Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood 
Anchor Books, a division of Random House
311 pages 

There is so much to tell you about The Handmaid's Tale - so much that I don't quite know where to begin.

I finished this more than two weeks ago, an eternity (in my book) between the time I complete a book and compose my thoughts about it.  Normally, I write my reviews - or at least, my initial thoughts and impressions - immediately after closing the book.  Sometimes sooner.

But this one is different, because it is almost impossible to process everything that is The Handmaid's Tale, set in the not-too-far-off-in-the-foreseeable-future society that is the Republic of Gilead (formerly, the United States). Two weeks later, it is still haunting me.

Which is the whole intention in the first place.

If anything else, The Handmaid's Tale is a thought-provoking book, about so many things:  women's rights, the influence of religion in society, relationships, politics, identity, betrayal, forgiveness, power and control. There are so many themes running through these pages. I know that's been a criticism of this novel, that Atwood is trying too hard to have the book serve as commentary on too many issues.  But that's part of what makes a novel a classic, in my view, and I truly believe that The Handmaid's Tale is definitely a classic.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I first read this in college, shortly after it was published and probably sometime around 1989. There was so much I'd forgotten in those decades since.  I remembered Offred, that she had once been married and had a child. I remembered her relationship to and purpose for the Commander and that Offred wasn't her name. (“My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that's survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.” )

What I hadn't remembered was the culture of life before the Republic of Gilead ("We were a society dying of too much choice.") as well as some of the specific events leading up to the formation of the Republic of Gilead. ("That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.")  

You can really see such an occurance happening, can't you?mention of the president being assassinated was particularly chilling, given the political climate today, as well as the mention of a specific tragedy (9/11?) that befell the country.  The pollution of the rivers and dying off of the fish was poignant, too, given the oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

Another thing that caught me off guard was how much Offred, before, was like so many women today.  She was a wife and a mother.  She worked full time.  She went grocery shopping.  She wore a bathing suit. And just like us, these everyday simple things that made up her life were taking place amidst a culture of sensationalism and a media realm that thrived on constant diet of the outlandish.

"The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. 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." 

Sound familiar?  Probably, because most of us can relate. I'm guessing most of us aren't living lives where our actions don't normally make the news.

For all of the oppression and denial of freedoms that are contained within The Handmaid's Tale, one of the primary messages is a hopeful one: even though there will always be people hell-bent on silencing another, there will always be ways to make yourself heard.

"Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat's ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they'd not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena's, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently." 

I rarely re-read books, but I am very glad that Florinda organized this read-along so that I would have the opportunity to remember why this is such an important book.

And when I think I am starting to forget, I'll re-read it one more time.

copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Meg said...

When I first read the book I liked it but thought it portrayed such an unrealistic and bleak view of the workd. that it undermined the theme. However, 25 years later, some seem more likely and frightening given how much of our lives are on computer (freezing of funds was something I recall). Would be worth reading again.

Trisha said...

When I think of the best books I've read since blogging this one always makes the list. It's just such a wonderful story and so well written. Great review!

Florinda said...

I'm really glad you joined in on the re-read! It's remarkable - and NOT reassuring - how plausible this novel still feels, but it also struck me how closely the descriptions of life pre-Gilead reflect our current society (maybe even more now than in the mid-1980s).

The Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary tale, and it certainly is a modern classic.

reviewsbylola said...

I rarely reread either but this is one that I should pick up again.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

I have always meant to read this book, and your insightful review has encouraged me to move it up to the top of my TBR list.
It sounds like such a timely read.

K A B L O O E Y said...

I should revisit it too. I remember rereading Alias Grace and really liking it more the second time for reasons similar to those you cite here. You have to admire her ambition.