Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Those of you who are paying attention may notice that I, Dave, am going two weeks in a row. Kim is still working on Steinbeck’s East of Eden and in the interests of giving her sufficient time to really give a good look at that one (because I think it really deserves full attention), I offered to go again this week. No worries, though, Kim will be on for the next two weeks.

Anyway, I’d heard good things about The Handmaid’s Tale, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. To be honest, I tend to prefer Atwood’s more realistic work. I loved Cat’s Eye, but was a little colder on The Year of the Flood. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood, right? You can’t really go wrong. I knew I’d hit it eventually.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Chitra Divakaruni and 10th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Of course, the book is good. Dystopianists everywhere surely have this book on their master lists. Just think about it, the United States has been violently taken over by a theocracy that has stripped women of most rights (property, work, even reading) and instituted a bizarre system when fertile but politically unconnected women are forced (by one means or another and by varying degrees of one kind of force or another) to bear children for the childless elite:

            Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

            My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.

            My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Even worse for the narrator, Offred (not her real name, the name assigned to her as a handmaiden when her identity and everything else about her as a person was removed), she remembers when it wasn’t always this way. She once had a career, an independent life, even a husband and child. However, all that is gone. Stolen. She lives a hollow, bare existence. She either produces a child, if the Commander can even sire one, or she dies. Even if she has a child, it won’t be hers. If you are looking for dystopian literature, this is certainly it.

Granted, this world Atwood paints is far worse for women than men. However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t disturb me. If you are a human being, this book should bother you. If it doesn’t bother you, then I might ask you not to stand too close to me.

This Republic of Gilead (the setting of this story) is dark and inconceivable, but like the best of dystopian literature…one can unfortunately see modern tendrils suggesting how we might end up there from here. I wouldn’t malign anyone existing now by saying that they would want a Gilead type world, but things rarely end up where they are aimed.

Dystopian literature needs this. It needs to frighten us and seem an impossible world, but it needs to contain that germ of a threat that our world could lead there if people aren’t careful. For me, The Handmaid’s Tale definitely contains that germ.

In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale still isn’t my favorite Atwood. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. Atwood has simply written such marvelous things that, as good as this book is, it still isn’t my favorite.

After all, The Handmaid’s Tale is a captivating story. It is dark and threatening and I was definitely on the edge of my chair with worry for Offred. The world is horribly unpleasant, but I still had a good time reading. It may not be what I consider the best of Atwood, but I don’t think it is one that should be overlooked. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a book that needs to be read.

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