Tuesday 21 March 2017

Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale

***Get yourself a drink, this is a long one***

Having read this in the late 90's at school, I was a little worried that it wouldnt be how I remembered it.  A lot of the parents said that they did not think that this was a book that teenagers should read.  This made it all the more compelling to read at the time.  I had completely forgotten the ending and have a false memory of it all.  That being that they escaped together, Offred, Nick and the baby.  This book could be where my love of dystopian writing comes from.

It was meaty wasnt it.  I find {Margaret Atwood} extremely easy to read, with good pace and very visual writing.  

Although this book is, I feel mostly about oppression, there is constant hope,  hope for her daughter, hope for Luke, hope that freedom will come. 

As the ending indicates, Gilead, is the product of men, garnered from many cultures.  A grasp at holding on and increasing the population.  I find it very interesting where it says that the Commanders are probably sterile from a biological weapon that was destined to be dusted on India and put into caviar destined for Russia.  Gene splicing with the mumps virus.

What I also wonder about, is why they didnt just keep all of the Handmaids in one place and send them out when the ceremony was to take place.  To keep them 'pure'.  Maybe this happened in the next generation, where as it said, they would not know the difference and would be less resistance due to them not having been in the -before world-.  

Having read a few reviews on many other blogs, many said they found it distasteful and horrific.  Maybe I have read so many dystopian books that I no longer have this knee jerk reaction.  Maybe I am younger, or read a lot more Young Adult fiction and have a (slight) prepper mentality.  Much of their horror could be from the reality that some of these things that they are being forced into, in what  in the book was the USA, are actually happening in the world.  And the thought of it, being in a first world country, is such an awful thing that we are being repelled by it.  

In the book it makes comparrisons to the red dresses being in a concentration camp in WW2.  Clothes being an outward show of rank and place.  It is dominance, it is power, it is superiority.  Which within the last 100 years, this show of, for want of a better word is class, has all but been wiped out.  No longer do many wear suits to the office, although I prefer to wear skirts or dresses, I have friends who only own jeans and trousers and maybe one skirt they have for interviews.  The thought of being told what to wear, let alone it being a dress, with a shroud around the face to stop not only people seeing you, but you being able to see the outside world completely, is oppressive, agressive.  

"Our biggest mistate was teaching them to read.  We wont be doing that again".

Not being allowed to read.  Heck, I would start an uprising myself over that one.  To be able to read, well, if you can read, you can teach yourself most things.  This repression is to me the worst.  That thought is sickening, that women werent allowed to read.  In how many countries does this still happen?  Where females are still thought of as LESS than a male?  Not worth educating.  Its how they keep them in check, controlled, helpless and reliant on men.

Women could not accept this now.  It would be horrendous.  The brain washing that happens in the red centre, is the only way that they could quiet, dominate and repress the womens spirit.  At the end, it states that the red centre, where the women are taught to be handmaids, it is called the Rachel and Leah Re-education centre.  The name being derived from the bible, a quick refresher for anyone not familiar with it, being that Jacobs chosen wife, Rachel, was barren, and his other wife Leah was not.  The handmaids being some quasi 2nd wife, polygamy for the 3 years they are in that household.  

Control even extends to the name of the handmaid being changed to the name of their assigned Commander.  Offred.  The Commanders name is Fred.  Could this be, where in some cultures, when a woman becomes a mother, she is refered to as the babies mother.  For instance, the baby is called Ali.  The lady is then called Umm Ali.  Your identity is gone.  To some this might be a trophy to show motherhood, to others it could be the obliteration of self, uniqueness.

The name female road, the smuggling of the people, has a historical base from slaves escaping the USA and being smuggled from safe house to safe house, across the border to Canada to be free.  The underground rail road saved many in this manner, the safe houses being religious households such as Quakers, helped people to Canada and to Mexico.  The Resistance, to the oppression, and infliction on both men and women.  Men not being allowed to marry unless they have rank.  Even the name Econowives, the name makes me think less, that those wives are worth less than others.  Makes your top lip curl back doesnt it.  

Where the Commanders have taken from different cultures for their society, they have done this for what they think is for 'the greater good'.  Closed the borders, retreated into their new world.  Where it would appear that the rest of the world is carrying on as they were before.  Other than the gene splicing, what else happened?  They talk of cleaning up toxic waste.  Was there a nuclear attack?  Chemical spills?  The use of insectides, herbicides and other chemicals entering the food chain, rendering the masses of the population sterile.  This is not referenced clearly as to if there was one catastrophic incident that brought it all about.  You are left to speculate.  Was it like Chernobyl?  Or like the reactors in Japan being breached by an earthquake?  As I have said above, what makes this a compelling read and a touch scary it is because what causes them to begin this regime could be anything.  A Islamic terriorist attack, chemical weapons, war.  They are all hinted at.  This book was published in 1985, and although isolated to different parts of the world many of these things have happened.

Yes, all in all a very complelling read.  If you liked the films {The Village}, {The Hunger Games}, {1984}, you will like this book.  

No alien invasion, dystopian writing here.  No. This is a keep you awake at night. what if read....

8/10 I have read it twice this month.  

The next read along book is Middlemarch by George Eliot (Anne Evans).


Sol said...

I am adding Ray's comment from my previous post right here as I think it is a really good read and also good from a mans point of view.

Blogger Raybeard said... Ray's Blog can be found here http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/

Better to get this over with as I'm now ready to embark on 'Middlemarch'.

