Reading Backwards

Book reviews by your favorite Git.

The Handmaid’s Tale

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By Margaret Atwood
What are you, stupid? Go buy one of the best books EVARR.
Rating: Favorite.
Read: Junior year (02-03), reread March 05.

I love The Handmaid’s Tale. I love it so much that I finally bought a copy from the college bookstore, and I covet it like Offred coveted the small things she wished she could steal from her oppressors. I found the book by chance while wandering the shelves of the high school library during a study hall when I had nothing to do. I am SO glad I did. My first instinct was to do what I did with Born Confused- leave it on the shelf and keep visiting it during study hall, like a secret friend. But I couldn’t put it down, and so I checked it out and finished it within a few days. Those days are like a blur, which is why I wanted so much to reread it and have my own copy.

The setting is what was once America, sometime after the mid 80s or 90s. That is all we know, because from the 80s onward, the Gileadan regime began insinuating its way into the culture, and people became afraid. They are Christian fanatics, who seize control and create a state of forced gender roles. Offred, our narrator, is a Handmaiden, a young woman of child-bearing age whose job is to be the ‘vessal’ for an aging husband and wife who have failed to bear their own. The practice is based on Biblical practices, and therefore considered holy. Before Gilead, Offred was a young working woman, who went to college, had a crazy best friend and a crazier mother, had an affair with a married man who divorced his wife to marry her, and together they had a young daughter. She has been ripped away from all of them, to be placed in service of the Commander.

The dynamics in the Handmaid’s Tale are a parody of today’s. She is a legal mistress living in the home of her master. His Wife resents her, and the house staff- the Marthas, who are chefs and cleaning maids- consider her trashy in her mandatory red clothing. The Commander himself expects her to fulfill needs he is otherwise lacking. Kinky sex would be less surprising.

Offred narrates her story, a bit like a diary. Her pain has taken a toll on her mentally, and sometimes she wanders, making seemingly random connections that make perfect sense. Odd turns of phrase will inspire memories of things that people used to say, and what underlying meaning there was then. “What are you waiting for,” used to mean, “hurry now.” “I am waiting for what,” means something entirely different. Her speech is fluid and beautiful, painting a precise and elegant portrayal of the world she has been forced into. She is completely honest and hides nothing from the manuscripy, from her impulses to wreak revenge to her guilt and shame, inspired by both the imposed society and the Before.

I cannot stress enough how much I love this book. Margaret Atwood is a genius.

It wasn’t until I was almost done with it that I discovered it’s often used as a part of high school and college curriculums. I wonder if I would have fallen so in love with it as I have if I had been forced to stop every few chapters and discuss the symbolism and make tawdry predictions. I think it would have ruined the effect for me. True, Catcher in the Rye was unscathed for me despite it being assigned, but I think The Secret Life of Bees would also have been a victim of Overanalysis.

The bottom line is, don’t wait for someone to force you to read it, and grill you every few chapters about the symbolism. Read it on your own, at your own pace, and let those conclusions come to you naturally, because they will. It’s not obscure- it’s all right there for you. Being forced through a class on it is actually insulting. (Gilead’s symbol is an eye- the eye of God. Gosh, no other society has used that before. I wonder what it means. Read for handmaids? How weird… A wall to hang the persecuted on? This isn’t hard, folks!) Better, find someone else who read it in the same way, and then discuss it together. Share your insights. THAT is how to read the Handmaid’s Tale.

Of course, there cannot be discussion of this book without mentioning the horrors of today’s global-political situation. I found it particularly moving at the time, due to all the talk of religious fanatacism- in the Muslim world. If you aren’t a fan of Christian fanatacism, you’ll definately enjoy this. (Offred never preaches- she just tells you point-blank who says what.) It’s a warning of a potential future, and a must read for all.


Written by Shen

March 30, 2005 at 1:02 am

One Response

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  1. Yessss. Everyone must read this book. While it’s still SPECULATIVE, I meant. *wink*


    July 25, 2005 at 10:52 am

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