Sunday, July 14, 2013

#40 (2013/CBR5) "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood was one of those books that I've heard a lot about: one that's often banned, feminist, a classic, but one that I never got around to reading until now. I knew that it was about a world where women were forced to be "breeders" of children, but that's about it. I was a little unsure before I started. I figured it could be one of those classics that might be well written but was a slog to read, or if it would be one I would really appreciate. I was not disappointed.

The Handmaid's Tale takes place in the near future in what was the United States. Ofglen is a handmaid to a commander--a high ranking official in the new theocracy-type government of Gilead. In this world, women are set into distinct classes: high-ranking wives, low-ranking wives, housekeepers, and handmaids--each of them restricted in their own unique way. Handmaids are women who join households of high-ranking but childless families. They are there to bring children to the household before moving to their next assignment. The tale is told by Ofglen--a handmaid--in a stream of consciousness form of storytelling that includes many flashbacks and asides.

What made this book so memorable and haunting is that it felt so realistic. Unlike so many other post-apocalyptic books I've recently read that were more like adventure stories, this one felt more like a nightmare. Ofglen couldn't break out in some heroic fashion and claim her independence because she would have been tortured and killed--as simple as that. There was nowhere for her to go. She had no control over her life and no options. In a short period of time, everything she knew and loved was taken from her. All she had left was the will to not give up and the unrealistic hope that things might change for the better someday. Her life was a series of lonely, alienating days and nights surrounded by distrust, hostility, and the unwillingness of others to even acknowledge her as a person. "Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations." (271)

Atwood made this novel even more realistic and gut twisting by having Gilead use aspects to control and degrade women that we've already seen all over the world. These include: the idea of controlling women for their "protection;" using religion and a distorted view of morality to demonize some women; setting the different classes of women against each other; and starting everything out by limiting women's economic choices. All of this happens in our world. Today. Atwood even has a character mention Romania's ban of abortion and contraception and the State's control of fertile women in the 1970's and 1980's. And this novel was written before the Taliban in Afghanistan declared it unlawful for all women to work in 1996, along with the rest of their horrible laws.

The last chapter jumps incongruously from Ofglen's story to hundreds of years later at a history seminar in England. A seminar that was discussing Ofglen's book. Although the different perspective and some of the background information it provided was fascinating, I found myself angry at some of the speaker's flippancy with their subject. I'm not sure what Atwood's purpose was, but for me it highlighted how such personal stories of terror, hopelessness, and destruction can become less moving and less personal as time passes and society forgets.