The Handmaid's Taleby Margaret Atwood Published 16 Mar 1998
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Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with 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...
"The Handmaid's Tale" Reviews
An interesting book to read right now for a couple of reasons. One, I just finished 1984 and it was very much a world like the one in 1984. Two, the storyline closely reflects the fears of the current political climate in America.
It is hard to say that a story like this is "great" as that has a positive connotation. I was very enthralling, but terrifying at the same time. As a man, I don't think this story has as deep of an impact on me as it would if I was a woman.
If you like dystopian, you must check this book out. If you are fired up by the recent election, you may want to hold off a bit . . . it will only make it worse.
EDIT 02/06/2016: Lowering the rating to two. I finished it more than a week ago and now I realized I haven't thought of it once. It really left me nothing.
"Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some."
I used to think of my reading taste as predictable. Well, at least a very specific part of my reading taste: namely, there are very few things in the world that I love more than I love dyostopias in the style of 1984 and, above any other, Brave New World (seriously, you need to read that book). This is why I was convinced I was bound to like The Handmaid's Tale; and yet, right before I started it, I was caught by a hunch that my certainties were not certain at all.
I don't know if it's self-conditioning or whatever, but my gut feelings lately are unerring.
•Have you ever heard of Coleridge and the suspension of disbelief?
"...a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."In the majority of cases, we don't even realize we're granting the author and the story our suspension of disbelief. We just believe, because we are prepared to, because we know that if we don't, then reading is no use, especially if what we are dealing with is a fantasy or sci-fi book. Lo and behold, this book made me struggle to grant it my suspension of disbelief. I still have not decided if it was due to the writing, or the story in itself, or something else yet, but that is what happened, and it totally ruined it for me.
•In my defense, the lack of explanations, or better, the fact that they are given only when we are well into the story, practically towards the end, did not help. Most of the time, I just felt like I was groping around in the dark, and honestly, it was annoying, annoying, annoying. Besides, we are supposed to believe that this full-scale change that swept across the society happened in approximately eight or ten years at most, (we don't know the chronological details) and I found I just couldn't believe it. It's too radical a transformation, and according to the book the mentality it brought about is already well-implanted into the citizens -not everyone, naturally, but generally it is. It's par for the course for a dictatorship to establish itself in a matter of years, but it requires nonetheless the long-standing presence of a certain set of ideas that justifies and forms the basis of the building of an ideology. What we see in The Handmaid's Tale is the cause, the ultimate effect, and none of the passages in between. I need the in-between. I need the whole picture.
•This lack of "background", if you can call it so, made it impossible for me to lose myself int he story. The narrative voice, the protagonist's, is ineffective, bland, not nearly as trenchant as such a strong story requires. She should be able to heighten our disgust for the situation out of sympathy towards her and her circumstances, but to me, and you are allowed to call me heartless, nothing of this happened. I was horrified by what she and the whole female population have to suffer, but it was only an objective aversion due to an objective state of affairs, and not even partly to the empathy I should have felt for the character. I read stories to connect with the people in them; otherwise, I would read nonfiction.
•The plot is uneventful, almost literally. Usually this is not something I consider a priori as a flaw, but in this case it felt like one.
➽ On balance, I did not enjoy it. I acknowledge its value, but it was quite an effort for me to get through it.
Now that I think of it, probably it's kind of a 2.5 instead of a full 3.
I don't even know where to start with this book??
I was not able to connect with the Characters in the book at all. It was a task to completely finish this book at all.
I know I am in the minority, but I don't know what all the hype was with this book. I think that Atwood was long winded in her writing style and did not help with the connections with the Characters.
I honestly don't have much more to say about this book.
Don't let the bastards grind you down.
There's a lot of talk about women's rights these days. There were times where I thought: enough already. You girls got it good. I looked around me and saw women with strong voices and a million choices. If they wished to go for a career, they could go for it. If they didn't, no biggie. Their liberty seemed greater than men's in a lot of respects. The power they wield over men is magnificent and often described as the greatest humanity is capable of: a woman's love. They can choose to give it or withhold it. Men's political and physical powers look puny and artificial in contrast, as their strings are constantly pulled by forces they can't resist. Somewhere deep inside me I had a hard time believing things could really be so bad for women, with their majority in numbers and all this strenght at their disposal.
But then you turn on the news or you open a history book. You look outside your own country. You look at a presidential candidate talking about women as animals, as goods to be acquired, as territories to be conquered. You see people making excuses for it, making light of it, you see in their eyes they assume that it's normal. You see laws that tell women what to do with their own bodies, in the name of religion or the greater good. You hear of households where tiny kings use their physical power to terrorise their tiny kingdoms. And then you see all the machinations that have gone into trying to rob women of their mystical, almost holy, powers in greater kingdoms, machinations that often seem on the verge of systematising in the blink of an eye.
So, having accepted that the Woman's struggle is real, I was reading The Handmaid's Tale that paints a picture of how things would look like if circumstance and evil succeeded in stripping women of all the agency they have. When they have succesfully been ground down by the bastards. Bastards aren't Men, per se. Or all men. Or only men. This isn't so much a story about women versus men. It's a story of the artificial power against the real one, a story where the former won.
