Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bookish Thoughts: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. ~ Opening of The Handmaid's Tale



The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Anchor Books, 1986
Fiction; 311 pgs

Goodreads Summary: 
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...

What a beautiful and sad book. The Handmaid's Tale is my second Atwood novel, and I liked it even better than The Blind Assassin. While I had been planning to read The Handmaid's Tale for some time now, the timing seemed fortuitous, given the current political climate in the U.S. I would like to believe that how quickly the government fell in the book version of the U.S. could not happen to us today. And yet, there are some eerie similarities that definitely give one pause. While I do not see a society like the one described in the The Handmaid's Tale becoming our reality--not exactly, anyway, it is food for thought. The Handmaid's Tale is certainly a cautionary tale, one deserving of its modern classic status.

Offred is not too young or too old to remember what life had been life before the current authorities came into power. She once worked and had a relatively nice life, living with her husband and young daughter. All of that changed seemingly rather quickly, however, when a more totalitarian theocracy slipped in to take over without too much protest or fight. Those leading the charge played on the fears of the society, wanting to "clean up" the amoral direction the society had seemingly taken. Suddenly, women were striped of their occupations and rights, no longer able to hold property or have bank accounts. They could not work outside the home. Eventually, they were no longer allowed to read, even just signs. In fact, a woman's value was, in many cases, determined based on her fertility. Women who couldn't have children, tried to take others' children.

Everyone has a role and place in the Republic of Gilead based on class and gender. Anyone who does not fall in line is either sent out to the colonies or killed, their bodies sometimes put on display for all to see--as a reminder. Offred is a handmaid, dressed in red. Handmaids play a special role in society and are both respected on one hand and looked down upon as well. They are the mistresses to the powerful with the job of reproducing and providing a baby for the elite, high up officials and their wives, many of who can no longer have children.

In Atwood's novel, fertility is a problem due to a toxic environment, something that has been proven by science to be true in the more polluted areas of our own world. The role of women also plays a large part in the novel. Are they victims to be protected? Are they the cause of their own misfortune (i.e. rape)? In today's society, a woman is judged by how short her skirt is or how much alcohol she drinks. When raped or assaulted, many would point to those things as the cause. In the Handmaid's Tale, it is that very view that helps perpetuate the stripping of rights of women. Our own Congress, in committees made up mostly of men, want control over women's bodies and their individual choices. They think they know better. In Gilead, the men would agree.

The bodies hanging on the wall reflect the lack of tolerance and acceptance of those who do not fall in line or fit in with the current regime's strictures and views. They are a message to everyone else the importance of following the rules: don't stand out, and maintain the status quo.

Offred documents her story by sharing her past and present. She remembers her life before, the freedoms and the family she once had, and the life she has now, careful of what she says and does, knowing anyone could be watching and listening. Reading is forbidden and you never know who you can trust.

Atwood's choice of narrator, a woman named Offred, who attempts to tell her story with as little emotion as possible, proves to be quite powerful. Offred certainly isn't unfeeling, but there is a matter-of-fact-ness in the telling that adds to the weight of the novel. 

This book has been targeted as anti-religious, but, like many others who actually read the book, I did not get that impression at all. Yes, those in charge in Gilead use the Bible to excuse their laws and behaviors, but this can be seen throughout history in one form or another. Religion used as a weapon. Those in power often use and manipulate religion, Christian or otherwise, to control the people. We see religion used by extremists today to excuse their actions all too often. While the party in power in The Handmaid's Tale is religious and has set strict laws in the name of religion--it is more symbolic than anything. Substitute someone like Hitler, and you could easily have a similar situation.

How easily human rights and freedoms can be stripped away in the name of protection and high morals! Just whose morals and who we are being protected from is the real question. The Handmaid's Tale is, indeed, a cautionary tale, one that resonates all too well today. Perhaps not in the same form or in the exact structure, but in just enough spots. Is anyone listening?


You can learn more about Margaret Atwood and her books on the author's website. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.


© 2017, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

30 comments:

  1. I haven't read it, but now I feel like I really should! Thanks for the review, Wendy!

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    1. Eustacia - I hope you get a chance to read this one.

