Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - Book Review #134

Wednesday, October 12, 2011
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now... 

I read a fair share of dystopian novels in my time. Some of them were better, others were worse, but none of them ever looked at least remotely real to me. Yes, I could see where authors were coming from – what flaw in our society they choose to explore, but I could never really believe that it might go that far, it might become so grotesque. The Handmaid's Tale was different.

Not only the world created in The Handmaid's Tale was believable, it is very realistic. Maybe the US have a way to go to reach The Handmaid's Tale reality, but other countries not only almost there, but have been there for decades and centuries. Women’s roles are very limited and assigned. They are not allowed to work, have property or money.  They are denied education and not allowed to read. Sounds familiar, isn’t it? (I don’t want to point fingers at anyone here, just stating facts as I know or see them.)

"There is more than one kind of freedom...Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it." 

The only unrealistic part of The Handmaid's Tale for me was how fast new reality took over. I guess the problem might be in the narrator Offred. She is passive, she only tries to get by without fighting and she is broken. However, she can clearly remember how it was before. This is very hard to understand, for me personally.  On the other hand, I can see how Offred is a perfect narrator for this story. She is not your regular dystopian rebellion; she is just another human being with human longing for simple happiness, not a battle.

“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me.” 

For me personally the most terrifying thing was always a silence. It also goes the other way – when I’m truly scared, I don’t scream or cry – I’m going completely silent. The Handmaid's Tale made me feel this terrifying silence of the world down to my spine.  Even stores’ signs are silent – they only have pictures no words. In most of the dystopian books main character at one point or another running into the issue who he/she can confide to, but in The Handmaid's Tale this desperation, inability to trust, to talk to anyone is shown the best.

“All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn't be that hard.” 

The Handmaid's Tale might be a difficult book to read for some. The narrative is switching from past to present without much of notification. The ending is ambiguous, which might be viewed by some as unsatisfying. The Handmaid's Tale is also considered by few as an offensive book to women. For me it was perfect: the switches in the narrative came smoothly and were at the right places of the story; the ending was opened for hope. As for it’s been offensive, I would agree with that, however I don’t think that this book should be viewed in this light. I think it should be viewed as a warning, same as all dystopian books meant to be. I think it should be read by all women and most of men.


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