The Handmaid’s Tale

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 peoples 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 early on 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 they are used but most of the time they are not used though a conversation is taking place. As I said, it took a little bit to get used to it. 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 the 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 1900’s or after 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 of 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 most dystopian books do, 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 see the world you live in a little more clearly. Hopefully, it will encourage you to help make the world a little better off than it currently is.

Happy Reading.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is 1984 by George Orwell. I’m was actually surprised that I haven’t recommended this book before now. Many think the title 1984 is an inversion of the last two digits of the year it was written, which was 1948 (published in 1949), but I’m not sure this was ever confirmed.

This book takes place in a dystopian future where the world is continually at war (as is common in many dystopian futures). The war is referenced but not really commented on besides how it is used to oppress the people and explain shortages of everyday items such as chocolate or razer blades. You may have heard some of the terminology from this book, such as Newspeak, Thought Police, and Big Brother. The popular slogan of the government in the book is also something you may have heard. It goes:

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

This book is thought-provoking in many ways and shows both what a human, and human society, can endure under an oppressive establishment. It also highlights humanity’s desire to be free and independent. There are several concerning things that are considered common practice in this dystopia. The most frightening for me was the main character’s occupation. Winston Smith works in a government building where his job is to “correct” past news articles to align with the current government’s views and actions.

For instance, he changes something as trivial as the chocolate ration. An article a few months earlier state that the ration has been changed from two bars a day to one bar (I’m paraphrasing this just to give an example so don’t quote me). The government, aka Big Brother, is reducing the ration again to only half a bar, so Winston is given an article to change. He changes it to read that the ration was actually one-quarter of a bar several months ago. So now, the people will read and believe that the new ration of half a bar is actually an increase in chocolate and they will all be happy about this improvement despite the reality that they will be getting less. There is a whole department dedicated to the changing of past information. This is terrifying on so many levels.

Ironically, 1984 returned to the bestsellers list last year (2017) because of today’s political climate. I first read it a few years ago (maybe 2015). Despite the sometimes somber content, I enjoyed it because it was interesting, thought-provoking (I like pondering new ideas), but also frightening because there have been some countries in the world that may have experienced similar events in the past.

This book was banned in 1950 in Russia. Even owning a copy at the time was cause for arrest because it was considered anti-communist propaganda. It was also banned in several countries in Europe at this time along with Orwell’s novella Animal Farm, which was also considered a political commentary.

I couldn’t imagine reading this book and realizing I would be living certain aspects of it. I’m thankful I can read it comfortably and allow it to improve my understanding of the world, people, society, the past, and allow me to understand how fragile information can be. It makes me feel responsible to ensure that facts aren’t muddled when there is irrefutable evidence. It also makes me feel responsible for my neighbors. To stand up if anyone tries to take away their freedoms, even if mine are in no way threatened. This book is both a warning and a call to action to prevent injustices.

Most of this books follows Winston as he tries to live a better life without being caught. He attempts to love someone he shouldn’t. He goes places he otherwise wouldn’t be allowed. He does things any of us would, but he has to always be looking over his shoulder. You may be surprised how this book ends, but I hope it makes you think. After all, some of the best books help us grow.

Happy Reading.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is Anthem by Ayn Rand. This is actually a novella coming in at 108 pages, and was nominated for a Retro Hugo award for Best Novella as it was published in 1938. This story takes place in a dystopian future where humanity has entered a Dark Age. In this Dark Age, people don’t have names but rather designations and are also designated a job to perform in the society.

The main character is called Equality 7-2521 who works as part of the Home of the Street Sweepers. What made this story especially interesting is the lack of individuality and the use of language (or rather lack of) within the society Mr. Equality lives in. They do not have words for individuals. They exclusively use plural pronouns (such as “we”, “our”, “they”) when speaking to each other or of themselves. This solidifies the mentality of humanity as a collective and also snuffs out any thoughts of being unique. The strict rules of course don’t sit well with the main character and the story ensues.

This novella was interesting and I read it in a maybe a couple of hours. Because this story is in the public domain, I can offer you a free pdf of this novella. Here you go: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Happy Reading.