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  2. I listened to this recently and thought it was terrific. The narrator was good but I think I'd still like to revisit it in print one day. I agree with you that it's a very timely book.

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    1. Kathy - You have me wanting to listen to the audio now. I am glad you enjoyed it. I imagine I'll wait a bit before I do though.

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  3. I enjoyed your review. I've been curious about this novel. I'm definitely adding it to my 'ToRead' list now.

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    1. Pat - Thank you. Atwood kind of intimidates me, which is a shame because I really do enjoy her books. At least the two I have read so far. :-) I hope you like this one if you read it!

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  4. I've read this one before but have absolutely no memory of it! I have it on my Kindle to read again. I picked it up as soon as 45 hit office.

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  5. I remember reading this and thinking what a powerful and thought-provoking book this is. I haven't read all the books by Atwood but I think this would be the book which would always stay in my mind.

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    1. Melody - It's certainly stayed with me since I read it. I agree, it is a very thought-provoking book.

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  6. This sounds like such a great book. I bought this book a couple of years ago but haven't read it yet. I really do need to work it in soon since it sounds very powerful.

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    1. Carole - I hope you like it when you read it. Atwood is such a talented author and really gives you something to think about.

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  7. I've never read Atwood. And I guess this book was made into a TV show currently running on Hulu. Since I don't subscribe to Hulu, it's either print or nothing.

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    1. I don't subscribe to Hulu either. I thought about doing so in order to watch the show, but I think I will wait and see if it ends up coming out on DVD or something instead. I would like to see it as I'm hearing people are liking it.

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  8. I still haven't read The Handmaid's Tale. Maybe I'm afraid to--especially now.

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  9. I read this a few years ago and couldn't help wondering if something like this could really happen...and now...well frightening times.

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    1. Melissa - I'd like to think it could never happen, but then things have happened recently that I didn't think possible . . . It is frightening.

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  10. I read this in 1988, but it made an indelible impression on me. I read an article in which Atwood addressed accusations that this book is anti-religious. She responded perfectly, explaining that she is opposed to anyone trying to strip others of their rights (whether it occurs under the guise of religion or not).

    Atwood's dystopian series (starting with Oryx and Crake)is even darker, and I think I like it even better -- so far. I've only read the first book.

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    1. Stephanie - I vaguely remember reading something like that from the author too quite a while ago. I certainly didn't get an anti-religious sense from the book--which is good since there isn't one there.

      I haven't yet read Oryx and Crake but I've heard good things about it and the other two books too. I look forward to reading those as well.

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  11. I enjoyed your review and will definitely read the book. Thanks.

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    1. Heather - Thank you. I hope you like it if you do read it!

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  12. I've been watching the mini-series on Hulu and it is intense! I would like to read the book, too. I've read The Blind Assassin and the Penelopiad and they were both so well-written. I should read more Atwood. Thanks for the excellent review. I agree, it's chilling how quickly things can change when fear is the driving factor...

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    1. Aarti - I'm envious! I really want to see the mini-series. I hope they put it out of DVD at some point. I want to read more Atwood too.

      Thank you!

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  13. I am intimidated by this book & awed at how timely it's proven to be with the series bringing it into popular culture at this time. Thoughtful review, one that will give me much to think about.

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    1. Verushka - Thank you. I hope you will read it. I was a little intimidated too. Atwood's work in general intimidates me. :-)

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  14. I loved the movie from 1990, and had always intended to read the book, but kept forgetting. I read The Heart Goes Last about two years ago for review and didn't like it, but a lot of her fans didn't like it either, so I am still going to give this book a try. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

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    1. I haven't seen the movie version, but I would like to. I have heard mixed reviews of The Goes Last. I have only read two of her books so far, but I do want to read more.

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    2. I haven't seen the movie version, but I would like to. I have heard mixed reviews of The Goes Last. I have only read two of her books so far, but I do want to read more.

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  15. Whenever anyone asks me what the scariest book I've ever read is, I always saw this one. More and more, it seems to be predicting a future we might live.

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