Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby ElaineB » 03 Jan 2012, 06:31

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The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Anchor Book, 1998 (originally 1986)
Overall: 4stars

Blurb: In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies? Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....

I'm including this because there is a lesbian in it, though not a major character. I found this is more relevant than ever, but as Ms. Atwood points out in a BBC interview from 2003, it's all drawn from history and the Bible. I do wish she'd said where it was set sooner (maybe I missed it) because once I knew, I visualized it much differently--knowing what wall she was talking about, for example. And I'm not sure I liked the ending. The first time I read this, I was much younger and more naive. It really did seem like speculative fiction. Now, reading it post-9/11 and aware of how women are treated in Afghanistan and other places, and how some would like women treated here, it gives me a whole new, even creepier, feeling.
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby Baker » 03 Jan 2012, 07:05

One of the few books I've read more than once. (And seen the film.)
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities ~ Voltaire
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby tanager » 08 Aug 2013, 00:59

I remember having seen the movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale long, long ago on VHS - perhaps. So long ago, in fact, that I remembered nothing about the plot at all. I only could recall the subject matter and a grave feeling of uneasiness. When I started reading books again, I quickly added the story to my “to read” list but I felt I needed to be in the right frame of mind to tackle the book.

The story is a woman’s (sort of) personal journal of a possible society in which infertility is rampant, women have lost all rights, and the people are governed by a strict religious code. The protagonist is fertile and so must perform her societal duty as a vessel for bearing the children of the elite class. Through the course of the story, the reader learns of her life before the new order, of her activist mother, her best friend (who is a lesbian), her family (who have been taken from her). Each of these threads are wound together through dreams and flashbacks. Meanwhile, in her day-to-day life we witness her elite holders coercing her to break the rules of the land. All story threads are driving towards a particular horror.

Atwood’s prose is stilted - lots of breaks - like the narrator’s thoughts are slowly tumbling out. Indeed, the story is about tumbling - just a little at a time. Reading doesn’t hurt at first. You can stop. But, the tale continues to tumble down. Or you tumble down the tale, perhaps. Then you realize that you have tumbled a long ways and it hurts and you want to stop, but there is too much momentum now. You have to keep tumbling and hurting and reading. Where is the bottom? And you are helpless too - just like the protagonist. No option is a good option.

It’s fucking brilliant.

The story sticks to you and colors your actions and thoughts in the adjacent times. I read some during lunch break one day and as I returned to my office I happened to see a TV - CNN - I only read the footer - “Yemeni girl wants education, not marriage”. The shit in this book could happen. This book is a possible reality. All the techniques used to control the population have been used at some point in some culture. Therein lies the greatest horror.

I was frightened particularly as the end of the book drew closer and closer and my imagination of possible resolutions shrank towards that uneasiness I remember from the film all those years ago.

I highly recommend this book.

How this book ranks among the last five I have read:
1. The Handmaid's Tale - Margeret Atwood
2. The Shining Girls - Lauren Buekes
3. The Gunfighter and the Gear-Head - Cassandra Duffy
4. Santa Olivia - Jacqueline Carey
5. Chained Convict For Life - JG Leathers

-tl
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby Proofrdr » 08 Aug 2013, 05:36

tanager wrote:It’s fucking brilliant.


Exactly! At the end, if you consider the situation and who is speaking,
Spoiler : :
you realize, after her death, even her story is controlled by men. Absolutely fucking brilliant.
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby wildlx » 08 Aug 2013, 05:45

The frightening part is that you don't have to think of countries like Yemen for this type of society to be possible. The USA is much closer to it now than it was when Margaret Atwood wrote the book.
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby Proofrdr » 08 Aug 2013, 06:24

You're right, Wildlx. As more and more states pass laws that restrict access not only to abortion, but also to affordable reproductive health care and birth control, they are condemning women to poor health and unwanted pregnancies.
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby FranW » 08 Aug 2013, 07:07

Excellent review, tanager! You really have a way with words. "Tumbling" is exactly right, for the protagonist, the story, and the reader.
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby Baker » 08 Aug 2013, 07:15

tanager wrote:Atwood’s prose is stilted - lots of breaks - like the narrator’s thoughts are slowly tumbling out. Indeed, the story is about tumbling - just a little at a time. Reading doesn’t hurt at first. You can stop. But, the tale continues to tumble down. Or you tumble down the tale, perhaps. Then you realize that you have tumbled a long ways and it hurts and you want to stop, but there is too much momentum now. You have to keep tumbling and hurting and reading. Where is the bottom? And you are helpless too - just like the protagonist. No option is a good option.

It’s fucking brilliant.

Yes. Yes, it is. I really liked this tumbling description of yours. Well done. :-)

Yes, she wrote it during Reagan's USA, but it is relevant, now, in too many places--especially where you get a toxic religious atmosphere. It is frighteningly plausible. I've come across many comments about things like abortion rights restrictions where commenters say "the Handmaid's Tale is not a how-to manual".
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities ~ Voltaire
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Re: Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Postby tanager » 09 Aug 2013, 00:56

Thanks for the compliments. Atwood's writing put me into that space to write the tumbling bit.

I wanted to post some notes that I took as I read and I did not know how to do that until I saw Proofrdr's post above where she used the fancy SPOILER tag...

So,
[spoiler=]
1.
"nolite te bastardes carborundorum"
I had no idea what this was when I first read it. I sort of wanted to wait until its meaning was revealed in the book, but, alas, I am weak and googled it. "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Of course, then, I immediately thought of the U2 song "Acrobat". I never realized that the song is an homage to The Handmaid's Tale. According to a number of high school students, it is.


There's a woman in a habit with "wings". (Although, I'm not sure if this is an actual U2 video... hmmm...). Looks like Bono and the boys are at Jezebels though.

2.
I love the way Atwood wrote the first Ceremony scene. Offred is laid out and getting used upon. But meanwhile she is stoically describing her surroundings. And here she describes the canopy of the bed she is laying upon:

Or the sail of a ship. Big-bellied sails, they used to say, in poems. Bellying. Propelled forward by a swollen belly.


Even with this poetic diversion, the reader is never in doubt of what the purpose of the Ceremony is. That is a brilliant tactic.

3.
This passage is wonderful too. She describe something that appeals universally and then turns it around so you have no doubt how fucked up the situation is:

I walk around to the back door, open it, go in, set my basket down on the kitchen table. The table has been scrubbed off, cleared of flour; today's bread, freshly baked, is cooling on its rack. The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine. It smells of mothers, although my own mother did not make bread. It smells of me, in former times, when I was a mother.

This is a treacherous smell, and I know I must shut it out.


Wow.

4.
Use of quotations:
Sometimes there are quotes sometimes not. I tried to figure out why. My guess is that they showed up when she was actively breaking the rules of the society. I searched around and saw others wondered about this as well. I never found a definitive theory on why this was done.

5.
I didn't think about how her story, in the end, was controlled by men. Awesome point, Proofrdr!

Also, I agree, you don't need to go to Yemin to find evidence of these aspects of society.

- Look at who garnered so much blame in the Steubenville rape case. The victim. She was the temptress.
- Lisa Brown, state rep. in Michigan was banned from speaking on the Michigan house floor after referring to her vagina during a discussion of abortion.
- And down in GA, State Rep. Terry England, while speaking in favor of a bill which makes it illegal to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks even if the woman is known to be carrying a stillborn fetus or the baby is otherwise not expected to live to term, starts up with anecdotes about farm animals.

The examples are, sadly, endless.

6. Oh,yeah...


[/spoiler]
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