1985; 311 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Contemporary Literature; High-Brow; Dystopian Fiction. Laurels : 1985 Governor General’s Award (won); 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award (won); 1986 Nebula Award (nominated); 1986 Booker Prize (nominated); 1987 Prometheus Award (nominated). Overall Rating : 9*/10.
Set in the future – roughly one generation – the United States has suffered the unthinkable – a military coup. The constitution has been suspended indefinitely; no dissent is tolerated. New laws have been enacted, based on religious principles. America has been renamed the Republic of Gilead, and is now a Puritan-style theocracy.
Coincidentally, the majority of the North American Caucasian men and women are sterile, most likely due to chemicals seeping into the food chain and drinking water. The survival; of the race is threatened. What can be done?
Well, there is Biblical (Old Testament) precedent. If the wife is unable to conceive, the husband is permitted to procreate with a suitable servant. Which Jacob did with Bilhah, who was his wife Rachel’s handmaid.
What’s To Like...
The Handmaid’s Tale is told in the first-person by Offred (“Of Fred”), who has been tested, found to be potentially fertilizable, and given to a Commander ("Fred") for baby-making purposes. Having been married “before” to a divorced man, she is ineligible for matrimony, as her erstwhile husband is now considered to be still wedded to his first wife. Their daughter has been taken from them, and Offred has been designated a Handmaid. The alternatives are much worse, and there is some small consolation in the fact that a handmaid is a valuable commodity.
Margaret Atwood draws upon restrictive rules from various religions to create a frightening world. There are Paulist tenets forbidding women to speak and to be in all subjection; there's the Hindu practice of arranged and child marriages; and the Muslim taboo on alcohol and tobacco. Commoners are forbidden to read the Bible, and if you get caught trespassing Old Testament laws, you will end swinging from the Hanging Wall.
Nuns, Quakers, and Baptists are wanted criminals. But the new society is also decidedly anti-intellectual. Universities are closed, and professors executed unless they reform. Abortion doctors are summarily executed; there's no reform option for them.
Atwood fleshes out this dystopian world with some fascinating theocratic details. You can go with Offred to buy “Soul Scrolls”, see the corpses dangling from the Hanging Wall, testify at a “Prayvaganza”, and attend a very special “Salvaging”. You’ll meet “Aunts”, “Marthas”, “Eyes”, “Guardians of the Faith”, Commanders, Wives, and of course, other Handmaids.
As with any Dystopia, life is not as idyllic as those in power would lead the people to believe. Societal restrictions make life miserable for all women, no matter where they are in the social caste structure. But it’s very tough on the men as well; they can be executed for adultery or any other transgression just as easily as women can.
OTOH if you are far enough up the Power Ladder, there are ways to skirt the rules. Hypocrisy thrives, if only for the select few. Yet there are ways for the powerless to resist. Just don’t get caught.
The tension builds to a satisfying ending, despite it being somewhat of a cliffhanger. Be sure to read the last dozen or so pages of the book called the Historical Notes, It looks like a boring appendix, but it's actually part of the story, and will answer some (but not all) of the cliffhanger questions.
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to. (pg. 7)
A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savors in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.
I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit. (pg. 114)
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” (pg. 90. The translation of this is given in the comments.)
The writing is both elegant and powerful. The pacing is good, but not perfect. The first 90 pages or so set a terrifying scenario, but don’t move the plotline along at all. And the segue from Offred’s present-day thoughts to one of her many flashbacks is at times annoyingly subtle.
Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is a riveting look at the brutality of a theocracy. And 30 years after its writing, it is still timely, what with Muslim and Christian Extremists flexing their Fundamentalist zealotry, both claiming to be doing the will of God.
Small wonder then, that TH’sT clocks in at #88 on the Top 100 Most Frequently challenged books (the complete list is here). And since this week has been designated National Banned Books Week for 2014, this seemed an appropriate read.
9 Stars. Highly topical and highly recommended. In its own way, this book will scare you far worse than a Stephen King thriller.