Thursday, June 02, 2011

81. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid's Tale (402; 1985) is an imaginative dystopian about a fictional world; a place where all rhetorics about women's place in the world are realised. It is also a world that has been lived before. In this novel, Atwood relied on all that had been said and is being said about women and what they should and shouldn't do. In the fictional world of Gilead, the constitutional government of the United States had been overthrown; its place place taken by Gilead, a state based on the Christian teachings and its purpose for women.

In Gilead women are grouped into Wives, Marthas, Aunties, and Handmaids. Handmaids are reproductive 'machines' that keep the population of Gilead from declining. And children are the most prized assets of the day. Rich couples unable to bear their own children contract these handmaids to get pregnant for them. A Handmaid who's unable to get pregnant after several 'servicing' with Commanders are described as unwomen. These unwomen are sent to other parts of the colony.

Offred, the narrator of this story, was a handmaid. She tells of her life as a handmaid and what she went through. It was almost like diary entries, written not to be read by none so that most things are not described detailedly. The reader sometimes feel like the cover was half-closed instead of half-opened. If it were a pot, one would have stretched one's neck to take a full look into it; but this wasn't so. However, in Offred's (or Of Fred) tale, she contrast life in this utopian turned dystopian regime with her life in the earlier period where all things were working well and women had the opportunity to do whatever they wanted to do; where there were women's movement, of which her mother was one, which fought for the rights of women. Like every strictly managed society, there were saboteurs and those unwilling to fit in Gilead, individuals working to bring down the Theocratic state, which itself wasn't theocratic to the core. For though micro- and mini-clothings have been banned and uniforms have been prescribed, prostitution and drugs have all been superficially eliminated, there was a building within which all of these are done with abandon, by the very Commanders who instituted Gilead. Amongst such 'unwilling' individuals was Moira.

Offred's Commander seemed to have some love for past things as 'love' and 'scrabble'. In Gilead, love is not the key. Women function. Men function. Love is not something you fall in in Gilead. However, this primordial emotion awakened itself within Offred's Commander, and most of the commanders for that matter, and as told, unreliably though, by Offred, the commander began showing some levels of love to her during their secret scrabble games. Offred's narration could not be fully reliable as she herself sometimes say one thing only to tell us that it wasn't true, it didn't happen that way. But we can be sure that the glimpses she offered us, which were not reliable, were the watered down versions. The real deal were more macabre. 

Atwood dispassionately wrote this novel and it was difficult to see where she actually stands in this grand scheme. Does she incline towards the period before or the current period or a bit of both; for, in writing, she brought the good and the bad from each side. There were, superficially, no drugs, stealing or any form of blatant crime on the streets of Gilead. It was a peaceful place though the internally, within the people, there was chaos in the first generation of Gileads. Individuals missed the things they were, in the previous period, most likely to term immoral and also of things most likely to be ignored or glossed over. Like women magazines, like lipsticks, like prostitutes and more. However, even though naturally the puritanic ideology of Gilead failed, Atwood, nevertheless, showed how people conditioned themselves to live in such conditions. Later, in the historical notes, where the major impact of the story is felt, Gilead becomes just one of the many past civilisations: Mayans, Aztecs, Hittites and many others. 

Is this world the best it can possibly be? In Atwood's Handmaid's Tale where the issue was fully implemented, tweaking the current dispensation would lead to problems; just as capitalists don't want governments to interfere with business. Academicians studying Gilead, several years later, provided interesting analysis and it is there that story finally converges.

Though this novel is said to have been inspired by Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and also set to have no mean a place beside Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, I can only say that this novel is Atwood-esque. It had all the characteristics of the only Atwood I have read, Oryx and Crake. The time difference between the books was palpable but taking this out, we see Atwood projecting before us, the very things we have been experimenting and preaching. Whereas in Oryx and Crake it was the scientific world doing all these splicing of genes to create a better world - that novel inspired my poem Middle Sex - in The Handmaid's Tale, it is the religious world or specifically the Christian world. Again, these two books illuminates the age-old rivalry-cum-love affair between science and religion.

In the end I can only say that I enjoyed reading this book. It helped me a lot on my trips to different communities. Sometimes reading this imaginative world and entering a rural community where pastoral life is dominant is almost akin to landing on Mars blindfolded. An interesting book. All should read especially those who think they need to change the world to conform to a universalised law in a homogeneous world. And the changemakers. This is an Atwood and every Atwood is a must-read.
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For the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge

24 comments:

  1. I love Margaret Atwood sometimes, and get cross with her sometimes, but THE HANDMAIDS TALE is great. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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  2. Interesting perspective and review. I think it's easy to see the difference here between your review and that of most women - we all see it as terrifying and believe that Atwood wrote it as a terrifying dystopia, definitely not as any kind of 'good' place! Glad you enjoyed the book :)

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  3. Interesting, I'd love to read this. I love dystopian novels.

