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Remarks on The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

March 22, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale (Goodreads)

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it.”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a story that drew me in right away. The story is of a dystopian society of religious zealotry where women are under subjugation.  The society is in a transitory period where people still remember their past freedoms and this makes things more difficult.

Women are divided into specific groups the Wives, the Handmaidens, the Marthas, the Aunts, the Econowives, and the unwomen who are sent to the colonies.  The Wives are the wealthy women married to commanders.  The Handmaidens are the vessels for fertilization, their function is to bear children for the Wives.  The Marthas are the servants.  The Aunts are the enforcers of the rules for the women.  The Econowives are for the poor and do the job of Marthas and Handmaidens.  The unwomen are those incapable and unwilling to reproduce and are subversive, they are sent to the colonies.

In this society people are kept under strict watch by spies called the Eyes who will report them for subversive behavior.  People are hanged and their bodies displayed on the wall for all to see.  Reading is outlawed, and the only ones who are allowed to read are the male heads of the family who have a copy of the Bible under lock and key.

“The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn’t steal it.  It is an incendiary device:  who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?  We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read.”

The whole story is a perfect nightmare, but there is always a twinge that this could easily happen.  The system Atwood describes to keep people subservient and unquestioning isn’t a complex one.  The tale is frightening in it’s ability to strip down society and show how simply something dreadful could happen.

The subjection of women in this book is especially disturbing.  There is one scene where the protagonist describes how the government just simply froze all of the bank accounts for women and now men had to access them for them.

“I guess you get all my money, I said.  And I’m not even dead.  I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.  Hush, he said.  He was still kneeling on the floor.  You know I’ll always take care of you.  I thought, Already he’s starting to patronize me.  Already you’re starting to get paranoid”

In a very quick action, the government has made the woman reliant upon the man and no longer self sufficient.

This is not a harrowing tale of heroics, but simply a story of the life of one woman under a brutal regime.  She still remembers a life before and has to coexist with these memories in her current life.

“It is hardest for you.  We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make.  It is hard when men revile you.  For the ones who come after you, it will be easier.  They will accept their duties with willing hearts.  She did not say:  Because they will have no memories, of any other way.  She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.”

The imagery in this book was remarkable.  From images of death to the simple pleasures of a woman denied smoking smelling the lingering smoke of another person’s cigarette, Atwood’s descriptions are detailed and impressive.  One scene where she describes seeing hanging bodies on the Wall is extremely poignant:

“But on one bag there’s blood, which has seeped through the white cloth, where the mouth must have been.  It makes another mouth, a small red one, like the mouths painted with thick brushes by kindergarten children.  A child’s idea of a smile.  This smile of blood is what fixes the attention finally.  These are not snowmen after all.”

Atwood’s way with words kept me hooked into this story.  I found myself constantly highlighting passages and marking phrases.

“Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money.  I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes.”

“Better never means better for everyone, he says.  It always means worse, for some.”

“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it”

There are so many intriguing aspects to this tale that one couldn’t possibly write it all down in a single post.  I could discuss this book for hours as it has easily become one of my favorite books.  I would highly recommend everyone to read it.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2011 2:21 pm

    I really liked this book a lot-I think it could pretty easily become reality-I enjoyed your post a lot-very much a worth reading book

    • March 22, 2011 6:36 pm

      Thanks. I really enjoyed this book and I agree it could so easily become reality.

  2. Jillian permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:12 pm

    I really, really want to read this. I might have to wait! I have stacks of books overflowing, still waiting on me. Sounds awesome.

    • March 23, 2011 9:37 am

      When you get to it you’ll love it. Unless society turns the way of the book, this book will be waiting for you when you get a chance to read it.

  3. March 23, 2011 4:36 am

    This book impressed me very much and have read it several times. I see it as a parable for what happens when women — their nature, their rights, their lives — are defined by men. Why is it that women never get to define who men are and what they can do?

    • March 23, 2011 9:35 am

      Very good point and what a poignant question … Sigh … if only there was a good answer …

  4. March 23, 2011 6:53 am

    I also really loved this book, especially because you can see the possibilities of it actually happening. It isn’t that far outside reality. It made me want to empty my bank account and hide the money under my bed. LOL

    • March 23, 2011 9:32 am

      No kidding about the bank account! This book really does make it seem like such a potential possibility.

  5. March 23, 2011 7:11 am

    Strangely, this is the only novel by Margaret Atwood that I haven’t read, and it the one that has received the most acclaim. I believe I’ve never read it because I’m so familiar with the plot; however, Atwood is such a wordsmith that I should pick it up for that reason alone.

    I am a huge fan of Atwood’s work. I wrote my Master’s thesis on her use of genre conventions in The Blind Assassin. I also really enjoyed Cat’s Eye and The Year of the Flood. In my opinion, Atwood is master of describing the human condition.

    Great review! I love how you highlighted her imagery.

    • March 23, 2011 9:31 am

      Thanks! I am a newly converted Atwood fan, so I will definitely be picking up more of her work. Very cool you wrote your master’s thesis on one of her works. I think you are right that she nails the human condition. What book of hers do you recommend reading next?

      • March 25, 2011 7:31 am

        If you like the dystopian element, Oryx and Crake followed by The Year of the Flood. The Blind Assassin is my favorite. It is a patchwork of different genres: contemporary, historical and sci-fi.

      • March 25, 2011 7:34 am

        Thanks for the recommendations!

  6. March 23, 2011 9:55 am

    Wow! I think this is definitely one I am interested in. Your review was very insightful and interesting. I love some of the quotes you highlighted as well…This is going on my TBR list for sure!
    Thanks
    Shannon
    http://chipsransomreads.blogspot.com/

    • March 23, 2011 10:30 am

      Thanks and I’m glad this is going on your TBR it’s a good book to put on there!

  7. March 23, 2011 10:34 am

    I have to respectfully disagree. I really disliked this book. The only reason I didn’t hate it was because of the writing. Atwood turns a phrase like no other, but I found the plot ludicrous and a trifle indulgent. I must live in an entirely different world because I don’t see how this could really happen at all. I do love reading Atwood, though. She is a superb writer.

    • March 23, 2011 10:47 am

      I appreciate your honesty. I think aspects of the story are of course far fetched and not likely to happen, but other aspects I think could so easily be a possibility. I’m glad we agree on Atwood’s writing style though, her way with words is amazing.

  8. March 23, 2011 5:40 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  9. March 24, 2011 5:04 am

    Also one of my favorites! I’ve read several others by Atwood, but I keep coming back to this one as my all time favorite.

    Thanks for reminding me how great it is. I might go back and read it again. =)

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