A lot has been written about this book. It’s on number 37 of American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000, and that’s ‘challenged’ like in ‘banned on certain schools’. There has been lots of feminist discussion of the book too – both favorable and unfavorable. The content of this books mixes sexuality, hardline religion, totalitarian politics, reproductive oppression and American culture in one explosive cocktail: perfect tinder to kindle a debate among the participants of the culture wars.
I don’t have the time nor the energy to contribute a lot to those debates. Atwood seems to have written a book that makes people think, and I can’t object to that. As far as the feminist debate goes, I’ll only say this: I have the feeling this book neither vilifies men nor simply victimizes women, and as such I think it’s intelligent and balanced.
While The Handmaid’s Tale retains its appeal, and might even be considered a timeless book, it seems to breathe the atmosphere of the 1980ies: an atmosphere of uncertainty, and even pessimism: the onset of AIDS, the Cold War, pollution, nuclear accidents, Reagan and rightwing politics.
There has been some debate whether this book is science fiction or just speculative fiction. Atwood seems to favor the latter, but to me this seems not much more than a semantic discussion. SF or SF, it is a book set in the not so distant future (the end of 20th century, seen from 1985), with a certain dystopian feeling: pollution and the likes have caused extreme fertility problems in the Western world, and in the USA there also has been a “catastrophe” of undisclosed nature, a nuclear meltdown maybe. This has led to a political revolution, with all the members of Congress killed, the constitution suspended and an extremely totalitarian & theocratic regime installed, the “Republic of Gilead”.
I’m not sure the book worked for me.
It does succeed – masterfully even – to evoke an atmosphere. In that respect, the first person narration of a woman who is reduced to someone whose sole purpose is breeding works very well. The novel has a claustrophobic vibe, and just as the protagonist is kept uninformed and shielded off, the reader too only gets glimpses of the totality of the world and times the book is set in.
The prose is excellent, poetic even. Atwood manages to evoke a lot without that many words, and for me this is her true strength. The book is only 324 pages, but it’s not a light, quick read, as one needs the concentrate in order not to miss anything.
The sidewalk is red brick. That is the landscape I focus on, a field of oblongs, gently undulating where the earth beneath was buckled, from decade after decade of winter frost. The colour of the bricks is old, yet fresh and clear. Sidewalks are kept much cleaner than they used to be.
She goes to the sink, runs her hands briefly under the tap, dries them on the dishtowel. The dishtowel is white with blue stripes. Dishtowels are the same as they always were. Sometimes these flashes of normality come at me from the side, like ambushes. The ordinary, the usual, a reminder, like a kick. I see the dishtowel, out of context, and I catch my breath. For some, in some ways, things haven’t changed that much.
It didn’t succeed in suspending my disbelief. I didn’t buy the regime. Atwood’s mastery of atmosphere and language is great, but her world building is off. It’s is inconceivable that a scenario like the one described would take place. 100% inconceivable. Sure, there have been crazy totalitarian/theocratic regimes in the past, and there’s the likes of North Korea and Saudi Arabia right now, but the Republic of Gilead takes the cake.
It’s just too much: a sectarian religious conspiracy that manages to kill every member of Congress including the president, and at the same times gains control over the military and other law enforcement (or at least can hold those at bay). They also succeed in quickly installing a totalitarian regime that:
- reverses to sexual norms harsher than those in the Victorian age, in which no one is allowed to have sex for pleasure
- forbids women having money & possessions
- manages to separate children of unwed parents from their mother & father
- disbands all non-Christian marriages
- enslaves all the fertile, unmarried woman for breeding purposes
- forbids reading, and most other forms of culture
- doesn’t recognize love to be of value
- manages to relocate all African Americans to “National Homelands” in the Midwest
…and all that in about a year or five!!
It’s described that people in Manhattan collectively burned their bras and other lingerie – as sexiness is forbidden all of a sudden. Has Atwood been in NY? It’s big, and it’s cosmopolitan. Every house there (and in the rest of the country) searched for magazines, records, books, dildos and the likes? Every woman fired on the same day? Etc. Etc. It is ludicrous. 100% ludicrous. People would react, and not in the lukewarm way – the occasional guerrilla bombing – it is hinted at in the book. Such a regime would simply not be able to take hold, let alone manage to control and brainwash the bulk of late 20th century American nation in under a decade.
At first I thought the fact that the protagonist had known other times, pre-Gilead, was a strength of the book. It made for a nice contrast, and a conflicted character – a mere brainwashed sheep wouldn’t have been as interesting. But as the novel progressed, and the extent and history of the new regime became clear, it proved to be its weakness. If Atwood had conceived some far future society in which this barren new world would have slowly taken hold, I could have bought it. As near future history, it fails.
All this is not to say Atwood doesn’t show insight in the workings of totalitarian regimes: she does. My beef is mainly with the way and speed it is established, not how it works. That latter part is fully thought out and resonates deeply with what we know about the workings of similar regimes and cults.
As in most books, there are some minor inconsistencies and plot holes, but one is worth noting. It’s not explained why this new regime felt a need to manifest itself, but it’s made clear that an extremely low fertility rate helped to make it all possible… yet the regime forbids artificial insemination and fertility clinics. Consistent world building this is not: even an extremely religious regime would find or fabricate some religious doctrine to be able to grasp at these possibilities for more births.
Aside from the farfetched setting, another weakness of the book is its lack of plot: there is not much of a story. At first this didn’t bother me: Atwood slowly reveals the setting and the characters, intriguingly. But about a third in, things start to drag as not a lot happens. At the halfway mark this is fixed to a certain extent, but it all remains rather small. This lack of plot is not a fatal weakness, since the mood, the prose and the claustrophobia continue at a steady level, just as the glimpses at the regime’s inner mechanisms. Because of all that the book remains readable.
On top of all this, I’m not sure about the main character’s psychology. Yes, the book’s mood is bleak, and the protagonist is not a happy camper, but she seems to hold up pretty well: her child has been taken away, her husband is probably murdered, she’s more or less imprisoned, and for all practicalities she’s raped at regular intervals. Her mindset as it is described is maybe plausible, but unlikely. (Update 12/4/2019: Then again, a conversation with Nick Imrie in the comments of his Goodreads’ review of the 2019 sequel The Testaments made me realize Offred’s passivity could be a realistic sign of trauma.)
The book ends with some historical notes that place The Handmaid’s Tale firmly in the tradition of “found footage” texts. It doesn’t add anything and makes the ending feel a bit bloated. It also exposes the book for what it is: an artificial construct. It could have easily been cut.
I think Atwood wanted to bite off too much with this book – it never feels too preachy, but at times I had the feeling she did try to communicate a too pessimistic warning. Since the dystopian warning is so overdone and partly illformed, it might be hard to take serious for some readers, and as such it might miss a part of its desired effects. With some limited editing, the novel could have been much more believable.
Maybe I’m too critical, as the book does have merit. The Handmaid’s Tale seems generally loved, so Atwood must have struck a chord. I cannot recommend against it, just don’t expect a setting that is fully realistic.