The Handmaid's Tale by Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale by Atwood

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1kiwidoc
Jul 1, 2007, 3:55pm

I have just finished this book, the first of Margaret Atwood books I have read. I would be very interested to hear what others think of the book. I found it beautifully written but distressing and obviously written by a feminist.

2nohrt4me
Jul 2, 2007, 2:48pm

Been a while since I've read this, but I think it's important to understand that, at the time, the book was one of the first to send up alarms about the tensions between fundamentalism and feminism. I think the book has lost some of its oomph in the intervening years.

I think viewing both Offred and Serena Joy as victims of the new order is an interesting way to look at the book. Serena is not a happy person, and the reason the handmaids are treated so poorly is a result of the constriction of the wives.

Finally, the book makes certain references to high infertility rates. That's probably a topic worth exploring.

And, as I recall, there was an introduction to the handmaid's tale itself, told from the POV of some academics studying the tale. I think Atwood means there to be some parallels between the self-righteousness of the new order in the handmaid's story, and the academics.

3fannyprice
Jul 2, 2007, 4:28pm

(Contains SPOILERS for The Handmaid's Tale - I assume the original poster, having finished the book already, does not mind, but if anyone reading has not, here's your warning!)

(Cross-posted in some form in the Atwoodians forum as well.)

I recently finished The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, so I'm game for sharing thoughts on it. I had never read any of her books before, but I am interested in dystopian literature and this one keeps popping up on lists of 'must-reads' everywhere (whether specifically dystopian or not). While I didn't love it to the extent that some people seem to, I did really enjoy it.

One of the most interesting things about the book for me was that many of the women in the novel thought about these changes in very ambivalent terms. Many of them had campaigned for these changes, before they realized what they really meant. Women became protected from things they used to fear, like rape and pornography - so there was an element of paternalism in all this. As one of my former profs says - "For Their Own Good." I guess its hard to know if these changes were actually introduced with a benevolent intent or if this was all just a smokescreen, but clearly women became oppressed and objectified in new and different ways under the regime. The revelation that there was a whole class of women who were kept around for the sexual gratification of men - and that Moira, the protagonist's longtime friend, was one of them - also revealed that they continued to be objectified in the old ways. This was also interesting in light of the whole virgin-whore dichotomy that sometimes gets talked about in feminist circles - these men were so obsessed that they created actual classes of women to embody the hierarchy. Women were either for marrying, reproducing, or pleasure - no one women was allowed to play all these roles.

I was especially intrigued by the portrayal of the main character's husband because although he is not one of the men who is directly involved in taking away women's rights, he is not exactly a fighter for these rights. The narrator feels that when her financial rights are taken away and her money is controlled by her husband, he kind of likes it. He also suggests to her that the changes are just temporary, she should just wait it out, and discourages her from participating in protests against the oppression of women because he thinks it won't do any good. I just couldn't shake the feeling that he was not really as a nice a guy as she sometimes thought he was. Especially when he killed their cat so that it wouldn't give away their attempt to escape to Canada. While I didn't think the message of the novel was anti-men, it sort of suggested that men as a class were kind of all the same - willing to sacrifice women's privileges as long as they themselves were not harmed. Even the relatively benign men were all too willing to become 'guardians.'

But the book also shows how men eventually come under the system and find themselves oppressed by it - the restrictions on which men can reproduce, etc. Although I don't want reflect on everything that happens to the women in this book through its impact on men, I thought was a good choice. It enriched the book by showing the horrible bargain that they had all made - some willingly, some unwillingly.

I liked many of the narrative tricks that the author used, especially later in the book and with the ending. At some point, the narrator becomes more self-conscious and starts referring to the reader and starts acknowledging that she is telling a story and that she has some degree of control in shaping it for the reader. Later, she starts completely making up different scenarios for how an event happened, admitting that it didn't actually happen that way or that it would be nice if she could say it had, but it didn't.

