The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood)

Up next: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

A dystopian novel that’s currently experiencing a resurgence thanks to a new Hulu series/movie.  I read it for a book club, which might be the most rewarding way to read it, since it generates some interesting thoughts and conversation.

Summary

A piece of speculative dystopian fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale” offers up a bleak world torn by war, ravaged by ecological disasters that kill people and cause infertility and birth defects.  Women have been stripped of all societal and political power; they are property, and none more-so than the Handmaids, who exist only for the use of their wombs.

Offred, the main character, is a Handmaid to a high-ranking Commander.  “The Handmaid’s Tale” is largely about her life in Gilead, but it also shows memories of her life before America fell and Gilead rose.  Offred lived most of her life as a free woman with full rights in America, and through her experiences and memories, readers are given a grim account of how easy it can be to lose those rights.

My thoughts

This was kind of horrifying to read, because it deals so deeply with misogyny and sometimes I feel like we, as a society, are so close to backsliding into a more oppressive culture.  I’ve always been rather disturbed how we still, in many ways, place the value of a woman in her role as a (potential) mother.  We’re constantly placing expectations on women to have children, to be the traditionally structured ‘nurturer’.  If you don’t have children, people ask you when you will.  If you ever express a lack of a desire to have children, people always react with surprise.  Especially if you’re married; as if there can be no possible reason besides procreation for getting married.  And yet, even when women do fulfill this expectation of childbearing, they immediately become less a person.  They are now a ‘mother’ and they are supposed to sacrifice everything that they are, or want, for their child.  Their identity comes second to that of being a ‘mother’.

The viewpoint of Gilead presented in this book takes this much further, so that the Handmaids are simply things, things that can bear children, rather than humans.  And women who cannot bear children are declared ‘unwomen’ and are sent off to die in the ecological wastelands.  Birth control is considered the worst affront to God.

Offred’s bleak observations of the measures taken to keep women under the boot of the government are horrific in the sparse, simple language in which they are made.  Offred’s room is designed to limit the ways she might “free” herself– there is no breakable glass, and she is not allowed a knife with meals.  Women in Gilead are not allowed to read or write, and their clothing is dictated by law.

This isn’t really a feel-good book.  It’s one that I think can generate a lot of discussion, which is why I think it’d be a good book club book.  If, you know, you can stomach the depression.  It’s hard to say whether I liked the book or not, because of this.  It’s well written and everything, but it’s pretty unrelenting in the grimness.  I think my favorite part was the meta epilogue, which is presented like a transcript of an academic seminar of historians talking about the Gilead time period.

Rating

5/7

Warnings

Oh boy.  Like, everything.  All of the sexual encounters are so incredibly questionable.  What consent can there really be in a situation like this?

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