Monday, September 15, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

reviewed by Amber Shockley

If ever there was an example of a cautionary tale, this is it.

In her 1985 novel, Atwood imagines a society in which an extreme set of religious values have taken over. Women are categorized according to their economic status and/or the viability of their ovaries. The latter are scant due to some apocalyptic event that is not described in any detail. Drawing on stories from the bible, thus defending their actions as based upon biblical principal, the society essentially forces women who are fertile to serve as baby producers, handmaids, for women of a higher standing who are not. The handmaids are stripped of all identity, even forced to take the names of their "commanders," for example, "Offred" (of Fred), the heroine of the novel.

It is difficult to name Offred heroine, however, because she is in such an impossible situation. By the end of her account, the world has not been saved.

Atwood has created a feminist dystopia, an antithesis to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland published seventy years previously. Even today, or especially today, Atwood's Tale is sure to spark thought and debate, as it should.

As a feminist and a person of faith, I can imagine that religious conservatives, especially fundamentalists, would be offended by the accusation that modern day life which mimics biblical events could result in the total subjugation of women, yet I find that this work illuminates for us all exactly how religion, especially religious texts, could/can be applied with horrific results.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this novel is the last few pages, wherein a group of academics living even further into the future look back on the events described in the novel in much the same way that we treat history today - with detachment and arrogance. This is a necessary read. - 5 stars


Rebecca Reid said...

I have yet to read this one, but it certainly sounds wonderful!

Unknown said...

This is one I've had on my list of interesting reads, for a while. A few years ago, I remember, an opera was made of the book, that played at the Met, I think, with Margaret Atwood consulting on the libretto, I believe. I only remember, because apparently SPOILER*********

there is a climactic scene where Offred is raped ceremonially as a punishment pushed down by the courts of the country. The rape takes place on stage, with a disturbing song playing in the background, that you slowly, sickeningly come to realize is actually 'Amazing Grace'. It's effective, if disturbing, just to have it described on the radio, I can only imagine what it's like on stage.

Unknown said...

Boy was I off! It was performed in Denmark, and then London. It's American premiere was in Minnesota. Article on that is here.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a very good book when I read it probably 10 years ago. It is definitely chilling, but a worthy read.

I think this one was on banned book lists at one time.

Shelley said...

This one blew me away! It's in my top ten favorites.

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm not a "fundamentalist" in terms of religious faith, but as I am religious, I was struck how depicting religion in such a negative way made me feel the need to defend myself as in "that's not how Christianity is!" It helped me realize how regular Muslims feel when we assume all fanatical Muslims are a good indication of the religion.

Eye-opening, powerful book.

Amanda said...

"It helped me realize how regular Muslims feel when we assume all fanatical Muslims are a good indication of the religion."

I'm not Muslim, but I had a very good friend in Wisconsin who was, and then of course, my sister is married to a Muslim, so I often get very offended when people assume all Muslims are radical fundamentalists.

This book really did show how fundamentalist, radical religion can be harmful, but there were GOOD religions in it. I mean, the quakers were Christian, too, and they were trying to help.

Rebecca Reid said...

Thanks for the reminder about the Quakers. I guess I forgot about their role in the novel. Weren't they in hiding?

Amanda said...

In hiding, and helping others to leave. They ran the "underground femaleroad."