Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale is a book that has more unfulfilled potential than any other book I've read recently.  (I figured I should at least read one book of Atwood's, since I've taken the liberty of making fun of her so much in the past.)  Plus, I've enjoyed most of the dystopias I've read in the past, and a feminist dystopia seemed to me to be awesome merely by existing.

Unfortunately, the "awesomeness" that I predicted was not quite delivered.  While I will not argue that a dictatorial theocracy such as Gilead is improbable and therefore unbelievable in a story (as Mary McCarthy did in The New York Times in 1986, the year after the book was published), I will say that I found the supposed pacing of the government take-over slightly unlikely.  In addition, Offred (the main character's) wide swinging between I'm-fleeing-to-Canada-to-escape-the-religious-right-regime to I'm-a-concubine-whose-only-value-is-found-in-my-uterus-and-I'm-going-to-act-like-I'm-totally-cool-with-that to I'm-breaking-all-the-rules-and-my-give-a-damn-is-broken was incredibly distracting.  The weaknesses of the story were, in my opinion, character-based and not premise-based.

In addition, the ending was a total cop-out.  Did Offred escape her place as a sex slave?  Didn't she?  What's Atwood's main point?  The "Historical Notes" at the end of the story are no help--they seem to imply that the religious fanaticism in Gilead was short-lived and, in hindsight, a bit of a joke, which completely lessens the impact and import of the story as a whole.  As I wasn't entirely invested in the story of Offred, anyway, her disappearance and the dissection of her words seemed to me be tedious and unnecessary.

The only people to whom I would recommend this book are those who just finished The Feminist Mystique and are looking for a good pairing.


katie said...

I'm not sure if, perhaps, reading your blog name, you think that being a 'not so gentle reader' and thus a provocative analyst will make you stand out. But I'd like to perhaps raise a few positive aspects of The Handmaids Tale to your attention, as I feel the best part of literature is criticism, but not solely negative. I hope you will take my points as a lively response to your article, demonstrating your ability to get me thinking.

I find it interesting that you have enjoyed other dystopias, as I to have done. I felt that The Handmaids Tale was an interesting contrast to 1984, and posed riveting questions about the female aspect of such a totalitarian regime. Having looked into dystopian literature in some depth, I have come to the understanding that the ideas of Gilead are designed to be improbable, and far fetched, but perhaps on the brink of possibility. This allows the reader to distance itself from the world's monstrocities, whilst constantly noticing tiny pieces of reality amongst the, ultimate, fantasy. This allows them to keep questioning whether the political societies of today could ever descend into such chaos.

The idea of Offred as a character is an interesting one. I take your point in the fact that her characterisation can distract from the regime and thematic root of the novel. However, I feel that Attwoods portrayal of an ordinary woman, with normal emotions and feelings, is poignant in a society where these human aspects of being are shut out, closed off and shunned. It reflects the theory - or hope - that, even when one finds themselves in the most inhumane of situations, they can cling on to their own human reality.

This links to the historical notes at the end. You state that you were not interested in Offred as a character. However, the fact that the notes focus on one person, reflects the raised issue of human impact on history. Perhaps Attwood is suggesting that we need to examine, rather than the cold facts of what happened when, the impact of historical events on people. By focussing on Offred, a person who feels so isolated and alone in Gilead, she is reminding the reader that as a race we aren't alone.

This may seem slightly cliched when put into the harrowing context of Gilead, but I think Attwood ultimatley aimed to justify the story, in showing that her tapes did matter, and that she is educating others, which again links to the ideas of moral history, and whether or not we should aim to prevent societies like Gilead from occuring. Interestingly, it appears that Attwood drew on historical influence in shaping Gilead, which emphasises her point that there is always a possibility. Focussing on a developed country like the US, she is perhaps stressing that - in the context of foreign communism - even the most 'civilised' of countries can become gripped by such a government if it has the right appeal.

When I first read the book, I would have agreed with you about the ending. At first it did seem like a total cop-out. However, I think its ambiguous end was quite fitting in terms of its dystopian basis. For example, in A Clockwork Orange Alex is left with life returning to normal and going on, becoming almost cyclic in his mind. Winston Smith himself becomes bewitched, although we cannot be sure of what will happen to him afterwards. We know Offred leaves, but we are left hanging, meaning that we can only imagine her fate. These endings are linked in the fact that all reflect the fact that life moves on, people and things can change even when restricted. The ambiguous ending fits well with the fact, also, that dystopian literature is moving past the real, and into the unknown. As Offred leaves, she moves forward, and although it may not be positive or negative, she has moved on. We are left, as readers, with tapes, that tell her story. We cannot possibly know her whole fate, but that makes part of the aspect of history. We have to piece together what we do know.

continued from above... said...


In terms of your final comment, I would like to point out that I am not particularly interested in the genre of feminism. Although it plays prominently in the book, I felt that it was enjoyable regardless of my opinions of this theme. For although the position and role of women is a major theme in The Handmaids Tale, it is perhaps what makes the novel individual amongst other dystopian literature. Ultimately, the book is about perservering in the face of adversity, and the role of humanity in history and society itself. It is well written and opened my eyes to a whole genre of literature, so I personally would recommend it to anyone with an open mind.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

As to your first point, "Not-So-Gentle Reader" is not necessarily intended to be provocative, it's merely a play on the "gentle reader" trope that appears so often in Victorian literature. By that standard, I'm addressing my audience as "not-so-gentle reader," not myself. Likewise, I don't consider a literature review to be the same thing as literary criticism, and a negative review is, in my opinion, therefore entirely appropriate.

I will agree with you that the book was "well-written," if by that you mean that the prose was fairly easy to read. However, I don't believe that "By focussing on Offred, a person who feels so isolated and alone in Gilead, she is reminding the reader that as a race we aren't alone." Instead, I think that Offred serves as a reminder that, while we may maintain our individuality in the face of a totalitarian regime, we do so by sacrificing our ability to identify with the group as a whole. Offred is entirely alone--she has no friends and no family, no one she can trust. This is not entirely negative, however: because all that she has comes from within, it therefore follows that her strength is entirely her own.

This doesn't necessarily mean that "the book is about perservering in the face of adversity". Instead, I think it is about the slow crumble of the strength of an individual in the face of atrocity. While history righted itself (as proven by the historical notes at the end), Offred was beaten into submission entirely. Her brief flare of individuality in the face of the atrocities (in the form of her affair with Nick) is followed closely by her exit from accepted society. Did she escape? Did she die? Atwood obviously thought that it wasn't important to her main point or that the decision should be left up to the individual. Either way, Offred obviously had no future in the world Atwood created.

I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and you're certainly not the only person who has, but I would caution against trying to separate the story from its feminist themes. I've found that--in the academic world, at least--anything approaching feminist literature does not have a place in "general" literary scholarship.

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