A Not Entirely Objective Book Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale”

handmaid

Promotional image for Hulu’s television series “The Handmaid’s Tale

I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and I can tell you it’s not a book you review without doing a bit of research. Of course I knew that going in.

I’ve been peripherally aware of both Atwood’s novel and the television series on Hulu but didn’t give either much attention. Then I read a few stories about this year’s Women’s March and noticed in the news photos amid women dressed in vagina hats and full-body vagina costumes, there were groups who wore the red and white wardrobe of the handmaids (I assume the protestors’ inspiration was more the TV series than the book but I have nothing with which to back that opinion).

Since the Women’s March largely is a protest against the administration of President Donald Trump, I became curious as to the connection (I already knew what the vagina costumes were all about).

Fortunately, my local public library system had a copy, so I reserved it and when it arrived at the designated branch, I eagerly began reading. I’m going to break down this review into sections both to make it more readable and to keep things straight in my head. It’s not that I found the book itself so complex, but there are wider social implications to consider.

Readability

Low hanging fruit first. How readable is Atwood’s novel? I had read from other sources that Atwood’s language was nuanced and subtle so I prepared myself to read much more slowly than I normally would so I wouldn’t skim past anything important. As it turns out, although some of the language is poetic, it’s not that difficult a read. I spent about a week of lunch hours going through the pages, so I’d have to say it was fairly easy.

The pacing was painfully slow but I attribute that as deliberate by Atwood in an attempt to convey to the reader the slow, orderly pace of life in fictional Gilead. The scenes where the Commander took Offred to the “men’s club” with her all dressed up as a “hooker” seemed to the be liveliest section which you’d expect given the change of tone and locale.

Like a good many other readers, I thought that Offred’s liberation (I can’t call it an escape because she had no hand in it) came rather suddenly and if there hadn’t been the final “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” section which offered a fictional analysis on the events reported by Offred, I would have wondered if she really made it or not. Actually even that section leaves her fate somewhat up in the air.

Bottom line is that if you just want to read the book as a book and not a social or political commentary, particularly one you may want to apply to the current state of American politics, likely, you’ll do just fine and experience the novel as interesting and entertaining.

Dystopian Novel

There have been any number of favorable comparisons between Atwood’s novel and George Orwell’s 1984. Since I make it a practice to read Orwell’s novel on a more or less regular basis (at least once a decade), I have a somewhat recent memory of the content. To me, it seems like Orwell and Atwood approach dystopia from two very different political and ideological directions.

1984

One cover version for George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

For Orwell, the dystopian world is ruled by a Communist/Socialist dictatorship which seeks to control the language of its population and through language their thoughts. Personal freedoms are limited and there are informers everywhere including among one’s own children. The archetypal leader/villain is “Big Brother” who observes the actions of the population, punishing the non-compliant. The novel has a protagonist who, in the end, succumbs to the State’s authority.

Atwood’s world is ruled specifically by a white, male, fundamentalist religious nation which again seeks to control thoughts and behavior primarily through applying highly selective portions of the Bible. In this case, the protagonist is a woman of childbearing years who is enslaved due to her fertility, reproduction having been severely curtailed by radioactive and chemical pollution among much of the population.

The commonalities between the two approaches have little to do with ideology and everything to do with extremes and techniques. My takeaway is that ANY social, religious, or political system when taken to its farthest extreme and imposed on the will of the people against their wishes creates a dystopia. There are no exceptions.

The Humanity of Offred’s World

I give Atwood credit for creating a complex collection of characters, all of whom possess many human flaws. There are obviously clear good guys and bad guys but only up to a point. As much of a victim as Offred may be, along with the other Handmaids and Marthas, the Wives and Commanders also lead miserable little lives as do the various functionaries within the Gilead power structure. I ended up seeing just about everyone as a little pathetic at times.

