Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Ballantine Books, 1985
Massmarket paperback, 396 pages
ISBN 0449212602
Very Highly Recommended - reread

In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?
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 only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days 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....
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
My Thoughts:

As I was unpacking books after our move I couldn't help but set aside A Handmaid's Tale to read again, especially considering how much I enjoyed re-reading Cat's Eye. The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel that depicts a future society where religious fundamentalism has been taken to an absurd extreme. Woman are owned. The Handmaid's Tale is the sometimes rambling thoughts of a handmaid, Offred, describing her daily life as well as the memories she has of her life before, when she was a working wife and mother. It's interesting to note that The Handmaid's Tale is listed as one of the 100 "most frequently challenged books" from 1990 to 1999 on the American Library Association's website. While Atwood may have set The Handmaid's Tale in America, the truly chilling notion is not fighting over what religion or group inspired this cautionary tale but that it could happen, and surely has happened already, in some form or another in other countries, whether they be fundamentalist or fanatics.

No one can fault Atwood for her writing, because let's all face it, she is a phenomenal writer, so I suspect any criticism over The Handmaid's Tale is concerning the subject matter or perhaps the rather disjointed way Offred is telling us about her life. The way the story slowly unfolds, going back and forth through time, never bothered me and I think it fits the novel perfectly. This is a great dystopian novel. Let us all hope that we aren't working hard at living by ignoring what is going on around us. Very Highly Recommended, reread


We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light. opening

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability? It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep, in the army cots that had been set up in rows, with spaces between so we could not talk. We had flannelette sheets, like children's, and army-issue blankets, old ones that still said U.S. We folded our clothes neatly and laid them on the stools at the ends of the beds. The lights were turned down but not out. Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled; they had electric cattle prods slung on thongs from their leather belts. pg. 4

I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. pg. 10

The Marthas know things, they talk among themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted. I've heard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations. pg. 14

But I envy the Commander's Wife her knitting. It's good to have small goals that can be easily attained. pg. 17

They can hit us, there's Scriptural precedent. But not with any implement. Only with their hands. pg. 21

We aren't allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for out protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable. pg. 25-26

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. pg. 33

They haven't fiddled with the gravestones, or the church either. It's only the more recent history that offends them. pg. 41

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. pg. 74


Jeanne said...

I teach this book every time I get a chance, and like to ask for examples of ignoring and ignorance. There are so many Nazi and American slavery references.

Lori L said...

Oh my goodness... I could list dozens of examples even today of people ignoring what's going on around them.

Anonymous said...

This book freaked me out the first time I read it, especially when you think about how far-fetched it is but how it also seems plausible.


Lori L said...

I can see where it could freak you out, Anna, because variations of the theme have actually happened.