Thursday, March 09, 2017
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I considered not bothering to review The Handmaid's Tale because I think everyone I know has read it and what could I possibly have to say that hasn't already been said? But, I like to write down my thoughts, so I overruled myself.
The Handmaid's Tale is about Offred, a young woman who must dress in a long red dress that covers all but her hands and head. On her hands, she wears gloves when out in public; her head and face are covered with a white headdress with flaps on either side of her face so that she must turn her entire head to see anything not directly in front of her. She goes out to get food rations and meets up with another young lady dressed in red. Sometimes the person she meets is not the same one she walked with, before, and she knows that's a bad thing. When they walk past a wall that used to be part of a university, there are often bodies hanging and Offred looks to see if any of them happens to be her former husband.
Before she was Offred, she had another name, a husband, a child, and a job. What happened to her world and why is Offred nothing more than an object that belongs to the man of the house, now, subservient to the man's wife and doomed to labor or death if she doesn't conceive within a certain length of time? Where are Offred's husband and child? Who is in charge in this strange, dystopian world?
Not every question is answered but I personally think the way Margaret Atwood gradually reveals the story of Offred's past (if her real name was ever mentioned, I've forgotten it) was masterful. The Handmaid's Tale is both riveting and horrifying. I recall the ending as somewhat hopeful (although it's been over a month and I've forgotten quite a bit, already) but most of the way through the book, the sensation of Offred being utterly and completely trapped overwhelms the small rays of hope. Even when something important changes, there's always the lingering possibility that she could be put to death for that small change in her life.
Is this even remotely possible? That's the question that I think most people ask themselves, and they tend to shake it off as ridiculous. But, throughout the reading of The Handmaid's Tale, I kept returning to the thought of women in the Middle East, pre-Al Qaeda and Taliban. I don't want to post an image that might be copyrighted, so I'll just link to the one that really jumps out at me: Women in Kabul, 1970s and today. The fact that women used to be doctors and lawyers, dressed like women in the Western world, drove, and went to college and actually sometimes had rights before American women achieved them (Afghanistan allowed women to vote before the United States) seems to have been forgotten.
In The Handmaid's Tale, the oppressor is unnamed but there are hints that it's a religion dictating the treatment of women as vessels for reproduction or slaves and little else. I found myself wondering if Atwood based the book on what happened in the Middle East. Would women who lived in Kabul in the 70s have imagined what was about to happen to them? I don't think so. And, because of what has already happened in our world, I think I can safely say The Handmaid's Tale is more possible than we'd like to admit. Some of it seems a little far-fetched (the weird ceremonies, for example), but the oppression of women has happened and certainly could happen in other parts of the world.
Highly recommended - Mood-wise, The Handmaid's Tale is miserable. It's depressing and terrifying and sometimes gruesome. But, it's so beautifully done and so thought-provoking that I can see why people have been gushing about it for years. Unlike more recent dystopian reads, many of which are geared toward teen readers, there's no love triangle, no great hatching of a plan to fight back against the oppressor, and the small thread of hope is so slender that it's hard to believe it will amount to anything. I did eventually get to discuss The Handmaid's Tale with an online group, although only a few participated and I keep thinking I would love to someday reread The Handmaid's Tale with my big, noisy F2F group. I'm sure the discussion would be lively.
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