The most emotional portions of the book for me had to do with Offred’s daughter being taken away from her, being (supposedly) told that her mother was dead, and then being raised by (infertile) strangers. I have an eight-year-old grandson and a two-and-a-half year old granddaughter and I know how devastated I would be if I could never see them again.

At some point in the novel, I expected Offred to break down under the tremendous emotional stress of her existence, especially after seeing a photo of her daughter, but she never really does. She shows her vulnerability in many other ways, but she had learned to hide any overt expression of her feelings in order to survive, possibly just as any other prisoner of war or concentration camp inmate does.

Influences and Biases

From the book’s Introduction written by Valerie Martin (I had no idea who she was so I looked her up), it seems that Atwood’s inspiration for crafting the society of Gilead comes from the early Puritans of New England (the book is set in New England) although it’s been suggested elsewhere that just about any fundamentalist Christian religion would be an apt model.

In a 10 March 2017 New York Times article Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump, Atwood herself states that:

The immediate location of the book is Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard University, now a leading liberal educational institution but once a Puritan theological seminary. The Secret Service of Gilead is located in the Widener Library, where I had spent many hours in the stacks, researching my New England ancestors as well as the Salem witchcraft trials. Would some people be affronted by the use of the Harvard wall as a display area for the bodies of the executed? (They were.)

Atwood goes on to say that the novel is feminist in the sense that women are depicted as real human beings with differing motivations and behavior rather than them all being “angel/victims.”

Is her novel anti-religion? Her answer is:

The second question that comes up frequently: Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” antireligion? Again, it depends what you may mean by that. True, a group of authoritarian men seize control and attempt to restore an extreme version of the patriarchy, in which women (like 19th-century American slaves) are forbidden to read. Further, they can’t control money or have jobs outside the home, unlike some women in the Bible. The regime uses biblical symbols, as any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would: They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.

I disagree with that last bit and shall address it presently.

The last question she addresses is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a prediction? She says “no” since it is impossible to accurately predict the future, though she goes on to say that if this possible future can be described, maybe it won’t happen.

Valerie Martin’s Introduction makes overt what is suggested in the novel in that this sort of totalitarian regime is more likely in America than in Canada. Just as during the Vietnam War when men choose to avoid the military draft by illegally (yes, Canada has immigration laws) entering Canada, escape for those in the “nation” of Gilead means fleeing to our neighbor to the north. Martin is very pointed in explaining how Canadians are not Americans (and I’ve talked to enough Canadians to convince me many have a sort of pride in not being Americans).

I’m reminded of the various celebrities in the entertainment industry who said if Trump were elected, they would move to Canada. Yet according to a 3 July 2017 article by Business Insider, Canada has yet to register a significant uptick in applications for admission from U.S. citizens. However, I digress.

My Take

Where shall I begin?

It’s difficult to know if Atwood truly believes the Bible (or at least certain portions of it) is a draconian, racist, sexist document expressly designed to make a nation like Gilead come into existence or if she were merely leveraging her perceptions of how the early Puritans may have misused the text. There’s no religion listed for her on her Wikipedia page (yes, I know, Wikipedia isn’t a great research tool, but this is a book review, not a doctoral dissertation), so let’s say she’s an atheist. Atheists tend to (although I can’t say this is what Atwood did specifically) read the Bible in English at face value rather than actually study it and it’s underlying historical, social, and theological meanings and nuances and in the original languages. Heck, a lot of Christians have some pretty funny ideas of what the Bible says which, in my humble opinion, are totally unfounded.

Nevertheless, the government of Gilead does use specific sections of the Bible to justify the enslavement of women and forced reproduction including (and I don’t know how Atwood got this out of the Bible) having the Handmaid lay her head on the lap of the Commander’s wife while the Commander was having intercourse with the Handmaid (not the wife).

I don’t think Atwood wrote her novel with a bias against all world religions, but she seems to have laid the blame squarely at the foot of the Puritans and possibly by inference all fundamentalist Christians.

