Review of The Handmaid's Tale by

Book cover for The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood looms large in that particularly Canadian part of my literary subconscious, the part that natters at me to call stuff "CanLit" and berates me for having never read anything by Michael Ondaatje. Atwood is Kind Of A Big Deal, but so far I have managed to avoid reading any of her novels and have read, as far as I can recall, one of her short stories. Already, though, I have a bone to pick with Atwood. She has this weird bias against science fiction and insists that she doesn't write science fiction. Ursula K. Le Guin has noticed and lamented this fact, and I will be a bit more generous and choose to review this book like the science-fiction novel it is.

First I must register fully my discontent with Atwood's perception of science fiction. The Handmaid's Tale is set in a future dystopian America, the Republic of Gilead, where women are largely subjugated. Fertile women who have proved troublesome, like the eponymous protagonist, are trained to become "handmaids," breeders for affluent military commanders who have yet to conceive any children with their wives. It's most definitely science fiction, at least in my books. Atwood, in this lovely interview included in my edition, disagrees:

No, it certainly isn't science fiction. Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that. That isn't this book at all. The Handmaid's Tale is speculative fiction in the genre of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Sure, we can debate where to draw the lines between speculative fiction and science fiction, if any such lines exist, until the continents drift into another Pangaea. Yet I expect better from a feminist author who, after all, has to contend with people who associate feminism with bra-burning and "women first." I expect her to be more understanding of similar movements that have been marginalized and misconceptualized and ghettoized by the mainstream. Fortunately, I don't have to care about whether Atwood thinks she's writing science fiction (because I'm a rebel like that). The Handmaid's Tale is set in a possible future, and that's good enough for me.

This book has several epigrams at the beginning, one of which comes from Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. This is very well done, because it cues the reader that The Handmaid's Tale is satire. When I read satire, I relax certain requirements and am much more lenient with suspension of disbelief. Atwood spends very little time delving into the transition of America from shining beacon of freedom to fundamentalist, totalitarian Christian state. And if one spends any amount of time thinking critically about her society, it's easy to see flaws in her construction. Yet that's OK, because Atwood isn't striving for realism here: this is an impressionism. Atwood is exploring the sensations and feeling associated with totalitarianism and repression. As she points out in the same interview from which I quoted above, everything she depicts in Gilead has existed as part of a nation at one point in time.

The Handmaid's Tale made me think a lot about what it's like to be a woman and to be viewed as an object by both men and other women. Atwood has essentially taken the objectification of women to its extremes: women are Wives, Marthas, handmaids, daughters, etc.; they exist in relation to the men who "protect" them. This protection is very real, in the sense that yes, women are probably safer walking the streets of Gilead than they are in some urban centres. Yet "protect" is also synonymous in this case with "possess." Atwood makes that very obvious in the naming of her narrator, whose original name we never learn: to us, as to the rest of the world, she is Offred—Fred being the name of her Commander. Similarly, the Gileadean propaganda echoes attitudes prevalent in our society that shouldn't be. There's an intense flashback to Offred's time in her indoctrination centre where the new handmaids have a group confession, and one of them wails about being gangraped at fourteen—but it was her fault, of course; she must have invited it. Gileadean women must obey strict sumptuary laws based on their position, and all of them enforce a modesty intended to prevent the incitement of lust in the men who view them.

As befits satire, Atwood often exaggerates these attitudes toward the absurd end of the scale. Yet this only serves to emphasize them and make explicit the objectification of women that is just as pervasive in our society, even if it happens to be more subtle. We tend to hold women to a more restrictive standard of beauty than we do men; women are told they must take a great deal of care for their appearance in order to be acceptable. Yet we condemn women if they dress in a manner considered "too provocative" and blame them if this attracts unwanted attention. I'm aware of all of this from an intellectual perspective; I've read the articles, manifestos, essays, blog posts, T-shirts, etc. Yet knowing and feeling are two different things, and Offred's reflections on "the way things were" compared to her life in the Republic of Gilead add another dimension to how I conceive of the power relations between men and women, and between women and women.

I like that Atwood includes the oppression and judgement of women by other women as well. In The Handmaid's Tale this happens in two categories: class-based oppression and the authoritarian domination of the handmaids by the Aunts. Handmaids are, in a way, the lowest class of woman in Gilead, second only to the "unwomen" who get sent to the radioactive Colonies to clean up waste. Marthas—housekeepers—and Wives alike look down on handmaids, the former probably because they can get away with it, and maybe out of moral opprobrium, and the latter because of what a handmaid in the household means. Offred's relationship with the Commander's Wife is mostly cold and distant: Serena Joy makes it clear that she has no sympathy for Offred and takes no enjoyment from the duties she and Offred must perform to ensure the Commander fathers a child. Yet those duties create a paradoxical intimacy when Serena broaches the possibility that the Commander is sterile—the s-word is forbidden in Gilead, of course—and suggests they conspire to find another sperm donor. Of all the relationships in The Handmaid's Tale, I think I like the one between Offred and Serena the best, for it begins with the appearance of being extremely shallow and predictable and gradually reveals a greater depth and nuance.

While its subtext and themes appeal to me, I am more ambivalent about The Handmaid's Tale as a story. I think this comes down to Atwood's style. Her descriptions are extremely rich and full-bodied—she uses "palimpsest" in the first paragraph—and there is nothing wrong with this per se, but this lyrical quality combined with the sparse cast of characters makes the story seem more suitable for the stage than the page. As a drama too, this would be intriguing to see as a play. As a novel … well, it feels a lot like that other dystopian work of satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I know there are probably people whose opinion of this book make such a comparison blasphemous, but I think it's pretty obvious: both follow a single individual in order to depict an exaggerated form of a totalitarian society that springs from the author's worries over elements of his or her contemporary society. Both climax with discovery and capture (I won't spoil the ending by saying whether Offred suffers the same fate as Winston) and require the protagonist to judge and trust whether other characters are comrades in the resistance or spies. The Handmaid's Tale evokes the same sort of feeling of resigned helplessness as Winston experiences when Big Brother revises history.

I do not think I will ever fall in love with Atwood's style as I have with writers like Robertson Davies, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, or Umberto Eco. And I still smart from her slight against science fiction. Yet I am willing to declare a truce based on the strength of the ideas and themes of The Handmaid's Tale and place Atwood on the same intellectual plane as those other authors. Well played, Margaret. Well played indeed.


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