A Handmaid’ Tale – Margaret Atwood.
1985. Houghton Mifflin Co.
311 pages. [Source: iBooks]
I’ve always been a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, back when I first purchased her collection of poetry on a whim at a secondhand book shop. I’ve always loved the fluidity of her words and how beautifully she constructs her sentences. Her descriptions are similar to those of Steinbeck (another one of my favorites), so to read A Handmaid’s Tale was a no-brainer for me. I had to love it, right?
A Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, “a work of speculative fiction,” which takes place in a pseudo-futuristic version of the United States–the Republic of Gilead. The women of the Republic–with some exceptions–have been stripped of their jobs, their money, their place within society, and their personal values. Women are appropriated into certain roles, for example, as handmaids–women whose ovaries are still viable, who haven’t been thwarted by disease and infertility, those who are still able to conceive. As this dystopian America has seen a declining birthrate, a handmaid’s duty is to provide her “family” with children. She is a “nun of fertility”, essentially.
The story is told through the eyes of the narrator, Offred, a handmaid. Through the story, Offred contemplates the reality of her situation. She is thirty-three, has been thrown into this life without any chance or choice of her own will. She has lost a husband, a daughter, countless friends, and her mother. She is expected to be chaste, to give her life to God, to respect her family–the Commissioner and his wife Serena Joy–and to provide them with offspring. Offred struggles with her new life, because she has known of a different world; she has seen the world change. She acknowledges the ease at which the new generation will assimilate–the daughters of the handmaids–because it’s the only world they’ll ever know.
Atwood’s arguments throughout the novel are of feminism and human survival. How long does one last in a situation like this? Is a person’s will to live stronger than their will to give in? Offred knows some of the other handmaid’s from her previous life, or her life at the Red Center (basically, a training camp for handmaids). She notices, throughout the story, changes in different characters. Some seem to be lost, broken. Others, carry the glimmer of hope, the resistance of convention and change. She struggles with this idea of piety, the acceptance that her body, her fertility, is a mechanism, designed for one, sole duty. She contemplates her sexuality, her need for affection, love, the touch of man. She finds solace in the Commissioner, through his need for the same affection. Offred reflects, constantly, on the idea of Love: “The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, the incarnation. That word, made flesh.” Through all of these changes, she’s been taught over and over again that God is Love. Everything she does, is done for Him.
I think it’s really interesting, throughout the story, how common her thoughts are. She tries so hard to believe, to be dutiful and respectful. But ultimately, she can’t. She can’t forget her life before, can’t fully let go of her freedoms that she so took for granted. She says: “It’s strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the everexpanding perimeters of our lives.” She says, “I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me…”
I found this story to be intriguing, always questioning what was going to happen next. I have never been one for dystopian literature, or even science fiction for that matter, but I found the feminist diatribe to be exceptionally relevant, given society’s current situation. Women, in the story, who are raped or “violated” are condemned as sinners. They are said to deserve whatever came to them because of their sins, in this life or the previous. While this novel was written almost thirty years ago, exactly, it’s interesting to see the parallel. Women today struggle with a similar concept–girls wearing short skirts or dresses, revealing clothing, etc., being raped or violated, and their attackers justifying it by saying “she was asking for it.” Offred represents the female voice of the future, the female who is afraid of her sexuality, but who understands it’s a voice that cannot be quieted. She tries to hard to be pious, but ultimately cannot give up her desire and need for flesh. Women do not have to be afraid of being sexual creatures–men have been sexual creatures since the beginning of time. Are we supposed to ignore our bodies, our inherent desires, because of this fear? Then what are we left with? We have no choice but to be Offreds, for fear that our “sins”, our crimes of sexuality, will ultimately destroy us.
While this may be more in depth than most book reviews, I find that this story is telling more than just a story. It’s more than a fleshless work of fiction. I can’t summarize it without giving all the good parts away, and if you wanted to read a summary then go to your nearest book retailer, find this book, read it’s back cover, and summarize that shit for yourself. It’s works like this, that deserve a critical eye. Although I am not the first to review this story, or the last, I find that it’s important to look into each story deeper than just the words on the page. As an English major, I spent a long, long time perfecting the art of arguments and critical analysis. While some find it to be overkill or uninteresting, I find it to be empathizing and concrete. It gives you something to hold on to, long after the story is over–after it’s forgotten, collecting dust, been sold at some garage sale for fifty cents.
So see for yourself. Read the book–it doesn’t take long–and make your own opinion. Or read any book! Check out some reviews, some critiques, find out what it is the author is really trying to say. Look deeper, and enjoy.
~ whatever forever ~