Atwood stated that such a dystopia could not happen under Communism or Islam because Christian religious texts (she supposes) would be used to form such a dystopia in America. That assumes the only dystopia that could possibly occur here is Christian-conservative based. Islam has their own religious texts with which they subjugate women (see below) and history already records the abuses of whole populations under Lenin and Stalin for the good of the State if not God. “Not in America” doesn’t mean “not anywhere.”

I also found Atwood’s focus on fundamentalist Christianity odd since the novel is somewhat “anti-modesty,” not for the sake of being such, but because modesty is forced on women, the Wives included. The most apparent examples of modesty being enforced in religious communities are Orthodox Judaism (including the Chabad) and Islam. To take it a step further, immodesty in Muslim nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia is punished as a crime, as it would be in Gilead. Neither in modern Orthodox Judaism nor fundamentalist Christianity does a woman go to jail for wearing a mini skirt, although I’m sure there would be social and familial consequences (and for that matter, neither Christianity or Judaism entertains the concepts of honor killing or genital mutilation).

iran arrests hijab

On Thursday, Iranian police announced that 29 women were arrested for waving hijabs on sticks in symbolic rejection of Iran’s Islamic law – Photo found at kanal24

I will agree with Atwood, and I said this above, that her characters are wholly human, and even the heroine of the story Offred (we never learn her real name) is hardly a perfect person. If the women are depicted as people, so are the men and I’ll conclude that in her novel, none of her characters are shown to be morally superior to others. They have all fallen, though of course the society of Gilead is indeed unjust, but everyone seems to suffer as a result.

Could It Happen Here?

In the novel, in order for the nation of Gilead to rise, the President and Congress had to be gunned down and the U.S. Constitution abolished. No, that would never happen here because I don’t see any group with the capacity to form such resistance against any past (the book was written during the Reagan Presidency) or current administration. Besides, social and religious conservatives in America tend to be very pro-Constitution though they aren’t always fond of the people holding political office in Washington. A few marginal outliers (Alt-Right) tend to shoot their mouths off a lot, but they aren’t a credible threat.

Could Orwell’s novel happen here? Probably not and for the same reasons, though I must say that the concept of “Newspeak” maps reasonably well to “Politically correct-speak” or “Free speech equals hate speech,” so maybe Orwell has a bit of an edge in the particular area of controlling human thought by controlling language.

The Trump Administration

Let’s face it. Donald Trump has a big mouth (or “big fingers” which he uses to tweet on twitter) and he says some really rude and uncouth things. That makes him an easy target for just about everyone, especially late night talk show hosts and SNL. While the novel cannot anachronistically be applied to Trump’s Presidency, I have no doubt that the television series it has spawned does that very thing, which leads me back to this year’s Women’s March and the Handmaid costumes some of the protestors chose to wear.

I don’t doubt that Atwood’s novel (I have no numbers to back this up) will enjoy a renewed popularity, both because of the current television series and because of Donald Trump (perhaps Atwood should send the American President a “thank you” note for the increased amounts in her royalty cheques), just as I have heard (and again, no numbers) that Orwell’s famous dystopian novel found new popularity during the Obama Presidency (which is when I last read it).

And Finally…

We all have our ideas of what life in Hell would be like. I wouldn’t like to live in either Atwood’s book nor Orwell’s but if I had to write a dystopian novel, I’d have to select which ideology and agenda I found to be the most odious. I’m sure it would be very interesting, but the publishing industry being currently aligned as it is, probably not very marketable.

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26 thoughts on “A Not Entirely Objective Book Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful review of the book. I have not read it but have had the impression that it seems to be anti-Christian. I think you’ve made some interesting observations, noticing the costumed women at the Women’s March and making comparisons to 1984. Thank you for giving me a better idea of it.

