Book Talk: *The Handmaid’s Tale,* by Margaret Atwood

Book Blogger Appreciation Week programming will be joined in progress tomorrow. When I scheduled the wrap-up for the group read of The Handmaid’s Tale for this week…well, I kind of forgot that it would conflict with BBAW. Oops!

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood (Twitter) (Facebook)
Anchor (1998), Trade Paperback reprint (ISBN 9780385490818) (original publication date 1986)
Fiction (speculative), 320 pages
Source: personal copy (Note: This is the publication info for my original copy of the book, as cataloged on LibraryThing; I purchased a newer edition for this reading.)
Reason for reading: re-read spurred by current events

Opening lines: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
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.

Comments: If you thought I was done talking about The Handmaid’s Tale…well, sorry, not just yet.

I’ve been wanting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale for awhile, and now that I have, I believe it’s even more timely, relevant – and terrifying – than it was when it was originally published 25 years ago. Other than a few off-note details mostly related to technology – when reading older books that tried to imagine a not-too-distant future, it can be interesting to note how far off the mark they were in how they thought some things would develop – the novel is strikingly current. The issues that frame it – women’s rights and roles, the relationship between government and religion and the role of both in individuals’ lives – are as unsettled now as they were two decades ago, and early-21st-century America feels closer to the Republic of Gilead than Reagan’s America did (and that was quite close enough for me).

I remembered the storyline, and especially the mood, of the novel pretty well, but I’d forgotten a fair amount of the story itself. For a novel that proposes some rather audacious scenarios and tackles pretty big themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is surprisingly plot-driven, and Atwood’s sharp observations and dark humor propel the story along. This was the first Atwood novel I ever read, and while I’m not sure it’s my favorite (that may be The Robber Bride), it’s certainly the one I’ve found most affecting, and most compulsively readable.

The book I read just prior to starting my re-read was nonfiction about life in the former East Germany, and as I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was struck by similarities in the seemingly arbitrary rules of daily life and the need for guarded action, because one can’t ever be sure one isn’t being watched. Granted, The Handmaid’s Tale was written before the fall of the Berlin Wall and takes place in a not-too-distant future in which America is the fallen country, but I found myself noting the similarities between some elements of dystopian speculative fiction – I think this novel crosses genres, but that’s one of them – and a real-life police state.

I found some discussion questions about the novel on the publisher’s website, and while I’m not terribly inspired by them, there are a couple I’d like to address:

“At one level, The Handmaid’s Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as ‘Context is all,’ and ‘I’ve filled it out for her…,’ ‘I made that up,’ and ‘I wish this story were different.’ Does Offred’s habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
What do you feel the historical notes at the book’s end add to the reading of this novel?”

Those are separate questions, but I think they’re related; both point to the use of the unreliable narrator. I’d say that the novel is more about shaping stories than about the “writing process;” that seems a little narrow. It is clear that Offred is choosing her details carefully – I think she’s pretty open about it – but that never made me less inclined to buy into the whole of her story, even if aspects of it were questionable. Perhaps that’s because my response to it is at least as much to the mood of it as it is to the content.

25 years after publication, The Handmaid’s Tale remains thought-provoking, controversial, and necessary reading. I’m glad I read it again. I’d consider reading it a third time. But I hope if and when I do, it’s become less plausible.

Rating: 4.25/5

(If you’re a participant in the group read, there should be an InLinkz tool here to add your review/wrap-up post. If it’s not showing up, please put your link in the comments!)

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