It's a bleak picture. Atwood uses the very claustrophobic perspective of Offred to great effect. Offred is the eponymous handmaid who find herself in a dystopia where her only societal value is also a curse: her fertility. Her world consists of her room, a stroll down the stairs, a garden, a walk to the butcher and her one and only societal mission: to get pregnant. She has to wear a cape that allows her to only look directly in front of her. She's isolated and stripped of her identity. Even her memories are slowly disappearing and losing relevance in a surrounding that offers nothing to link them to. Through this narrative Margaret Atwood succeeds in donning that same vision-confining cape on her readers' heads, immersing them in that same claustrophobic atmosphere.
This books does very well what it set out to do and that also explains why I didn't thoroughly enjoy it. I wanted more background. I wanted more explanations. I wanted more adventure. I wanted more action by the protagonist. I wanted her spirit, still apparent in the secretly hoarding of butter and the plotting of small thefts, to break free and wreak havoc among the bastards. Make them lose without losing herself. I wanted more direction. I wanted the flashes of hope to last. In short: the author succeeded in making me want what the protagonist wanted. She showed me what it is we should all strive to avoid actively.
An important book, and a good one to boot.
There are only a small handful of books that have affected me in a REALLY personal way. In a way that I always try to put into words and always, ultimately, fail. I have read a lot of books over the years and I've liked many, disliked plenty too, loved and hated a smaller amount... but out of the thousands I've read, there's less than ten - maybe even less than five, now I think about it - that honestly hit me so hard that I would go so far as to say they changed me.
The Handmaid's Tale is a book that changed my life.
I know, I know, big dramatic statement to make. I hear you. And normally I wouldn't say that, even about books I give five glowing stars; but with this book it is nothing short of the truth. This book was the spark that turned me into a feminist. It was the spark that made me interested in gender politics and, through that, politics in general. One of my favourite teachers in the world gave me this book and said "I think you'll like this one."
She was so wrong.
I didn't like this book; I loved it. And I hated it. I lost sleep over it. I lived in it. I was so completely absorbed into this world, into this dark but oddly quiet dystopian reality. There is something about the tone of Atwood's novels that works like a knife to my heart. Quiet, rich, the drama just bubbling under the surface of the prose. Atwood doesn't waste words, she doesn't sugarcoat her stories with meaningless phrases, everything is subtle and everything is powerful.
This dystopia is a well-told feminist nightmare. An horrific portrait of a future that seems far too reminiscent of aspects of our own society and its very real recent history. The best kind of dystopian fiction is, for me, that which convinces me this world might or could happen. Atwood's world-building may be sparse and built up gradually as the story unfolds, but she slowly paints a portrait of stifling oppression and injustice that had me hanging on her every word.
For someone like me who was so caught up in Offred's experiences, this book was truly disturbing. In the best possible way. There are so many themes and possible interpretations that can be taken from this book - plenty of which I've literally written essays on - but I'll let new readers discover and interpret the book for themselves. I will issue you one warning, though: the ending is ambiguous and puts many people off the book. But, for me, it's one of the very few cases where an open ending has worked 100%. It made the story even more powerful, in my opinion, and guaranteed I would never be able to forget Offred and, indeed, this whole book.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
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(edited from a paper I wrote in college about the book)
In 1986, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, Ronald Regan had declared “Morning in America,” and society was going to renew itself by returning to the old values. The Christian right, in its infancy at the time, was rising in reaction to the Free Love, and the horrors of AIDs. The 1984 election gave us Willie Horton, and a reminder about how violent and evil society had become. Finally, even though Chernobyl happened shortly after the book was published, the Union Carbide disaster in Bopal, India was still fresh in the headlines—a reminder that even the air is not safe. It was not hard at the time to extrapolate the ultimate end that this cocktail of fundamentalism, conservatism, violence, disease, and disaster would bring, but what Atwood could not know, is how much of her novel would become reality in the world.
Amazingly, twenty years after it was written, there are elements of the story that have become true—perhaps not in the United States, where the story takes place, but throughout the world. The most obvious first connection is with many of the issues regarding women’s rights and religious fundamentalism that are taking place in the Middle East. It was shocking to read in the book that the initial attack on the US Government was blamed on Islamic Fundamentalists, though the story was written after the Lockerbie Pan Am bombing, and the massacre at the Rome airport. While this kind of terrorism was only in its infancy, Atwood’s insight is almost prophetic in the book. When the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was bombed, the initial reaction by the media was to blame Islamic terrorists, when in fact—like the novel—the terrorism was homegrown. The scale of the attack that took out the US Government in the novel is also eerily similar to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reading this novel in the post-9/11 world can send chills down one’s spine: the novel includes suicide bombings at checkpoints, restrictions of rights in the name of safety, blind patriotism, and an overwhelming belief that there is only one true religion, and deviants from this should be killed.
While George Orwell’s 1984 is often referred to as an insightful perspective on modern society whenever someone puts a video camera on a street lamp, or the government begins referring to negative events with positive doublespeak. Orwell’s world never materialized in full, and likely never will materialize to the degree he created. Instead it is Atwood’s distopia, seemingly outrageous at the time it was written, that became reality. This novel should serve as a cautionary warning about the result of any extremist view taken to its logical conclusion—the Taliban is proof that society cannot dismiss the notions of this book as outrageous and extreme. They have proven in the last decade, a plausible end to the error of letting fundamentalism in any form guide one’s society.