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  2. I suspect that the Puritan subculture which Atwood chose as her dystopian model was actually not as constricting as frequently envisioned, but certainly it was a 17th-century political phenomenon. It was not representative of our modern sense of liberty, which drew upon broader perspectives. And its attempts to employ biblical models would have been limited and slanted by its inability to access the Jewish sources that could have provided a well-tempered interpretive matrix. Few of us postmoderns would find *any* 17th-century political climate very congenial; and we could complain about various kinds of oppressiveness and the lack of the individual freedom we value. The development of the notions of liberty was a reaction against such constraints, and a hope to do better. I wonder how one might induce a less reactionary thoughtfulness among those who think “A Handmaid’s Tale” is the present generation’s “1984”.

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    • From what I understand, Atwood has something of an ax to grind since her ancestors lived in the shadow of 17th century Puritanism before moving to the “promised land” (Canada), however I was thinking of the same thing. If you’re going to choose a “bad guy” for a modern American dystopia, why the Puritans? Then I realized the book was published in the 1980s. Which American religious movement was making all kinds of waves back then? Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. I suspect they were the real “trigger” for Atwood’s novel and inspiration for the religious totalitarian state. With Reagan in the White House in the mid 1980s, it must have seemed as if they could force conservative Christian “rule” over America.

      As far as whether or not the Canadian government could at all lean toward totalitarianism, I recalled something a Canadian friend of mine mentioned and looked it up. As it turns out, it’s pretty much a hate crime for a Christian Pastor in his own church to say that homosexuality is a sin based on the Bible. I found at 2008 article, a 2013 article, and a 2014 article.

      These weren’t Pastors who were going into neighborhoods or other public areas and preaching “hell and damnation” to gay people, but those communicating to their own parishoners in their own churches, whether in speech or writing.

      Of course Islam has a strong prohibition against homosexuality based on their holy texts, but I don’t think that’s a battle even the Canadian government is willing to tackle.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m not supporting discrimination against the LGBT community or Muslims, but it seems the Canadian government has no problem whatsoever discriminating against Christians. That’s kind of totalitarian to me, which supports my contention in the review that any social or governmental system can be developed into a dystopia. In Canada, it’s simply a dystopia that I suspect Ms. Atwood wouldn’t mind living in (but that’s just an opinion).

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  3. Everyone thinks the easier something is to visualize, the more likely it is. I was raised Christian in a church where the music director failed to throw out the pastor.

    It’s way easier for me to picture those people taking power, than communists or Islamists, because I know them better.

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    • Hi John. I feel there’s an incomplete story here. Why was the music director supposed to throw out the Pastor? Also, while there are likely many events of abuse within the church, that’s a long way from a Christian sect violently seizing power over the American government. As I mentioned in a comment to another reader, given that Atwood’s novel was published in the mid-1980s, it is likely that Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were the inspiration for the government in Gilead. Her family goes back to the 17th century Puritans so I suspect she combined the imagery of those two resulting in her novel. Certainly a cautionary tale, but as I’ve also said, any system taken to an extreme and then forcibly imposed on a population will become totalitarian.

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  4. Good stuff, James! Bojana (https://bloggingwithbojana.com/) pointed me in this direction to take a look at your review, since she had just recommended the same book to me (and I just finished it). I’ve never done book reviews before, nor intended to, so my thoughts are more unpolished, I think, than yours. For me, the book is a vehicle to talk about the stuff that interests me, if that makes sense?

    I won’t go into detail on that; you can check it out in your spare time if you’re so obliged. 🙂

    I do come from a different background than you, obviously. I’m an atheist (or, more precisely, an agnostic atheist), lo these 30 years, after being a pretty devout Christian kid in my teens. I don’t think atheists are atheists because they haven’t dug in deep, for example, but many are because they have. But that’s more a difference of opinion than a fact either of us can prove, eh? 😉

    As another quick example, I didn’t take Atwood to mean that non-Christian totalitarianism can’t happen in America, by her comments. Instead, I think she meant that non-Christian totalitarianism would be more unlikely in America because the United States is a predominately Christian nation (some 70% claim to be, I believe). I think, by the same token, she would say that Iran would be quite unlikely to foster any kind of religious totalitarianism other than an Islamic one.

