Monday, October 1, 2012

Banned Books Week: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

This week is Banned Books Week, which also marks its 30th anniversary this year. Many book bloggers are using this week to feature special posts about censorship, to highlight authors whose works have been challenged, and to read books that have been banned.

I thought I would commemorate this week by providing a review or reflection each day of a book that is frequently banned or challenged. Yes, according to the list at the end of this post, I read banned books - and I'm betting you do the same. (Or, hopefully, will want to during this week.)

For today's review, I decided to highlight The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is often challenged or banned from high school curriculums because of the various themes that Atwood writes about in the novel. Given the political discourse of late (especially with our presidential election here in the United States) and the social climate in which we live, I thought this was particularly timely.

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."

Sound familiar? 

You can really see the possibility of this happening, can't you? A mention of the president being assassinated was particularly chilling, given the political climate today, as well as the mention of a specific national 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."
Again ... sound familiar yet? 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 I re-read this one 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.

    I am an affiliate. Making a purchase through any of the links on The Betty and Boo Chronicles will result in my earning a small percentage in commission, which will be used to support the upkeep of this blog as well as the real-life versions of Betty and Boo.

For more information on banned and challenged books, see these lists:

Banned and Challenged Classics
100 Most Frequently Challenged Books By Decade (1990-1999)
Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009
Top 10 Challenged Books by Year 2001-2011

copyright 2012, 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.


Sue Jackson said...

I love, love, love thought-provoking books but am embarrassed to admit I have never read this classic - or anything by Atwood! I know - a huge hole in my reading list. Your thoughts on it make me want to read it even more.

I just finished Brave New World for Banned Book Week, which actually touches on some of the same themes that you've mentioned here.

I swear I am going to make time to read The Handmaid's Tale...soon!


Book By Book

Anna said...

Great post! Our situations are similar; I also read it first in college and again after becoming a wife and mom. I thought it was creepy the first time, but it was very haunting, as you say, the second time around because I could relate to Offred on some level.