In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood creates a powerful futuristic dystopia in which a quasi-religious political organization has taken control of the United States, creating a men-centered universe determine to procreate, even if via “handmaids.”
In the attitude of George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and I’m sure many others, Atwood’s dystopia is a dire reminder of the danger of extremism. It is a chilly tale of life under fanatical leaders and the danger of swinging from one extreme to the other. It was an intriguing story of how a changing law changes one’s moral acceptance of things. I literally had a hard time putting down the captivating story.
I enjoyed the narrative. I enjoyed the pacing of the story. I sympathized with the narrator. I was fascinated by the political warnings of what the world could come to. But I can’t say I loved The Handmaid’s Tale. It is one that many people should read, but it’s not a favorite that I will reread.
What I Didn’t Like
While I found Atwood’s tale to be engaging and fascinating, I disliked a number of things about this book.
My main dislike was the negative portrayal of religion. Certainly, religious extremism is real on the earth. However, I personally found some concepts in this book to be a horrible distortion of religion (for example, that sex with a nameless handmaiden in a distorted “ceremony” is more sacred than IVF or other methods of conceiving a child in love). As a religious woman who believes in God’s command to “Multiple and replenish the earth,” I still believe in birth control. I still believe in a woman’s right to choose (although I personally disagree with abortion). I still believe sex is a beautiful gift from God, not a distorted “ceremony” only for conception of children. One can believe in religion without being extreme.
Reading a book showing distorted Christianity helped illustrate to me why followers of Islam might be frustrated when people assume that fanatical Muslims represent all Muslims. I can better sympathize to that frustration now.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, sexuality was a political tool, and obviously, the handmaid (the narrator) was defined by her ovaries. I don’t read books with lots of sexuality in them, and I wasn’t unduly concerned with sexuality in this book since I knew the premise of the novel when I began it. However, I can’t see myself rereading it, and I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone easily bothered by excessive sexuality in fiction.
Woman in the dystopia were not allowed to read or write, and the unnamed narrator had no materials for writing. Supposedly, this story was told on to cassette tapes found 150 years later. However, the story was told mostly in the present tense, as events were happening. I had a hard time determining how the narrator could tell her story on to cassette tapes as events were happening. It seemed so unrealistic that it bothered me throughout the narrative.
Suspension of Disbelief
I had small disbeliefs, but my main disbelief was in the basic premise: over the course of five years or so, the U.S. government was slaughtered in a massacre, a religious fanatical group took over, banks denied access to all women, and second marriages became illegal and children of those marriages confiscated by the government. Not only that, but children were suddenly very scarce because most people didn’t want to become pregnant, women couldn’t become pregnant, and one in four children were born with horrible birth defects that made the child mortality rate very high. I had a hard time believing that all these things would suddenly allow the creation of a society where a formerly married woman accepts being a handmaid for a married man. I realize Atwood wanted to create a society within the narrator’s viable childbearing years, but the rapid development of such a radical society was so unbelievable as to bother me.
What I Liked
As I read, I kept disbelieving: is it really possible that an outrageous political group could take control of the country and turn the nation, in five years, from a free society to one where women had to be veiled? Is it really possible that Japanese tourists would visit the former USA and take photos of such oppressed women?
There is no way the world would let it happen. I thought time and again. The population of the country would never support such radical moves. There is no way they’d accept such propaganda.
And then I remembered: 1932. The National Socialist German Workers Party was democratically elected to power. Within six years, non-Nazi leaders and Jewish peoples were being taken to concentration camps.
The Nazis, an “extreme” political group, came to power because people let them; the people were politically apathetic. The rest of the world let the Nazis take over; after all, they were elected.
When I read Einstein’s biography a few months ago, I learned that Einstein himself expressed apathy to the political situation in the early 1930s: “It will blow over once the economy improves,” he said to reporters. But the Nazis didn’t go away. They took more and more power and made their agenda into a World War.
Other societies on earth deny freedoms, and the world likewise watches.
The Bottom Line
The Handmaid’s Tale, then, is an important addition to dystopian literature and an important reminder of our individual role in political affairs. I certainly don’t like Atwood’s image of the world before the government takeover (pornography is rampant; high pollution causes birth defects; low birthrates encourage kidnappings in supermarkets). But Atwood’s warning-dystopia is even more disturbing.
Let us each take some role in our governments; let’s not let either extreme happen. Vote if you can: Your society depends on your voice.
It seems most people love The Handmaid’s Tale; I’m probably the small minority that only “liked” it, although I’m sure some people hated it. What did you think of The Handmaid’s Tale? Why did you love it? Did anything bother you about it, or am I the only one?
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