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The Handmaid's Tale Paperback – March 16, 1998
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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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.
The Handmaid narrator Offred tells the story of her daily life frequently slipping into flashbacks, which allow the reader to reconstruct the events that lead to the creation of Gilead, her capture and virtual imprisonment. Much of Offred’s tale concerns her inner torment to accept her fate or resist. Others such her friend Moira and walking partner Ofglen resist but suffer dreadful consequences. The reader is prompted to consider what she would do in a oppressive totalitarian society. Offred’s flashbacks to the time before Gilead show an intolerant feminist society where porn magazines are burnt. Her husband is not altogether unhappy when the founders of Gilead suddenly deny women jobs and bank accounts. They no longer belonged to each other; instead, she belonged to him. Men therefore may not be much assistance to women facing this type of slavery.
Margaret Atwood is careful not to introduce anything new in Gilead. It has all happened before. Gilead only brings it all together in a more modern time.
At the end of the novel members of a future academic conference are discussing Gilead and the tape recordings from the Handmaid’s Tale. The academics mostly have Native American names and the conference takes place a city inside the Arctic Circle. Jokes are made about White Americans to suggest they no longer exist or are not important. It is suggested that one should not be too critical of Gilead (they were dealing with different times) promoting a strongly relativist morality. Having just suffered with Offred the horrors of Gilead to hear her life discussed in front of an amused audience, joked about, and treated, as a quant relic is another gut-wrenching experience for the reader. This part suggests that despite the horrible injustices of Gilead it might happen again in some form.
I found the novel very absorbing and disturbing. As a reader I had direct access to Offred’s thoughts, torments and pain.