WEEK 16: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.” – 174

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985 and made into a film in 1990.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985 and made into a film in 1990.

In beginning to write this review I think it is necessary to comment a bit on my own writing process regarding the regurgitationof entire books into short, reader-friendly blog pieces. Most books, when I read them in their physical, paper forms (because I do write some of my reviews on audiobooks) I read actively. An active consumption of the book means I take notes in the margins, underline, place check marks next to things that pique my interests and warrant later return. It goes without saying that the books that demand more processing end up with significantly more markings and scribblings in them and I generally end up liking them better.

This weeks book, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, demanded a lot of processing. It has taken me some time to decompress after reading the book, demanding of me a more tedious review of the novel than usual. Recognized as one of the leading feminist authors of the modern day, Atwood deals with issues of gender, religion, politics, and distribution of power beautifully in this novel. I feel that my attempt to give credibility to the story of a young handmaid named Offred during the Gileadean times will inevitably come up short.

In summary, the book takes place during a time period that could be described as contemporary. The American democratic government is taken over by a new regime sometime after the 1980’s, and the result is a complete disempowerment of women into their designated roles as wives (if they are lucky to be born and raised within the elite), mistresses (women who have proven to be fertile and are trained by a stringent group of nuns to serve as national resources/vessels), and the Marthas, who would be considered the “help” of the household. And of course, there are the econowives – the women who were not lucky enough to be born into the elite and must perform all three roles of womanhood in their household.

Atwood’s novel is an intricate picking apart of political discussion concerning gender issues and women’s rights over their own bodies and lives. “I made a rule for myself,” she writes in 2012 article written for the Guardian on the publication and aftermath of the novel, “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 behavior. 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.”

The final chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be written from the perspective of an academic of the future who is studying the Gileadean society in retrospect and presenting his research to a crowd of fellow academics. “There was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead; its genius was synthesis,” notes the speaker.

Atwood’s genius as a writer is in her ability to weave the sexual tension into the novel and make it a driving force in all aspects of the society. Her imagery is lustful and fallac, and she forces the readers to feel that they are brimming with castrated desire just as men and women living during the era must have been. Thankfully, as the narrator points out, “nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from.”

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Overall Score: 10 – I can’t say enough good things about this book.

 

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