaiden when she got the chance to read some magazines.   Most preGilead magazines and books have, of course, been burned.  

The Handmaiden's Tale does a marvelous job creating an alternative future.   The characters are very well developed.    Anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation will see at once coworkers who would have made great Aunts.   The Handmaiden's Tale reminded me more of Brave New World than 1984.   To me, it stands with them as cautionary stories of the first order.   It is also very entertaining, fast paced and just a great story.   I have not relayed much of the actual plot line as it is so clever I do not want to spoil it for anyone.  

The Handmaiden's Tale seems like it was almost written with the Women Unbound Challenge in mind.   It is easy to follow and understand.   It is beautifully written.     I found myself completely taken into The Republic of Gilead. I hope my three daughters never have to live there.  It shows how women can be and often are their own  oppressors. It shows how people sell themselves for small worthless things.  It tells us something important about the reading life.   Dictators always try to stop The Reading Life.   A diverse range of  free reading has never ever been encouraged under any totalitarian regime, from the Romans on down to the days of Pot Pal in Cambodia where wearing glasses could get you executed.   The ending was a complete surprise and I loved how the book was closed.      She as written over thirty books so if anyone has any suggestions as to my second Atwood please post them.  

Mel u


Suko said...

Mel, this is, of course, another excellent, in-depth review. You make some interesting observations related to "the reading life", and to women's roles as their own oppressors.

I have a copy of Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003) in my reading queue.

You've changed your blog's colors and the size of your font! :)

The Literary Stew said...

Hi Mel - What an excellent choice for Women Unbound! This book was brilliant but my favourite Atwood is Alias Grace. You should read it sometime. I also just posted my first review for the challenge.

3m.michelle said...

This book scared the dickens out of me. A perfect read for Women Unbound!

SusieCat said...

Ms. Atwood has just published a new book called The Year of the Flood. She discusses it on this episode of the Diane Rehm show (sorry to keep posting links to the DR Show but she always has interesting authors on!) I have ordered it and will let you know what I think. It's another apocalyptic type book with religious overtones (she even wrote hymns for the group to sing that are available on CD -- she sings one on the show)

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Now that you love Margaret Atwood (I assume...) you have all of her other fantastic books to look forward to. She has other dystopian books, but her range is really broad, and her writing is always wonderful.

Mel u said...

Suko-thank you-I am experimenting with different colors and fonts-I will look forward to your post on Atwood and maybe on Lizards?

Literary Stew-this book seems made for the challenge

3m.michelle-yes it is a scary book-

Susie Cat-thanks for sharing the link-I will look forward to your thoughts on year of the flood

Thomas at My Porch-yes I do love Atwood now-I did an Amazon scan of her other books and it looks like I would enjoy almost any of them-I may be motivated to do a second Atwood in 2009-any suggestions? I would prefer to read another Dystopian work

JoAnn said...

I remember reading this shortly after it came out - maybe 1986? - and found it quite disturbing. Have been meaning to reread it literally for years. I haven't officially joined the Women Unbound Challenge, but it would give me the perfect excuse to pick it up again.

Haven't read Atwood's other dystopian work, but I loved Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace.

Paperback Reader said...

Mel, I delighted in reading this review and refreshing my memory of this wonderful dystopian novel. It is perfect for the Women Unbound Challenge and also the perfect Atwood to start with; like Mrs. B of The Literary Stew, I would suggest reading Alias Grace next.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

What a fabulous review. I recently acquired this Atwood title and I MUST read it soon.

Jeane said...

This was the first Atwood book I read, too. It was so unsettling, and fascinating at the same time. Her books really shake me up.

Care said...

Yes, a terrific choice for the Women Unbound challenge. The Handmaid's Tale was my first intro to Atwood, too. (did you like the ending? I loved it but I've heard many that didn't.) I have since read The Blind Assassin and look forward to Oryx and Crake.

Jacqui said...

A good friend of mine has been urging me to read this for forever (okay, more like two years). I'm going to have to finally get around to this one. Thanks for the great review!

Mel u said...

Joann-I found the book completely applies to the current world=

Paperback Reader-I am divided between Oryx and Crake and Alias Grace-I want to read at least one more Atwood in 2009

Diane-thanks-I will look forwad to your review of the book-

Jeane-yes it really is a powerful book-

Care-I totally loved how the book ended-I wish we could no more about the history of the republic of Gilead

Jacqui-thanks-I hope do a post on the book

susan said...

An amazing book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was my introduction to Atwoods fiction. Enjoyed your review. This is one of the rare books I would re-read.

JoV said...

I read The Handmaid's Tale a month after you read yours. I didn't warm up to it, here's why:

Early last year I read Atwood's short stories collection called "Wilderness Tips" and loved it:

I wanted to read some of her more famous work, Cat's Eyes or Blind Assasin.

great analysis of the Handmaid's tale.