Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 5/5 stars

This is my first Margaret Atwood book. For how short it is, it took me a long time to read, but with this book, I think it’s better that way. It’s provocative and thought-provoking, and I know the messages in this book will stay in my mind for years to come.

In short, this novel follows Offred, a handmaid to a Commander in the Republic of Gilead. Her role is to bear the Commander’s child for him and his wife, for if she can’t, she will become an Unwoman. Handmaids are not allowed any freedoms once embraced by women: they are not allowed to have families, jobs, money of their own; they are permitted to wear only red dresses; they cannot talk amongst other handmaids or secure friendships; they are not allowed to read or write; and it is forbidden even to think for themselves. The Republic of Gilead spawned from a world that used to be our world when the government tried to eliminate all of the immoral and sacrilegious acts from society, but the ramifications of that action were the abolition of many liberties that currently go unappreciated, including the independence of women.

I didn’t have any idea what this book was about before I started it. I chose it at random from a list of all my unread books, and to be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read it at first. Literary fiction isn’t usually my thing, and I struggle with books that are “supposed to be read in school.” This is one of those books that is rich with meaning. I do wish I could attend some kind of seminar that discusses this book in complex detail so I could delve further into its meaning and purpose because I want to know more about the concept behind this novel. I loved this book, and I want to share my ideas on it with others. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to discuss a literary work more than I do with this book. My copy is pre-owned, and it came with highlighted passages in it, but no handwritten notes. I kept finding myself wondering why its previous owner highlighted some of these phrases, and what secrets do they hold that I’m not able to see. I highlighted some passages of my own, but I’m still curious what treasures this book’s previous reader found that I wasn’t able to see.

Something I did notice was the significance of the colour of clothing. All the handmaids wear red, a colour of blood, of sin, of lust. All the Wives wear blue, a colour of elegance and status. All the Aunts wear brown, a colour of wisdom and maturity. All the daughters wear white, a colour of purity and innocence. All the Marthas wear green, a colour of subservience and cleanliness. And all the Econowives wear stripes because they have to fulfill the roles of Wife, Martha, and handmaid.

When I read a dystopian, the most important thing to me is to learn how and why the world got that way. I cannot read a dystopian and believe that a world without government or with a heavily corrupt government “just happened.” At the start of this book, I was worried because I was particularly interested in the why of this story, why the world was how it was, but I didn’t think any of it would be explained in this short novel. I was wrong. Snippets here, pieces there, and by the end we have the whole backstory, the how and why of this society. I like how Atwood drops bits at a time, not info-dumping all at the beginning, still leaving the reader wondering from chapter to chapter. Another critical element of dystopian novels is that the how and why have to be plausible; I have to really believe that X, Y, and Z could happen to create this kind of society. And in The Handmaid’s Tale, the backstory is believable enough. I think it’s a solid and well-thought-out reason for 1985, when the book was published, but looking at it in 2018, it feels a little bit less reasonable, but just a little. With the progress we’ve made today as far as gender equality and equality in the workforce, I’d really be surprised to see something like this happen. But I guess that’s the point of a dystopian world, that it’s surprising and unexpected nonetheless. I did really like the reasons provided in this book, though, and they did help me to understand the world better.

Atwood’s writing is very distinctive, probably indicative of her specific style, but I haven’t read any of her other books to note the similarities. She has a way of capturing the nuances of the world, details that most people overlook but are a part of everyday life, and I love the way it almost slows down her storytelling, adding in extra bits of information that only add to the imagery of her novel, making the reader focus on specific items and memories. And her writing is in a stream of consciousness style. I don’t know that I’ve read too many books written like that, but I like it. My mind jumps around a lot, and I can appreciate the quickness that this stylistic choice gives the story, almost like an impatience to say everything on Offred’s mind before it’s too late.

Something interesting is that much of the story is written without quotation marks. It seems like this dialogue is what Offred is thinking in her mind, or what happened in the past, and then when quotation marks are used, that’s what’s actually happening in the present. I wish I knew why Atwood chose to write like this because it’s a unique choice. I feel like not many authors could pull it off so effectively, so grippingly. I’ve read one or two books before that don’t use quotation marks, and I just get irritated that I can’t tell who is talking and when. The Bible does that too, omitting quotation marks. I just don’t like feeling confused about when dialogue is taking place, but in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s evocative; it works without being confusing.

There are also countless comma splices in this book. I don’t know how she was able to get all those misused commas past an editor, but somehow I think each incident was deliberate, a point of style. This technique almost never works without creating deep agitation within me, but here I liked it. Margaret Atwood is a writer unlike most, able to make stylistic decisions that other authors wouldn’t dare try for fear of seeming unintelligent or uneducated. I don’t know how she pulls it off so well.

The Handmaid’s Tale reminds me a lot of Orwell’s 1984, which I loved, and I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so well. I like the premise of a futuristic depressed “utopian” society that’s controlled by the government, even down to people’s thoughts. It’s as if the government is a cult. It’s terrifying to think about, but that’s what makes it so interesting to read about.

I would be petrified to live in this world, especially since I take a lot of pride in my virtue. I would be one of the women to prefer death to this lifestyle. I find it intriguing that all the ways for one to commit suicide have been eliminated in this society, yet the threat of death hangs over the citizens’ heads with every action. You can’t kill yourself, but you can commit some “crime” and find yourself dead just the same. I love how Offred’s every thought ultimately leads to suicide. Everyone is fooled by happiness in this world.

“He’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.”

This book made me angry, but not necessarily in a bad way. More like an angry that pushes people to take action. How can women be treated this way, perceived as naught but for bearing children, worthless, submissive, “two-legged wombs, that’s all”? This book turns readers into feminists. How can it not? When you’re forced to come face to face with the darkest issues that plague your society, you are forced to have an opinion on them. And any person who understands the value in all human beings will see how screwed up the world is in The Handmaid’s Tale, but they will also see how much it parallels our own world, even thirty years after its publication.

One of the best parts of this book was its ending, more specifically its historical notes post-ending. After the actual ending was left somewhat open-ended and left me wanting more, I read the historical notes on The Handmaid’s Tale. This fictional symposium transcript illuminated a lot of answers and details on the story, and it put the events directly happening to Offred in a bigger light spanning centuries. Readers were able to see the effects of this society on a later generation, and, most importantly, the events that led to the corrupted government rule present in this book. What was the most astonishing to me were the events listed that forced this society into creating the Republic of Gilead are events happening right now in our world. I cannot explain it even close to the way Atwood portrays it in her book, but the last ten pages of the novel were definitely the most eye-opening for me, and they gave the entire story a whole new meaning.

I can’t wait to watch the movie and the new tv series. I hope they just expand on this world in a deeper way. I also am looking forward to reading more books by Margaret Atwood, who may be a newfound favourite author of mine. I’m very curious to see how her writing compares across all her works because the writing was my favourite part of this book.

“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” 

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