(Book Review) From the Stacks: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

By Melinda Guerra

“I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.
Maybe it is about those things, in a way; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulant.”  – page 267

handmaidMargaret Atwood began writing The Handmaid’s Tale 32 years ago when she was living in West Berlin. 150 pages into writing it, she moved back to Canada and then spent 4 months in Alabama, where she finished the book in June 1985.  Though the book is set at some unspecified time in the future, it is not difficult to imagine the impact the beginnings of the Moral Majority had on the future world Atwood creates for her readers.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in America–now Gilead–at some unspecified point in the future. After the murders of the president and all of Congress, those who have risen to power have “temporarily” suspended the Constitution–under the pretext of reestablishing order–and established a theocracy over the nation. Women’s rights to hold jobs or own money disappear and populations of those deemed non-compliant to the new regime are exiled. One of the few things some women can do is bear children, and as nuclear plant accidents, toxic waste disposal, and disease have rendered many women infertile, fertile women are soon government property, given  to politically powerful men, in hopes they may produce a child the man and his wife would claim and raise as their own. Our narrator Offred (Fred is the name of the man whose home she serves) is one such woman, known as a handmaid.  It is through Offred’s eyes that we see this bizarre new world, and learn of the life from which she was taken.

“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.

There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?” – page 4

At the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred has been assigned to a new posting: the Commander is a man of extreme political importance in Gilead (though we never quite find out the particulars of his position), and his wife is a former religious figure Offred remembers watching sing in a television program, and then watching–in the years after–give speeches about women’s place in the home. Given the sensitive nature of her job, Offred has to tread carefully with both the Commander (whose increasing liberties create increasing risk to his handmaid’s well-being) and his wife (who both loathes and needs the handmaid and the possibility she can bring to their home), as well as those with whom she works and comes into contact. Though she has heard rumblings of possibilities of a rebellion, discerning the truth of such rumors, much less the trustworthiness of those who might know of it, is a difficult task.

One of the things I find fascinating about Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is how possible the dystopia within its pages seem today. One of the central themes of the novel is the autonomy a woman possesses in decisions about her own body; namely, that no such autonomy exists. Fertile women will exist as potential breeders for powerful men and, if lucky, bear children to whom they will have no rights; other women undergo forced sterilization, and other women still are sent into exile because they are gender traitors (LGBTQ+) or will not release their own claim on their sexuality.

Thirty-one years after Atwood’s book was first published, we live in a time when stories of violence toward LGBTQ+ people (the assault and murder stats are sobering) and women (the sexual assault statistics are telling, but so is the incredible victim-blaming that goes along with it) are frequently in the news, and where seemingly every few weeks another state has passed a bill further limiting the already restrictive reproductive rights of women. For all the frustration of continued injustice, what we’re seeing fulfilled aren’t merely nightmares the author had of some time in the future. On the contrary, Margaret Atwood weighed carefully what she would allow in her novel. Writing a few years ago about her novel, she said this:

“I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the ‘Christian’tradition, itself. (I enclose “Christian” in quotation marks, since I believe that much of the church’s behaviour and doctrine during its two-millennia-long existence as a social and political organisation would have been abhorrent to the person after whom it is named.)” – The Guardian

It’s damning, both how much of Gilead was pieced together from western society’s history, and also how much of it to which we seem dangerously close today.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the next Bookish selection. If you get a chance to finish the book before our mid-April meeting, you’re welcome to join us to discuss the novel and its similarities to the culture in which we live today. As always, for details and to reserve your space, email me at gplbooks[at]gmail[dot]com.

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