Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale: Let's all put on shorts and use paper money

It's weird. I'm aware that this is quite a GOOD book. And yet . . .

The deal here is that it's the future, and culture has regressed to a sort of puritanical, uber-religious state, the most distressing feature of which is that women are property, to the point of being stripped of their names and assigned generic Biblical names in keeping with their given social position.


Because pollution has rendered many men and women sterile (just don't suggest that the men are sterile, because this must all be the fault of the sinful WOMENS), the upper-level childless households are each assigned a handmaiden to act as a surrogate. The handmaiden's sole job is to get knocked up. And this morally debatable practice is justified as so many things are—using the Bible . . . because of that whole Abraham and Hagar thing.

Because that turned out SO WELL for everyone.

The particular handmaiden telling this tale gives us glimpses into how society transitioned from women-working-and-smoking-and-wearing-tennis-shoes to women-wearing-full-skirts-and-veils-and-being-absolutely-forbidden-to-read. In this present, women are divided into categories and color-coded accordingly (wives in blue, handmaidens in red, cooks in hospital green, etc.). Some women have more freedom than others, but none are free. For example, the women with the highest quality of life in this new society are the Commanders' wives. But their very special burden is that they each must house another woman and welcome her into their marital bed (once a month, in a very unsexy sort of ceremonial threesome). They, too, are miserable and bitter.

And that's one of the most compelling themes, I think (among many). The way that women, finding themselves in the same marginalized and repressive circumstances, will so often choose to go for each other's throats, rather than drawing strength from their shared misfortune and channeling their anger toward the actual oppressor.

When we boob-fight, the enemy wins.

It may also be important to mention here that men as a whole aren't demonized in the book. There are a few good eggs. And mostly, I think they just got swept up in it all—as I imagine many of the everyday citizens of Nazi Germany did, for example.

I hadn't previously read any Margaret Atwood, but people seem to think she's pretty swell. And dystopian-future fiction is my jam. So I was all geared up to love the modest red dress off this book. And while I greatly admire the tailoring and structure of the red dress, I will not be purchasing one of my own. How did I end up in this metaphor?

Anyway, important themes, good writing . . . but it didn't suck me in OR blow me away (don't be dirty).


  1. "When we boob-fight, the enemy wins." Way to nail an important lesson of the book.

  2. I'd like to think Margaret is sitting somewhere, reading this post and saying, "She gets it. This one gets it."


    Basically I am a huge fan of this post. Oh, and I might read that book at some point. 'Cause it's all famous and I feel culturally dumb not having read it.

  4. Did we not JUST learn that culture can't make us do things? Did we not, Alice? (But, yes, you should read this, because you'll be laughed out of feminism if you don't.)

  5. I knoooow. They were fighting about Cece's terrible lady-friends and how modeling may or may not have made her a lame-o. But when ELSE am I gonna get to use the boob-fight GIF, Laura? I ask you.

    I did NOT enjoy this book as I was reading it, but now that it's over, I'm kind of remember things about it that were awesome. It's very nuanced. And it just feels important, right? So I'm definitely glad I read it. No regrets.

  6. That is a tricky business, being behind the curve on hyped books. It happens to me almost every time, which is why I'm actually terrified to read Ready Player One...and all the books that everyone loves ever.

  7. Damn that meddling patriarchy. I really, really loved this book, but I completely get not being totally blown away by it. And great call on the boob-fighting. Way to sum up the moral in such a tattooable way.

  8. Isn't that so weird? When I really, really love a book, I refuse to acknowledge the possibility of anyone NOT liking it. But this one isn't that way. You've created a strange animal, Atwood.

    P.S. Please tell me you'll consider having that sentence tattooed somewhere.

  9. I...hmmmm. That DOES sound interesting. What's the one where she messes with mythology? Oh...the Penelopiad. I don't think I can read that one. Odysseus and Penelope are sacred territory for me.

  10. Oh man, this book did, indeed, both suck me in AND blow me away. In that order? Yes. I dunno man, I loves me some Atwood. But FAIR ENOUGH, your comments are.

    I have some weird urge to defend the boob fight now, because that was in no way to do with dudes.... BUT THERE IS NO NEED TO DEFEND AGAINST GIFS, LAURA! Hush, me.

  11. I'm fairly certain I've never heard the phrase boob-fight before, and my life has been the poorer for it.

    When I read this book in high school, it rocked my socks and my red dress off. If I were to read it now for the first time, I wonder if I would be left thinking it was pretty good but wondering what the hype was about...

  12. I was going to say pretty much the same thing, but Emily beat me to it...

    Although I did read Oryx and Crake last year and really liked it -- and it was possibly even weirder than Handmaid's Tale, so there's that. I suggest trying that if you're up for reading about humanoid future people and Snowmen living in toxic wastelands.