    But, again, that is our perceptive biases, I suspect.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your detailed analysis of this tome. So glad Bojana pointed me here! You are quite the analytical thinker, James, and I appreciate that most of all.

    Good tidings to you, and have a marvelous day!

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    • I can appreciate that, especially when the book was written, it seemed as if fundamentalist Christianity had a lot of clout, both because of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and due to Reagan being in the White House.

      I don’t see being a person of faith or an atheist as meaning “we can’t talk,” but it will affect our perspectives. While the statistic you cite seems to indicate that America is a “Christian nation,” how many of those Christians are really conservative fundamentalists. There are a lot of more liberal churches that celebrate diversity and inclusiveness and even pray for the sanctity of abortion clinics. On a survey, they’ll say that they are Christians, but I seriously doubt such churches would ever contribute to the dystopian nation of Gilead and in fact, their members, just as the Catholics and Baptists in Atwood’s book, would find themselves hanging by the Wall.

      As I’ve stated in both the body of my review (and I posted a version on Amazon as well, you should post yours there too…writers appreciate it), I believe it’s possible to create a dystopia in America and/or Canada through differing paths which include (believe it or not) Progressive/Socialist ideologies. Stalin’s USSR was based on communist principles and as you said in your own review, in the end, anything that’s not a democracy is totalitarianism. Atwood’s vision is only one and most likely inspired by what she personally considers a “worst-case scenario.” I think that’s how each of us would write our own dystopian stories.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I saw your take on the Falwell movement above. Fascinating! I think you’re right; our fiction (and reality) coincide with the dangers (and hopes) we see in our current environment.

        An interesting counter-perspective on the levels of religious fidelity, too. Thanks for giving me something more to consider!

        Like you, I believe totalitarianism can come from every quarter; we must always be vigilant of the extreme doctrine of any section of society. Intolerance is the one thing we can tolerate the least, ironically enough.

        You’re welcome, James! I look forward to reading more. Dig the way you think!

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      • Thanks, Tom. Different sides of the various social and political arenas have always disagreed, but it seems like in the last decade or so that it’s become amazingly polarized. I don’t have so much of a problem with people disagreeing with me as long as they don’t mind sitting down at the same table and talking it over. The real problem comes in when people figure you’re a liberal or a conservative or whatever and that’s all they need to know, so they don’t what to have anything to do with you.

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      • I’ve noticed that, too, James. I love discussing the differences, but these days I can’t get folks to even talk about the issues, most of the time. It’s all insults now. Hey, some of the brightest people I’ve ever known disagree with me. I appreciate that and want to continuously, as they say, raise the level of debate in this country (on this planet). It doesn’t end with “agree to disagree,” it begins there. 🙂

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      • I watched the YouTube video of Ben Shapiro’s appearance at UC Berkeley some months ago and one African-American student who is progressive and has many progressive friends asked a question of him. Apparently this young man liked to engage conservatives in conversation to try and understand them better, but all of his liberal friends heavily criticized him for it. He asked Ben how he puts up with all of the criticism he has to endure as a libertarian and social conservative.

        I really admired the guy because he was willing to talk reasonably with people he disagreed with in order to foster dialog and understanding. That’s something we were trying to do back in the late 60s and early 70s but the idea let alone the effort seems to have been abandoned by folks on both sides of the aisle, so to speak.

        On my commute into work this morning, I was listening to an oldies station and they played the 1968 song Everyday People by Sly and the Family Stone. The Wikipedia page for that song says in part, “The song is one of Sly Stone’s pleas for peace and equality between differing races and social groups, a major theme and focus for the band.” It’s a message we need to revive.

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      • Even your responses are better researched and nuanced than most people’s posts, James! You’re quickly earning my highest level of respect. We’ll all be better off if we can be the blue one, and still seriously respect the green one who’s living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one.

        But it’d be even better if we can get the rich one to do a better job of helping the poor one. 😉

        But what do I know? I’m everyday people. 😎

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