This Sunday's book is 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood.
This book was suggested by Heidi, and is the second novel by Atwood that I've reviewed this year. It is a brutal critique of society that hits you like:
The narrator is Offred, but that's not her real name. We never learn what it is because Offred is no longer a free woman. She lives in a dystopian nightmare country called the Republic of Gilead (not this Gilead). It used to be the United States, but now it's run by a Puritanical Christian ISIS. How Gilead came about is confusing — it involves jihadists and bonfires of women's magazines — but that isn't very important. It's more relevant that in Gilead women have no rights whatsoever and are barely considered to be human beings. Reading is forbidden. Even store signs use pictures instead of words to keep women from reading. And women are segmented into castes and wear certain colors. There are blue Wives (who have some power over the household), brown Aunts (who are like slave overseers), green Marthas (who do housework), striped Econowives (who are wives for poor men) and red Handmaidens (who bear children). Men are classified as Commanders (it's unclear what they do), Guardians (soldier-types) and Eyes (secret police). Handmaidens exist because some kind of toxic waste mishap has made most people sterile. These fertile women are assigned to a Commander and take on his name. So Offred is a handmaiden to a commander, Fred, and becomes Of Fred. Here is Elisabeth Moss in her Emmy-winning portrayal of Offred in the Hulu show based on the book:
Offred's days are spent obtaining groceries with her companion Ofglen, whom she can't really see because their hats have blinders. They whisper to each other (talking is banned) and walk by 'the wall' where the bodies of executed people are hung from hooks. Other times Offred waits in her room — from which all sharp objects and ceiling fixtures have been removed so she can't kill herself — until it's time for the monthly impregnation Ceremony. It's a humiliating and bizarre process that involves Offred, the Commander and his Wife. I won't describe it here, but the ceremonies continue until the handmaiden gets pregnant. There is no love in Gilead. Or intimacy. I liked how Atwood inverts Puritan notions of morality: It's perfectly fine for a Commander to have sex with another woman, but it is a serious crime for Offred and the Commander to play Scrabble together. That kind of intimacy, which in another context is called friendship, is punishable by banishment or even death:
While Offred and the Commander sneak around playing the game, they strike a kind of relationship. He gives her gifts of lotion and illegal magazines and, eventually, takes her to his secret club. It's not real friendship, of course. It is an interesting interplay of types of power. He has physical control over her, and she is able to be his equal while they play. Even so, I was pulling for her to give more consideration to:
I wanted justice for her, or at least some payback. But there is no justice in this book, at least none that is directly evident. But justice doesn't always come in real life, which is important to keep in mind. This book is not a warning about a possible future we need to watch out for. Instead, it is very much an allegory for our present. 'The Handmaid's Tale' was written in the mid-1980s during the Cold War, when totalitarian regimes and the Baby M case were in the news. Has society fully embraced the fact that women's rights are human rights and smashed the patriarchy since then? Women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive just this week. There is such a thing as rape culture. There is such a thing as mansplaining. Women do not have complete control over their own bodies. The presence of the Aunts, though, reminds us that some women are complicit in the patriarchy, which is partially why this man is the President of the United States:
This book includes a new introduction from Atwood that was written after Trump's election. I enjoyed her comments on how her book fits into our current political climate, as well as the backstory on how she wrote it in 1980s Berlin and pulled elements of history into her creation of Gilead. 'The Handmaid's Tale' perfectly captures the terror, confinement and boredom of Offred's life, and I felt exhausted and depressed at the end of it. Even so, I highly recommend the book. Anyone interested in usurping the evils of the patriarchy should read it.
'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood was originally published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin in 1986. It was published by Anchor Books in 1998. The 2017 reprint contains a new and important introduction by the author. 311 pages.
What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy, 'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,' by Elena Ferrante and 'The Shipping News' by Annie Proulx, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!