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The Handmaid's Tale Paperback – March 16, 1998
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"A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex . . . Just as the world of Orwell's 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood's handmaid!" —The Washington Post Book World
"The Handmaid's Tale deserves the highest praise." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions . . . An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking . . . Read it while it's still allowed." —Houston Chronicle
From the Inside Flap
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....
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, "The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
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You would think that something written thirty years ago would seem dated. But that wasn't the case for me. If anything, I think there are so many things imagined in the book which have become more possible today instead of less. In a sense, this is a cautionary tale that a large art of the population ignored or misunderstood.
More than ever, we should be reading this and sharing it with the young women in our lives. And discussing it with them, so they see more of the depth than my 22-year-old self did.
Margaret Atwood imagined a world where a totalitarian power went into action against foreign zealots and their own people's "wanton" behavior. This power was meant to make the world better, but it also created a world of highly distinct "haves" and "have nots."
She says, “Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.” It might be just me (although I suspect not) but this sure sounds like what we often hear today on the news and in conversations.
Reading this at the end of 2016 after a brutal election cycle, the following quote from Atwood seems both wise and horrible. Have we not been hearing about people who feel invisible?
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories"
Atwood's Republic of Gilead gives people one-dimensional functions. Correction - she gives women one-dimensional functions. They are Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, Aunts, or Unwomen (and a few more which would be spoilers). Unwomen are rebels, likely to be banished to the toxic waste dumps of the colonies. Everyone else plays a part in the singular female focus - procreation. As I read, I wondered what category I'd fall into should I have the bad luck to land in Gilead. The women there have no layers of life or experience. They are expected only to fulfill their narrow role.
Why is procreation such a focus? Because of falling birth rates among white people. This book doesn't discuss race except one small spot near the end. It's as if there is only one race in Gilead. And the only people in that race with any power are men.
The main character, Offred (literally of Fred named after the Commander she serves) is the perfect blend of weak and strong. She tells us of her past and says, “When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” But her life is not beautiful. And Atwood straddles the line of past and present, sending back and forth in a way that keeps you wanting more. Just as Offred wants more. Just as we all want more for ourselves and the generations of women coming after us.
If you read this book long ago, pick it up again. If you haven't yet read it, move it up to the top of your TBR. Buy it for friends. Buy for your sons and daughters. Use it to teach and to learn what kind of world we could be if we stop valuing the diversity of all people.
Criticisms of the book fall into these three categories:
1) It is boorish, vulgar, and obscene.
2) It is poorly written. It's not great, or even good literature.
3) It is politically correct, agenda driven literature, with a preposterous plot.
Boorish, obscene, poorly written
Amazon asks reviewers not to use distasteful, vulgar or obscene selections from the book when reviewing a book. Therefore, these quotes are not included in this review. You will have to search elsewhere for examples of these quotes. Nor is one supposed to direct you to the sites, so this information is not provided either. Suffice it to say there is much vulgarity and sexually sadistic imagery, and that this is one of the major problems with the book.
Apart from its boorishness, one can make these observations about the writing: The novel feels contrived throughout; it is a paint-by-the-numbers dystopian fantasy. The characters are undeveloped and poorly defined; one doesn't really care what happens to any of them. There is no suspense. There is glacial movement to the so-called plot. All the sexual relationships in the book involve dominating or using another person: there is no genuine love. The author has the most annoying habit of using commas and periods incessantly. It is so boring! When the author writes on page 267 "...I keep going on with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story... after all you've been through, you deserve all I have left, which is not much..." she is telling the truth! It is the literary equivalent of listening to the drone of a bagpipe with no accompanying melody.
Politically correct, agenda driven literature
The book is about a future takeover of the U. S. Government by the "religious right" and the imposition of a totalitarian regime. It's pathologically anti-Christian, "Christo-phobic" one might say.
The regime lynches abortionists, homosexuals and pornographers. Women can't own property, read, or receive an education. They are only valued for their ability to bear children. For some unexplained reason, most women are infertile. The men with the power, the Commanders, are given "handmaids" (fertile women dressed in nun's habits). A commander, after reading from the Bible and praying to God for help, ceremonially rapes his handmaid, in hopes that she will "bear fruit."
The author's anti-Christian animus becomes clearer if one adapts the plot:
In this version, the United States is taken over by a phallic cult of male homosexuals who have moved up the ranks of the military. Young pubescent men are held captive, and ceremonially raped by their masters. Catholic priests and pastors who speak out against this are lynched with the verse of Romans 1:27 pinned to their chests.
Wouldn't this adaptation of the book be considered "homophobic"? So too is this book Christophobic.
When one considers that the Godless totalitarian regimes of Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot murdered well over 100 million people in the last century, and the continuing forced abortions in China in this century, one has question the rationality of the author's morbid fears of a "takeover" by the religious right. But it is this politically correct agenda, and not the book's literary value, that explains its appeal to leftist intellectuals:
"Among the many third-rate books that English professors waste their students' time on (when they could be teaching truly great English Literature) is Margaret Atwood's 1986 The Handmaid's Tale... The Handmaid's Tale is the quintessential expression of our intellectuals' fears of what a truly Christian culture would look like." (From The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, by Elizabeth Kantor, Ph.D., p. 27)
Reading this book is a terrible waste of time. It brings to mind the sign at the beginning of Gone with the Wind: "Do not squander time; it is the stuff life is made of." If you want to read a good "dystopian" novel, try Brave New World. It portrays a society in which people are controlled via sexual and drug induced pleasure instead of brute force, and people's thinking is kept on a material plane by depriving them of "pornography" such as the Bible and the Imitation of Christ. Or read something by someone who's lived in a totalitarian state, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or The Gulag Archipelago. Or one might read The Canterbury Tales, for an idea of what it might have been like to have lived in a more genuinely Christian time.
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