(Warning again - SPOILERS for the ending)

I really appreciated that Atwood left the ending so unresolved. You never really know if there was an actual underground movement (until the epilogue) or if the narrator was just being played and ended up being carted off somewhere horrible. I appreciated that there was no pretty story at the end, no big revolution, no epic showdown. It just wouldn't have worked in a novel where everyone seemed so resigned to the current state of things, despite their knowledge that things had once been different. The understated tone reminded me a bit of Never Let Me Go, which I also really enjoyed.

I LOVED the final portion of the book - it was an awesome twist. At first I did not understand what I was reading. But then I got it and I loved it. I liked how this was sort of an "outside" voice that could fill in objective, historical details about Gilead in a way that Offred could not necessarily do, since an insider does not see her situation in the same was as a later outside might. I loved that the Offred portion of the book was actually a reconstruction of her diary from audiotapes, based on educated conjecture from some unknown (?) person. It throws the whole narrative into question, which is fascinating to me because I am a huge geek. Really unexpected and cool. I loved how it ended.

Hope this is interesting to you. You should also check out the Atwoodians forum, where I'm sure there is more discussion of this book.

4gmork
Jul 2, 2007, 9:39pm

Funny for an atheist to say this, but I thought Atwood created a "straw man" out of evangelical Christianity that had nothing to do with any conceivable reality. What got the plot moving struck me as simply too ridiculous to be believable. The whole work sort of imploded on me once I concluded this.

5KromesTomes
Jul 3, 2007, 10:54am

Regarding #3, where fannyprice wrote: "many of the women in the novel thought about these changes in very ambivalent terms" ... as a man, I've often been surprised at how many women in "real life" even go further than this and support what I consider their own oppression ... just to toss an example out, like women who didn't support extending voting rights to women ... or do support extreme forms of religion that, again, at least to me, seem to be anti-woman ...

6fannyprice
Jul 3, 2007, 12:25pm

>5 KromesTomes:, Augh, don't EVEN get me started. I am reading Susan Faludi's Backlash right now (I know, I'm a little late with that one, but it was re-released in 2006) and it is just full of examples of Phyllis Schlafly-types who use their position as powerful women in the public sphere to advocate that women submit and get back in the kitchen. Kind of like Serena Joy, now that I think about it.

7heinous-eli
Sep 7, 2007, 8:57pm

I thought Atwood created a "straw man" out of evangelical Christianity that had nothing to do with any conceivable reality

She could have very been easily describing the more devout amongst any of the three Abrahamic traditions.

8avaland
Sep 16, 2007, 9:23am

Here are some comments by Atwood herself which I posted some time ago on the Atwoodians group:

Excerpts from various interviews included in Waltzing Again: New & Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood, edited by Earl Ingersoll. I have inserted some comments in brackets that indicate what she's referring to.

Margaret Atwood (1986): When I first started thinking about it {The Handmaid's Tale}, I thought it was such a wacko idea. I wrote it with some trepidation. It could have been the worst failure you could possibly imagine. I was afraid people would say it was stupid, silly. There was also the risk it would be thought feminist propaganda of the most outrageous kind, which was not really what I intended. I was more interested in totalitarian systems, an interest I've had for a long time. I used to read Second World War stuff in the cellar when I was twelve or thirteen, for instance.

Atwood (1989): I see it {the liberation for women as a precarious achievement} as precarious and based on general prosperity, because you know who goes first in a crunch. You know that when all the men came back from the war the women got kicked out of their jobs to make room for them. Under pressure, you can't depend on human nature to remain the way you think it ought to be. Under pressure people do strange things. They hang people as witches, they riot, they toss out their democratic institutions and put in bad people that you and I don't like.

Well it's {the Republic of Gilead}not out of the question. Possibly they won't bring in the clothing as I've described it, but some of the other things are things that a number of people with political power in the United States have said that they would like to do. When Hitler said those things, people thought at first it was just rhetoric, but I don't think you should ever suppose that what people say they want to do is rhetoric. If the fundamentalist establishment in the States says that women's place is in the home and that homosexuals deserve death, I don't think that you should ignore that. There are various pressures, forces that will possibly, come into play, not definitely, but possibly....When people get scared enough they'll agree to all kinds of things they wouldn't agree to before.