Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale
March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
I recently finished reading a digital edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and it is such an evocative, compelling book I ran out and bought the paperback so I could feel the weight of these words in my hand. I want to be able to reread this book, underline sentences, write notes in the margins, and simply savor the feel of its physicality while it is held within my hand.
The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and it is Atwood’s third book. I first heard about it nearly twenty years ago and was intrigued, but for one reason or another, I never picked it up. I think it was because I thought it would be a dense and dry book. I had seen the movie, and though Natasha Richardson’s Offred was an intriguing interpretation of a woman struggling to survive a newly-formed dystopian world pulled out of a misogynist’s deranged dream, the film was a stylized Hollywood vision of what such a world would look like. In other words, the book is told from Offred’s point of view, and as an oppressed woman confined to a solitary and bonded existence, most of what we are told is through her interior monologue. The movie does not use voice-overs, so the viewer is left to guess what Offred is thinking, feeling, and learning. She becomes an enigmatic character who spends most of the movie looking sad and beautiful and lacks even the agency to think. Even though it is her story, she has maybe as many lines as the rest of the characters. I think this cinematic decision – no voice-overs – is where the movie lacks the fierceness and complexity of the anger and loss experienced by an intelligent woman who was once free to control her fate.
But, I did not know this. I just knew that movie felt inadequate. So, fast-forward twenty years to the present, I decided to read the book after I heard Atwood was coming to the Boston Book Festival. I’m glad I did.
It is the story of Offred – literary Of Fred, the commander she has been given to as handmaid because his wife – like many of the women – is infertile. Offred is the epitome of society’s greatest dilemma: what to do with their girls and women. Even today, all over the world, women are still held as society’s measure of honor and piety. In The Handmaid’s Tale, this perception has become one of Gilead’s (the newly formed country within northeast America) foundational tenants; women exist to bear children and serve men and their society. Rich women become wives; poor, infertile women become marthas or domestic workers, and all the other women who can bear children – and who can be controlled – become handmaids to childless families to provide them with babies.
The Handmaid’s Tale is masterfully written, as a master prose writer would be. It is eloquent and imaginative and politically astute. The issues and fears surrounding women’s rights that are brought to a living horror in this book are still evident 30 years its publication. ISIS, Boko Haram, the pro-choice-pro-life debate, all these groups and issues – and more – demonstrate how women are still reduced to their biological functions in hellish ways. As the gender that bears children, women have literally become the incubators for the men. The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly a feminist book, but it is also a tale of how a society crumbles when one-half of the population is oppressed and suppressed for the betterment of the other half, be it gender-based, wealth-based, or racial-based.