Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Devouring Books: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

"You can think clearly only with your clothes on"

If I know anything about myself (and really, I surprise myself daily, I can't even), it's that I am a big fan of:

  1. Dystopian fiction
  2. Feminism
Atwood tends to be great for the feminism part of that always, and I still think a lot about how great, for example, The Edible Woman was; and she's also good at dystopias, most recently the Madaddam trilogy (which I like, but don't love). The Handmaid's Tale, though, combines both things at once, and does it with such a light touch that it doesn't have to matter that you're reading about the damaging potential of institutionalised misogyny (it's great without politics), but it's impossible to escape the implications that thinking like that can be really dangerous.

The book, then, starts in a world that seems to come just after ours- once empowered and wholly free are women are now categorised, and placed into roles that are most suited for them- some are cooks, maids, econowives, and the few women who have previously had children become handmaids, creepy vessels for the most powerful men to impregnate so that their genes might live on (and perpetuate the terrible world). It seems worth mentioning that this world is also environmentally fucked, so many people are sterile, which means that women who are not are both 'precious resources' and open to incredible exploitation.

This is kind of why the book is so scary. In a world that is environmentally fucked, and reproduction is limited,  women's bodies become not their own to control, but someone else's to use for their own ends. It's so close to a reality that could potentially happen (the environment being fucked as it is) (women's bodies attempting to be controlled as they are, especially in America) that it makes it terrifying to consider, and Atwood helps this along by showing scenes from the past- where people were together out of love (or at least lust) and women had their own jobs, and lives, and finances, just like we do. The main character of the book, Offred, (or, Of Fred, get it?) even had a second-wave feminist mother, making her own situation just that little bit more horrifying. But that, of course, is what makes dystopian fiction so great and so gripping- it has to be close enough to reality to make it plausible, and horrible enough so that we make sure it never comes to pass.

What I know about The Handmaid's Tale is that when I first read it just over 5 years ago, it made me just that little bit more feminist (and so, so angry) and it also made me NEED to talk to people about it. I don't think I can give The Handmaid's Tale all the credit for the creation of this blog, but it's one of a select group of books that I read directly after uni that I NEEDED to discuss with people but didn't really have that outlet anymore, thus this space was born! I think some of you have told me that you read this actually AT school/Uni, and I'm kind of jealous that I didn't cause I think it's perfect for that (the THEMES! And the FEMINISM! And OMG THE WRITING) and because I've kind of put it on my mental list of things that should be required reading for all humans, along with To Kill A Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath and lots of other books that I can't think of at the moment. But please, let us discuss in the comments!

One final word on The Handmaid's Tale- at the end, there's a wholly skippable but interesting appendix comprised of an academic lecture on Offred's Tale and what it tells us about her society etc etc. I'm not completely sure what Atwood was trying to do with it (legitimise Offred's story? Provide clues for what happens to her after it?), but for me it serves as a contrast between the relative powers of fiction and academia. Whilst the main body of the novel draws you in, plonks you down in a world that feels incredibly real and immediate, the academic annex draws you out, making you look at the situation with intellectual detachment rather than pressing emotional immediacy. This isn't necessarily a bad things, but it's a big part of why I'm not convinced that academia is the place for me*, because the majority of what I want from a book is the emotional attachment, not pulling things apart to see how they fit together. But then again, maybe there's no reason why you can't have both, and maybe I have hugely veered away from my original point.

Which is, this. The Handmaid's Tale. Read it, be changed. 

*Please don't quote me on this if I ever do a phD...


  1. Fantastic review on a very chilling story. There are few books that make me angry yet frightened at the same time!
    The ending was odd because it goes from one page of terror/uncertainty to the next page of academic detachment and condescension. But ALL OF IT was perfect.

    1. Definitely angry+frightened! Such a weird combination cause you can't quite have detached anger so you also have to get a bit scared... Just, GAH.
      All of it is literally the best. I can't get enough. But still, scary AF!

  2. You are making me want to reread this cos I haven't read it since college at some point and that has been way too long

    1. That is waaaaay too long, Alley (you old old person haha) It is sooooo good that it just deserves a re-read every so often, really.

  3. I was thinking I might pick this up for the reread-a-thon, actually. I have read it before (obviously, or else I couldn't REread it...) but I was fifteen or so and I suspect a lot of it went over my head. It'd be interesting to read it a more thorough understanding of the Point.

    I only remember two scenes, but I remember them very vividly. One is where she's walking down the street without turning her head, but she can see the gallows(?) out of the corner of her eye, and the other is one of the more graphic aspects.

  4. Maybe I shall read this for the rereadathon too.