Tag Archives: The Handmaid’s Tale

THE HANDMAID’S TALE – Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Handmaid's TaleA 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.

Continue reading