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Not alone

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has definitely been an 'embarrassing gap in my reading', as it's generally called. When I asked my eldest daughter if she'd read it, she said it had been on the A level English syllabus when she'd been studying for it, but that her teacher had chosen to study the poetry of the song 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits instead. I have to say that this surprised me rather but this post is about The Handmaid's Tale not the failings of the English educational system. (I say 'English' on purpose because things are, or were, different in Scotland and Northern Ireland I believe.) Anyway, it was high time I read it and to that end I included it in my pool of books for a Book Awards challenge I'm doing, because it won the Canadian Governor General award in 1985.

Where to start? Some books almost defy description and this is one such iconic book...

The story describes the life of Offred, or at least her 'present' life. It wasn't always this way; once upon a time she had a husband and daughter, but no more. The USA is now The Republic of Gilead and is being run by religious fundamentalists. Women are now back to being second class citizens. They are not allowed to run their own finances, read books, dress to look alluring... freedom is a thing of the past. Offred, it soon emerges, is a 'handmaid' but what this actually involves takes a while to become apparent. The crucial thing to know is that something has happened to the environment and the birth rate is dropping. Babies are being born dead or grossly deformed and the government use this fact to introduce a system based on this quote from the bible -

Give me children or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid, Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

Substitute 'handmaid' for 'maid' and the picture becomes clear. What isn't so clear is what Offred (we never discover her real name) has done to deserve this appalling fate. We discover that near the end, before which we follow her daily life as handmaid to a childless middle-aged couple and learn how handmaids - and women in general - are now treated. I'm not saying any more than that as there are twists to the story that are best read 'fresh' so to speak.

This is, without doubt, one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. I tried hard to adopt a disbelieving frame of mind. As in, 'Well, that could never happen...' But I couldn't keep it up. Too much of it reminded me of Nazi Germany or Stalin's USSSR or the way women *are* treated in certain countries in the world, even today. And what would we do, as women, if our governments started to go in this direction? It's a terrifying thought quite frankly. I'm not saying that our lives are perfect in 2009, far from it, but to be so completely powerless, not to mention dispensable if you happen to be beyond childbearing age, too much of a rebel to be assimilated, or even a nun! is truly appalling.

I tried really hard not to be angry at the men in this and in the main succeeded, because some of them were as much pawns as the women, with one obvious exception. But one telling comment came when Offred describes how the women in her office were all given the sack and then her bank account was frozen. She was suddenly completely dependent on her husband, Luke, but it seemed to her that he didn't really mind too much about the way things were going. After all... he wasn't female.

There's so much in this book to talk about... it's one of these books where almost every sentence is significant - to the point of taking your breath away. Atwood's writing is very spare in places and in others, where she's describing the mind numbing boredom, not. It's certainly one of the most intense, skilful pieces of work I've ever read and, I can say now, will probably be the best book I read all year. And I am definitely handing it over to my eldest daughter!


And now you know why so many of us were so twitchy these past eight years. ;)

Offred did two things that landed her as a handmaid. First, she was Luke's second wife, which made her single and without male protection when they dissolved all second marriages. Second, she had given birth, which indicated that she was fertile.

I love this book. I've read it four or five times now, and I'm still finding things I hadn't noticed before.
And now you know why so many of us were so twitchy these past eight years. ;)

Yes indeedy. 8-S

Offred did two things that landed her as a handmaid.

Yeah, I mentioned that we found that out at the end, but really it was odds on it must be something like that. 'She'd committed adultery so she must be slutty' kind of thing. The second marriage thing took me a bit by surprise though. I'll definitely be rereading this, if only to remind myself how fortunate I am. Have you read Gate to Women's Country by Sheri Tepper?
Yes indeed. And I love that one too. :)
Long time since I've read this, but it blew me away when I did. Odd thing was, I've never much liked anything else Atwood has done since . . .
Oh that's interesting. Not another case where I've read the author's best book first! Our mutual friend in Ohio recced The Oryx (not sure if that's the exact title and I'm too lazy to check). So I'll try that at some stage too. Think I've got The Blind Assasin on my tbr mountain and I read a book of her essays a while back which were a bit hit and miss but not bad.
I liked this book, but what I really wanted to say was Wow Love The Cover!! I haven't seen this edition before, but it's gorgeous and very different. Almost has an Asian feel when I first looked at it.
I agree about the cover, I kept looking at it while I was reading and thinking how perfect it was for the book. I thought it might be Japanese, although the woman is clearly not... something about the clothes I think. But the back cover just says 'Cover illustration - Florence Boyd'. So... not Japanese. Old fashioned name so maybe it's not even modern? I should Google her and check.
Never read it, and to be honest I feel a bit intimidated by the sheer oppression described in excerpts I have read. It's one of those books I might have to set my jaw and plow through just because I am intimidated by it. But then, everyone who's told me about The Handmaid's Tale says it's a great read.

The scenario reminds me of The Stepford Wives, which is a less depressing one to me, partly because Stepford is about a small, illegal, hidden conspiracy and not an openly institutionalized society-wide oppression, but still infuriating in the way women are treated. After reading Stepford I had the irrational urge to kick the next man I met, without knowing anything at all about him.
You know, I think I probably held off reading it for the same reason you have. I think I might have been ever so slightly scared of it, *knowing* it would make me angry. I dealt with that by bracing myself and by trying very hard to be very fair in my head about the characters and their actions. It wasn't easy. I hope you will read it at some stage; it's so worth it.

I've not read The Stepford Wives but I've seen the movie. I supect the book is better and that I should read it. Another book along these lines but not exactly the same is Gate to Women's Country by Sheri Tepper. That one has a more hopeful ending and is a lot less depressing than The Handmaid's Tale. I liked the men better in that one too. *g* I know what you mean about wanting to give a man a kick. Doesn't help that the older you get the more cynical you get about them too... and being a big reader doesn't help that either. Too many male authors let their true feelings about women show all too clearly. I think probably that annoys me more than books like The Handmaid's Tale.