Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist dystopian satire. It was sort of a box-tick read, but it was very good, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it and I never ever want to read it again. In slightly-future America, now a fascist misogynist theocracy called Gilead, Offred (but June, really) is a Handmaid. This means that she has viable ovaries, and is responsible for producing babies. Once a month she has sex with the Commander to whom she belongs, and her life is sharply circumscribed – she can’t read, can’t walk in public by herself, can’t talk to other men.
The book is not a straightforward narration of events – what fun would that be, for a Bad Future America? June’s narration tilts between times, the present and the past and the little she can imagine of her future. We gradually begin to get a picture of June’s life as a Handmaid – dancing around forbidden subjects with fellow Handmaids and other members of the household, trying to navigate changing relationships with the Commander and his Wife, who used to be an awful Phyllis Schafly person in the time before Gilead became a fascist theocracy. And June talks about her life before, her husband and daughter, and the events that led up to where she is now, including her time in a women’s indoctrination school.
The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel upset – or, actually, as I have been rigorously trained not to say that anything makes me feel anything, I felt upset when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Obviously that’s the point! I just don’t think I’m going to read it again. She just makes it seem so viable – they draw a comparison with Iran, and I’ve been reading about Iran, and it’s scary. Like, June talks about the speed with which she has adapted to her new life: it’s been only a few years, but already she is shocked to see the clothes on women from other countries, skirts to the knee, and lipstick. I don’t know – June’s life has become so small, even from what it was at the indoctrination school. Upsetting.
Something else that upset me: June tells stories about her friend Moira, a feminist who went to her same college, and who was at June’s same indoctrination school. Moira is brave and rebellious – she swears and gossips and escapes from the school – and June admires this. But still she recognizes that she isn’t as brave as Moira, and she tries to imagine that Moira finds a way to be free. “Moira is right,” she says, almost at the end. “I am a wimp.” (I’m not brave either.)
Oh, but (spoilers here!) there was one of those lovely unresolved endings that I like so much. I like these because then things always end happily. In my mind, June escaped and she found Luke and she went through the Phyllis Schafly person to find her daughter, and then she got her daughter back, and they moved to Canada, the true North strong and free (yeah, I know that song), and lived happily ever after. I love it when grim books let you decide what happens in the end.
A bit I liked, about the pre-Gilead days:
There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights. These things you did like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you. And for the most part they did. Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.
And this, from one of the women who indocrinates June.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….We seemed to be able to choose, [in the old days]. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.
The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
I want to read more Margaret Atwood. I love how she writes. I only didn’t give this five stars because it gave me a nightmare. Dammit. Without even being true!
Other reviews: Book Nut, The Book Lady’s Blog, The Luscious Literary Muse, Books for Breakfast, The Bluestocking Society, Books and Other Stuff, Violet Crush, It’s All About Me, read warbler, things mean a lot, Valentina’s Room, Reading Reflections, In Spring It Is the Dawn, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Rebecca Reads, Boston Bibliophile, and let me know if I missed yours!
You’re so right. Nightmarish. I don’t think I’ll read it again, either, but I know I’ll never really forget it.
It’s very singular – that’s what makes me think I will remember it vividly. I am also extremely curious about her other books. This one’s so striking that I am wondering whether her others will seem bland, or if she is able to be this frightening every time.
The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty high up on my list of books that I will never forget. I love that it’s upsetting, and I’ve re-read it several times to remind myself of how easy it would be for us to slide into a Gileadean regime. (I also like to juxtapose it with the afterword from Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 describing how Nehemaiah Scudder’s followers took the vote and then changed America into a theocracy.)
One of the most frustrating experiences in my reading life involved THT; my senior English class in high school read it, and out of the twelve people in the class, only two of us liked it. The rest were very religious and insisted that it was a “hate document,” an offensive, anti-religious text meant to demonize Christianity. All the class time meant to discuss the novel turned into arguments over whether it belonged in the curriculum. (One of the students later spearheaded a campaign to complain to the school board in hopes of having it removed.) It was so frustrating that none of those students would listen, or were willing to see how very possible Gilead was.
I haven’t managed to read anything else by Atwood. I started The Robber Bride once, but put it down. I think I want to try Oryx and Crake though, since I do love a good post-apocalyptic tale.
Oh, did you enjoy the epilogue? It’s pretty divisive.
Hate document, really? That’s not at all what I would have said about it. I wouldn’t have even said that religion played that large a role in the book (though it may be I was just noticing other themes more) – it’s just that the world is predicated on an idea of what might happen in a theocracy. Surely nobody in your class wanted a theocracy! (she said hopefully)
I loved the epilogue. I liked how it offered little clues to what happened after Gilead, and I just loved that the last line was “Are there any questions?” Fantastic, perfect last line to such a well-written & thought-provoking book! (That was gushy but I cannot help myself! It was a wonderful last line!)
This is one of the scariest books I have ever read. I can’t believe I read it the same summer as The Road and The Giver. It was actually a very good summer, which must be the reason why I was able to handle them all in such a short amount of time.
Anyway, the way she writes is lovely, isn’t it? Somehow I didn’t expect to like her as much as I now do – probably because she was once sort of mean to Neil Gaiman, and said those snobbish things about how her books are not sci-fi because sci-fi is about “squids in outer space”. Which has nothing to do with her writing ability, I know.
I’m currently about 2/3rds of the way into Alias Grace, and I’m absolutely loving it. I think you would too – lovely writing, and Victorian!
You know, I remember her making with the snobby and irritating me therewith, now that you mention it. That’s probably why I never bothered to pick up one of her books. Let that be a lesson to me! And this is excellent news about Alias Grace! I want to read more Margaret Atwood but I keep getting bogged down in Cat’s Eye, the only one of her books I own.
I love this review! I love your happy ending, too and your defense of ambiguous endings. I’m in the camp of loving the ending – I love the whole change in atmosphere and almost jolly frivolity of it.
Me too – I like the way the change of tone in the epilogue turns that entire agonizing, frightening book into an academic question. To me, that only heightens the effect of the rest of the novel. Chilling.
YES! after I hit submit, I wasn’t sure if ‘frivolity’ was the right word choice but you echo exactly what I was attempting to say: change of tone -> heightens the chilling effect
No, I think frivolous is a great way to describe it. They’re so self-satisfied and smug, so complacent in their superiority. So … ACADEMIC!
Thanks for the link. I really enjoyed this one too. Margaret Atwood’s way of describing things really entranced me. I love the quotes you highlighted.
Have you read anything else by her? I’ve got Alias Grace on my RIP reading list, and I’m so excited to read it.
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