The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

[Hello, breast readers! I hope all of you (at least, website in the US) had a great Thanksgiving weekend! Now we’re back to our regular review schedule.]

Margaret Atwood doesn’t write science fiction or speculative fiction; that, ailment of course, is a genre, and what she writes is high lee-tra-cha. Yeah, whatever. A book set in a near-future dystopia is a very common spec-fic trope, and in the mid-to-late ’80s, she sure as heck wasn’t the first one to write one. She wasn’t even the first one to write one and call it literature. Therefore, I’m reviewing this book as speculative fiction, not a Great Work of Literature. Born in 1939, she has won a good deal of literary prizes (including the Arthur C. Clarke Award) and has taught at a great number of universities. She also writes poetry, some of which has also won awards. Currently she is working on the libretto for a chamber opera, to be produced in Toronto, hopefully sometime in the next couple years.

Our unnamed narrator is a Handmaid; she wears all red, except a white wimple of sorts; she is barely allowed to talk to anyone, and we are unclear as to what she actually does until quite late in the book. It turns out that because she has already born one child who lived and who had no health issues, she is expected to be a surrogate mother of sorts (without the artificial insemination) for older infertile couples who need an heir. The Handmaid (called Offred, of Fred), through a series of flashbacks, recounts her life. At first, she lived in what we would recognize as the late 20th century and went to college; after some point, the government was taken over by a theocracy who determined that women would be much safer if all their rights were taken away. The novel explores the friction between the two halves of her life, and also between what she wants and what she actually does.

In Offred’s later world, women are allowed to be Wives, Daughters, Handmaids, Marthas, Aunts, and Econowives. If they are none of the above, they are either Jezebels (and there aren’t that many of them) or Unwomen, who are usually sent to prison camps. Wives are exactly what they sound like, as are Daughters; Handmaids I described above. Marthas are servants; Aunts are teachers; Econowives are the wives of the lower class, who have to be both Wives and Marthas. Men are not quite so restricted, although they are also divided into rulers and servants. However, they are allowed to go out in public alone; their dress code isn’t quite as draconian; and they, in general, have most of their rights remaining intact.

Offred’s mother was a radical feminist in her day, and the novel is not only a critique of repressive religious practices, especially as regards to their influence over government, but also a critique of radical feminism. When I was reading the book, I felt some of that dichotomy; I couldn’t decide if Ms. Atwood actually agreed with any part of either side. I came to the conclusion that she thought that safety was important, but not more important than freedom — and I mean freedom to, not freedom from, as it is separated in the book. I also believe that she thought that feminism was quite important and did a lot of wonderful things, but that it went a little off when the rad-fems started agreeing with the conservative religious right.

This is not a straightforward book; the timeline is jumbled and goes through a lot of different times. I’m not sure it’s a good book for readers younger than 16 or so; sex is described frankly, in a not-very-romantic fashion (the sex act being described is strictly business). There’s a lot of violence and death. However, it’s obviously a book intended to make people think about the balance between safety and liberty, and especially in today’s climate of restriction in the name of national security, it’s a necessary reminder that we must consider this carefully. Despite literary conventions of poorly-described characters and a rather pointless tacked-on ending intended to provide some measure of closure for our characters (although it raises more questions than it answers), I’d still be hard-pressed to disagree with every other reviewer and literary award on the planet. This is a great book and an important work of literature due to its timeliness, but not because of its innovation. 5/5 stars.

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