A few months ago I picked up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from a charity shop, it cost me 50p, it went on the bookshelf with the intent to read it “one day”, that day came sooner than expected when during our previous meet to discuss A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold, it was suggested that we read The Handmaids Tale next, and so my dear readers here are my thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale.
I’ll start by saying that, unlike A Game of Thrones, I’ve not seen the television show that was adapted from this book, my partner began watching it but she said it was too difficult to watch based upon the experiences she had when she had our three children, each of them had some difficulty, be it physical, emotional or mental, attached to her pregnancy and labour and so she was unable to keep watching. After reading the book I can totally understand the difficulty this presented her and there were certainly moments where some difficult memories came back for me.
Thats not the only difficulty I had with the book however, I had to read it in short bursts as its just so incredibly oppressive throughout, which is obviously its intention.
Firstly, its setting, for me anyway, felt very vague. Some of this was definitely intentional, as shown by the closing “Historical Notes” chapter wherein the reader is taken even further into the future to an academic discussing the Gilean rule, but I struggled with understanding the location and how the world was able to change so quickly with seemingly little to no conflict, Offred seemed either unable or unwilling to provide the reader with details that would help.
I think the reason I felt like this is that we are given glimpses into Offred’s previous life, we learn about relationships she’s had, that she was a mother and that she was successful in her career, and yet that is all. I struggled to understand just how there was such a quick turn about in events that Offred’s prior life was still so fresh in her memory, though the point is made that the woman suffering under the new rule will be the ones to suffer the most as they all remember the lives they had.
I did find it very interesting though, especially taking into account the time in which it was written, where women were first beginning to really start to carve out powerful careers for themselves (though, not too powerful, the patriarchy couldn’t’ possibly let a woman have too much control, after all, who will cook their dinner and fetch their slippers?), it definitely feels like it was written with this in mind, and in a contradiction to my prior comments, I can see how Atwood could see the world change so drastically and quickly in order to place women back into their “proper places” and being reduced to oppressive serving roles: child bearers, domestic maids, concubines, teachers and wives. As a father of three daughters, and having been the stay at home parent whilst my partner studied at University, not to mention having to put up with the likes of Gamergate and seeing our own worlds politics change so drastically in the past decade, both at home and abroad, it has me worried for my own families future.
It raises a question of if every teenage boy and grown man was given this to read, would there be a huge shift in feminist politics? I’m not entirely sure it would, those who are likely to try and understand the books message are the ones that are likely to have feminist leanings in the first place whilst the others will no doubt take the mindset of “well, the Republic of Gilead doesn’t sound all bad actually”, no doubt thinking that they’d be amongst the elite alongside the so-called “Commanders” rather than the ordinary man who himself is oppressed and forced into servitude.
The core message of a woman’s body becoming a political weapon is probably The Handmaid’s Tale strongest one, in Gilead a woman’s only worth is if she is able to provide the Republic with children. Higher born women who happen to be unable to do so (because its forbidden to state that the man is infertile) are placed in a position where the only control they have is over their own household, and whilst there are other elements of use for women, it’s all designed to provide the Commanders with a concubine with other female members of the household being there to keep the concubine under control. This is done by turning each individual against each other, the Wife has nothing but distain for those who serve her (especially the Handmaids) and all parties see the Handmaids as being loose of morals.
Like a few of the books we’ve read as part of the book club, I don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale is one that is supposed to be enjoyed, I think that it’s something that has a core message that should be listened to, but I also think it’s world building is a little vague and tied up to much in that worlds own language, it took a while for me to link titles such as Sons of Jacob to Jewish people and Sons of Ham to people of colour, for example and I couldn’t help thinking afterward that due to being a white male some of its commentary wasn’t obvious enough, though the fault there lays with me and not with Atwood.