I'd never read any Margaret Atwood up to now and I'm grateful that I did before it was too late.
I found 'The Handmaid's Tale' a most compelling read. I was aware of the story only through the 1990 film (Miranda Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway) which had left me half-perplexed, half-intrigued. I don't recall much of the detail of the film, which I haven't re-seen since its release, though I do recall the strangely creepy atmosphere it conjured up. This novel helps to put some flesh on that futuristic and scary scenario, while employing economy of words at an intensely readable level. It dispenses with explanations of the times it's set in, but plunges straight into the action, requiring the reader to fill in the blanks as we go along, which in this case did not require much effort. I especially like the cliff-edge ending, leaving us gasping for at least one big answer, yet witholding it from us, though with a hint as to the likelihood of which of one of two possibilities prevails, though one can't be absolutely sure.

I was completely wrapped up in all the characters, especially that of Offred, the narrator, imprisoned in a time when a woman's sole use was being a reproductive instrument in the theocratic republic of Gilead (dreadful pre-echoes of the appalling kind of Caliphate which ISAL/ISIS wish to be enacted worldwide - something we thought was only a marginal, small minority view with little support to concern us when Atwood wrote this story).
I was completely caught up in Offred's plight, her keeping her 'rebellious' thoughts to herself (she can remember when recent times were 'normal, much as they are now), except on the occasions when she trusts anther young woman in the same position as hers. I was really nervously keen to know what their fate would be.

One criticism I have relates to a lot of novels, written especially since WWII, is why the writers are so shy of employing standard punctuation marks to indicate what is speech and what is commentary or narration. It's particularly evident in a book like this where sometimes Atwood DOES use proper quotation marks while at other times she eschews them. I failed to see any logical reason for this. Actually nowadays most writers don't use them at all, though God only know why not!

Unusually, I read the book in about a dozen smallish chunks rather than my usual practice of about 80-150 pages at a time. I don't think that affected my experience at all though I'd suggest it is possibly better read in a few more generously-sized portions.

I said that this is the first Margaret Atwood I've read. I know it won't be the last because rummaging around I did find another unread book of hers which I have and had forgotten, 'Life Before Man'. It has a lot to live up to after 'Handmaid'. I'm looking forward to it

20 March 2017 at 14:54 Delete

Janie Junebug said...

I love The Handmaid's Tale. It's definitely a book that high school students should read.


Sol said...

Hi Janie, I was 14 when I read this the first time. I remember the girls and boys having completely different reactions to it. the girls nigh on shreiking, on the feminist wagon. The boys asking what was wrong with it? Probably to get a rise out of the girls. A high emotion book that makes you dig deep. I am pleased I have read it again. I want my nieces to read it.

Gwil W said...

Sol, having read your review and a couple of others since you brought it to my attention with a comment on my blog, I will try and locate a copy and give it a go, if it's not overwhelmingly long. I too have never read Attwood although I've seen her books on the shelves. For some obscure reason I thought they were detective thrillers. Had no idea she was into serious subjects. Many thanks!

Sol said...

Hi Gwil, I am glad you are going to give Atwood a go. I was quite worried about having a feminist dystopian book for the read along. but am pleased ive read it again. I hope you like it

Margaret Butterworth said...

"Never let me go" by Kazuo Ishiguro is another thought provoking book of the same ilk.

Sol said...

Hi Margaret, thank you for the name of this writer. I think I will read this myself. its very hard to find new material to read. Thank you for your comment.

kymber said...

Sol - i think you nailed the entire book with this post - Margaret would be proud!

she is, and is not a feminist, according to her and everyone else - and has won many canadian awards for literature. she is also a very acclaimed poet. and she's canadian. she's just about perfect - bahahahah!

she doesn't like it when Handmaid is considered science fiction - she has said in several interviews that science fiction is like talking squids in outer space, whereas she considers her science fiction to be more social science fiction.

she is beloved and hated here in canada - it's one or the other.

i have read Handmaid and many other of her books - she is an excellent writer and story teller.

i would add my own synopsis of Handmaid except you pretty much blew yours out of the park. i really liked that Ray commented....always good to get a man's point of view.

again, Margaret would be proud of this post.

sending much love. your friend,

Sol said...

Hey Kymber, hope you are well. It is a really good book. You should put your thoughts into a comment. I would love to hear them. Margaret is a pretty slick chick, right?!? I will be reading more of her literature for sure.

Love to you and Jam. Keep warm!!!

Raybeard said...

Thanks for re-printing my review above, Sol, though it does look rather paltry as compared with your own expertly delineated and profound thoughts.
Of course 'Handmaid' is "horrific", and anyone who doesn't think that must have had their minds elsewhere while going through the motions of reading it. However, that quality can't be used as a criticism of the book; we'd be vastly impoverished if ALL horror stories were to be withdrawn from circulation - it might take out up to half of all those published!
The novel is a cautionary and nowadays frighteningly plausible tale, far more relevant to today's world than that when it was written, and for that reason so much the scarier.

I'm surprised to read that the author is so reviled in parts of her own country, rather than admired throughout. That possibility had never occurred to me. I'm not aware of it being the case with the British public where I'm only aware of praise for her writings. Maybe I've missed the criticisms. But I do know that 'Handmaid' has engendered a desire in me to acquaint myself with her other books.

Btw: I heartily concur with Margaret B. above in recommending Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go'. Quite as chilling as 'Handmaid' - and it was a VERY good film (2010) too!

Sol said...

I will have to see if we can rent the film on Sky TV. I think we will add it to the list anyway! Woo hoo lots of new to me books!