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  4. @Amy it's easy to say it's terrifying. What makes a thing terrifying? Comparison. So let's eliminate it and assume that within the universe only Gileadexists. Imagine you were born within such a place. Would it be terrifying? What makes us sure that our current lives aren't terrifying? Have we compared it with all possible scenarios available? Everything is good or bad in relation to another thing. We mustn't see things in such close perspective. Besides, the men weren't monsters out and out to destroy. As symbolised by Commander's character they were weak and found their position not necessarily enjoyable. What is sex without love but another daily chore or an addiction to be satisfied. Yes, this is not a 'good' place to be but only because it is a negative deviation of something we know of. Sometimes we are more quick to accept all the changes science is making. Like cloning. Gene splicing can lead to this too. See? The only thing Atwood did was to put this Utopian in the hands of religion and making men responsible for it. As is most done in such novels. Besides, it's common to find examples of theocratic countries where men are the rulers. But then we find that even in such societies women are making strong statements in their. I am one who don't fancy affirmative actions, promoting one thing at the expense of the other to create equality. Equality is equality not dis-equality. Hence, i general don't fancy novels that play too much on the wickedness of men and the weakness of women.

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  5. @Sarah I'm yet to read an Atwood that did not set my mind thinking or amplified my secret thoughts. But then i've read only two out of her many writings.

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  6. @Stefania I thought I was the only reader left to read this. When you get to read it let me know your opinion of it.

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  7. I don't think it's about men vs women, it's about being in positions of power relative to others. No things aren't perfect now but Atwood was showing a scary possible future (that in many ways mirrors current situations and shows how easy it could be to end up like that) where women are back to being nothing but property with no rights or autonomy. Of course that is terrifying in any way - no people should ever be property or slaves of any kind, whether sexual or any other form of slavery.

    Equality is equal rights. When men and women have the same rights and responsibilities and chances in life, then I will agree with you that things like affirmative actions which force people to recognize their internal stereotypes and prejudices are unnecessary. As it is, our systems privilege certain groups over others be it racial, gender, nationality, or other. It is not conscious evil, it is simply how we were raised and combating our prejudices is something that literature can definitely help with - and through dystopias like this is one way to show the extreme cases which makes us think about how these things could happen and see the little cases.

    Again it's not about the wickedness of men and the weakness of women, it is about the inequality present in cultures and systems. No one would say that men are all evil and women are all weak and this and other novels don't play that up but rather show how our prejudices can lead us astray in crazy ways.

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  8. Interesting post, Nana, especially its part in your reaction to your feeling that it was "like landing on Mars blindfolded" after some of your travels! I've heard that there are really good Atwoods and really mediocre Atwoods, so it's nice to hear that you think she's a must read in general. Cheers!

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  9. I loved this book and read it many moons ago. I thought that Atwood did a particularly good job in creating her dystopian world, and I think it's high time that I read this one again. Thanks for the fantastic review, Nana. You have made me really excited to pick this one back up off the shelf and give it another go!

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  10. not yet read any Atwoods yet,have Blind Assasin on my TBR, but she seems to have a large following amongst bloggers so was interested in your post.
    thanks

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  11. @Amy, I agree with you on all points raised. I also agree that the novel isn't necessarily men vs women type. However, I have read enough of this type of novels to find it to be 'cheap'. Atwood isn't cheap and she has a way of projecting my inner fears.

    I agree that the novel isn't also about the weakness of women and the wickedness of men but about the inequality present in our cultures. But how many times haven't such inequalities been attributed to the workings of men? The very moment we talk of inequalities our minds project towards something caused by men. Don't we? May be I am wrong.

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  12. @Richard, I am yet to read a mediocre Atwood.

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  13. @Zibilee, glad I brought this long-read novel to your attention again.

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  14. @Parrish Lantern, Yes. the topic she chooses is interesting. I would also love to read The Blind Assassin.

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  15. I read this in my teens when it first came out. I, like Amy has said, was promptly terrified of Gilead and what it represented. Remains one of my favorite books. BTW, you can be born to a place and only know that place and still be able to find it terrifying. Interesting discussions. And when are you coming back?

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  16. I read A Handmaid's Tale years ago and it is still vivid in my mind. I also really liked Oryx and Crake. I have liked her more realistic novels as well. I always have the sense of watching a sharp mind at work when I read Atwood. Her books tell a story, but they also make an argument.

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  17. @Kinna, thanks. Yes but don't you think one would be terrified if one know of alternatives?

    Coming back on Saturday... thought it would be Friday but had to attend to something...

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  18. @bibliophiliac... I read an interview of hers at the back of this novel where she stated that as a Victorian novelist she believes that novels should be a form of social examination. And for this she had done well per the two books I have read.

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  19. Enjoying the discussions here and have already added to my wish list. Thanks.

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  20. I read this book in college and then again about a year ago. I thought the story was creepy and scary and not a world I would ever want to know. It really does seem like an issue of power and control. And I also see it as a man vs. woman thing to some extent, given that Offred's name was "Of Fred." So the names alone indicate who is in power.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review!

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  21. Thanks Anna... it's a great novel though.

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  22. @Geosi, that's the thing... let's discuss

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  23. I agree- it's something everyone shoudl read. It was my first Atwood and hooked me on her writing for life!

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  24. Oh! Great. My first Atwood, Oryx and Crake, was equally interesting. Now I want to read every Atwood. My next, if I get it, would be The Year of the Flood.

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