The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood popped on my radar a few years ago when it was being adapted for television. I didn’t know much about it at the time and only learned a few tidbits before I decided to read the book. All I really knew was that the main character was a woman who was considered special because she could bear children in a world where that was supposedly rare, and that it took place in a dystopian future. I do like dystopian novels, but what really made we decide to read this book was Margaret Atwood herself. She didn’t personally recommend it to me (though I wish I could meet her). I took her Masterclass on writing a few months ago. She did use this book as a case study for a few instances, but I came to find her as a person simply charming. I’d never read anything by her and didn’t now much about her before this class, so I thought I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale to see if I would like her writing. I almost chose Oryx and Crake but it was book one of a trilogy so I decided to save that series for later. It has joined my extensive to-read list.
I do not include spoilers about the story itself, but I do describe aspects of the dystopian society, which could be considered spoilers. So…*Spoiler Warning*
The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and tells of a world where the United States is changed into the nation of Gilead via a military coup with a deeply religious foundation. The issue of declining birth rates had already been taking place and various other issues are alluded to such as mass nuclear contamination in many areas and the reduction of sea life to near non-existent levels. So basically the world was declining drastically before this takeover. Many people were persecuted and exiled. Many tried escaping when things got really bad, but this book focuses on a Handmaid.
Women are all segregated into classes and men have dominant roles in the new society. A Handmaid is a woman who has the potential to give birth and they are, as Atwood describes, essentially just a walking womb. They have a special role in this society but are also held to the highest standard. They are surrogate mothers in a society that opposes in-vitro fertilization.
Needless to say, this book can be disturbing. The little information we get about the gradual change of the society is what, I think, was one of the most frightening aspects. The Constitution gets suspended and life goes on as usual, but small changes start to occur. Then larger ones. Some people try to resist but are suppressed quickly and often lethally. What I think is so disturbing is that this drastic change of society by a large, violent group is very realistic. I like to think something like this could not happen, but Atwood dispels that doubt with her descriptions. The society itself and the way women are used is also quite disturbing. Women are reduced to nothing but their biological abilities. They are used as cooks and to run households if they cannot bear children, but outside of that they have no liberties. They are practically sentenced to death if they are deemed non-compliant. Men also have to watch their backs, but they can still live somewhat normal lives with a certain level of freedom.
One thing that did take some getting used to was the first-person character who also acts as narrator. There are very few quotation marks used in this book. I think many people have a hard time with this since there are instances where the quotation marks are used but most of the time they are not even when a conversation is taking place. As I said, it took a little bit to get used to it, but once I was it didn’t bother me much. I think the lack of the quotation marks makes the descriptions and scenes actually stronger or more disturbing. It’s a style choice. Some like it, some don’t. I personally did not think it was a big deal.
Atwood shows her mastery of the craft in this book with her pacing. She builds her dystopian world and makes it intriguing despite its horrors, but she also provides information about the characters and changes to the society in small bursts throughout the story. Therefore, you are always learning more and getting questions answered as you read.
Great dystopian stories often read as timeless (and also allude to a war going on somewhere in the background of the story). This one can be ‘dated’ to the late 1900’s or early 2000’s fairly easily, but it reads timelessly as if the story could take place not far into our future. Dystopian stories are, I think, supposed to show us a possible future that we should absolutely try to avoid. They are often extreme futures, but more importantly they comment on the world we live in (or the issues of the time they were written). This book is definitely a commentary on gender in society. It comments on many other things as well, such as sex, but the core is gender disparities. I guess you could almost compare this book to Brave New World. At least, to say that the societies are opposites. You could say the society in this book took great steps to prevent what would possibly become the society we see in Brave New World. Instead of rampant drug use and orgies and ‘everyone must be happy,’ we get an authoritarian Big Brother where sex is only an act that should be used to create life and love or any other abstract feelings should be suppressed. So…yes, it’s more like 1984.
I recommend this book because, as like many dystopian books, it makes you think about society in various ways. This book is a bit more disturbing than others, but for a purpose, and I think it is disturbing because it is hitting close to home on many issues we see today. Issues that were probably more prominent in the 1980’s. It is meant to make you think. Not about some fictional future but of our current issues and our past. To make us look closely and see what we may have been previously ignorant of. Hopefully, it will expand your mind and let you see the world you live in a little more clearly. Hopefully, it will encourage you to help make the world a little better than it currently is.