The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
3 out of 5 stars
As in all my classic reads, I'm going to assume you've either read it, haven't read it but know all about it already, or don't plan to read it, so spoilers will abound in this review. :) This is such a hard book to rate. I can't really say I enjoyed reading it, but I'm glad I did. Does that make sense? You know by now that I'm not a blogger who will dissect all the "themes" of the book or how it relates to the political climate we're in right now and all that stuff they make you write in high school essays. I can just write how the book makes me feel. And this book depressed the heck out of me. There are no positive aspects to this book, at all.
This book was written in 1985, set in a "distant future" that seems to be around now present-day time. Which is disturbing on so many levels. That we live in a time now that people used to create dystopian societies. And while we don't have the flying cars of Back to the Future, these worlds sometimes feel eerily similar to real life. In our present day world, the government is already trying (and succeeding here in Texas & many other states) to take away a woman's reproductive rights by defunding places like Planned Parenthood and outlawing abortions. That's a too small step to Atwood's imagined world, don't you think? I said I didn't like to get political in my reviews, so that's all I'll say about that.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Does that sentence even make sense? Let's break it down...Offred is a person, a female, 33 years old. Her name literally means Of-Fred, property of some dude named Fred. I kept reading it as Off-Red though, which also works, because she now has to wear a long red Nun's habit and keep her body concealed at all times. As a Handmaid, she lives with a higher up Commander, Fred, and his wife. Her sole job is to make a baby for this family, by "lying" with the husband once a month. To make it even more awkward, they do this the "old-fashioned" way, no artificial stuff here, and the wife lies with them. The Republic of Gilead is the East Coast of the former United States, in the 2010s, after a Middle Eastern religious group is blamed for shooting the President and all the members of Congress. A new government is formed, one that brings about the "old ways" of women being property, no longer able to hold jobs or bank accounts, all decisions must be made by the man of the house. Then there is a virus, a power plant explosion, something like that...it causes some women to be infertile, not the men of course. The population is endangered. Young, fertile women are taken to former schools or Nunneries and indoctrinated into a cult of sorts that makes them believe this is their destiny, their new job. The old, infertile, resistant are taken to Colonies, awful places where they just wait to die.
Offred is brainwashed into this new life just like everyone else, but she has moments where she can't help but remember her former life. She had a husband, a child...both taken from her because she was his second wife and divorce is illegal now, so the child is illegitimate. She doesn't know what has become of them, after. She wonders if this is what her life is going to be forever. Women can no longer read or write, which was actually the part of this book that upset me the most. The fact that they are taking away not just their individuality and bodies, but their freedom and ability to learn, their brains, it's just so sad.
But Offred finds ways to keep her wits, stay as present and positive as possible. She finds a Latin saying etched into the floor of her bedroom closet: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum". Don't let the bastards grind you down. She uses it as a slogan, something to repeat over and over as she is humiliated and used. The Commander, Fred, starts to take an interest in her. He encourages her to break the rules and talk to him late into the night, play Scrabble, read old illicit magazines (Vogue). One night he takes her to a brothel, dressed up in an old sequined costume and cheap makeup. Sex is supposed to no longer be a pleasurable thing, but a way to build up the country again. But of course, men will always break the rules they make. If I were writing this as a school essay, I would use that as a main talking point. And also the question of "love" throughout the book. This passage stood out for me, as one of the most important themes in the story:
We've given them [women] more than we've taken away, said the Commander. This way they're protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. What did we overlook?
Love, I [Offred] said.
Love? What kind of love?
Falling in love, I said.
Oh, yes. Was it really worth it, falling in love?
Love, said Aunt Lydia [Nun] with distaste. Don't let me catch you at it. Love is not the point.
Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we've done is return things to Nature's norm.
Falling in love, I said. Falling into it, we all did then, one way or another. How could he have made such light of it? Sneered even. As if it was trivial for us, a frill, a whim. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space. Everyone knew that.
This book pushes buttons and I can understand why it has been on the Banned Books List so often. (Not saying I agree, just that I understand.) But sometimes you need to read books that make you uncomfortable and question the ways of the world. How will you grow, otherwise? And even if the book doesn't have a happy ending or even an ending really at all (like this one), does that mean you wasted your time reading it? I don't think so.