The Handmaid's Tale--Margaret Atwood

What a difference a day makes!  Or in my case, several thousand days.  I first read A Handmaid's Tale when it was an "explosive best-seller" lo, these many years ago.  And as a result of reading it at that time eschewed any further contact with the opus of Ms. Atwood.  At that time, for whatever reason, I thought it an agenda-driven piece of anti-male, anti-religion diatribe.

Hmm.  I now wonder what book I was reading--it certainly wasn't the one I've read over the past several days.  Encouraged by Fred's mild endorsement of it, I picked the book up for a long-delayed reread.  Setting aside my own agenda, for just a moment, I decided to try to read the book that was written, not the one that I had constructed in my own head and pilloried.

How glad I am that such a recourse has become possible for me.  As I said before, I don't know what book I did read so many years ago, but I have finally seen some of the light that others have noted coming from this book.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of a time in the near future in the land of Gilead (which is all or part of what had been the United States). Some sort of coup has displaced the government and a new  monotheocracy without much guiding theology or thought has been placed as the central form of government. It is the story of Offred--a woman who has become a "vessel" for childbearing to the power-wielders of the regime.  It is her story--her present life and who she was and how she came to her present place--that fills up most of the story.

The government of Gilead is called a theocracy, but one doesn't really get the sense of much belief guiding what is going on.  Certainly there is ritual and there are curious and odd forms of biblical interpretation that further the aims of the ruling regime.  But as to true faith or belief, there is little external sign of it.  And yet it does remain in pockets here and there--in an underground railroad, in a resistance, in our lead character, who whether religious or not gives us one of the most heart-felt prayers you're ever likely to read in science fiction/social commentary.

That leads to another point.  The book is science fiction by definition, and it shows the strength we've always recognized in science fiction--the ability to comment on what is happening here and now and thus critique trends.  Margaret Atwood does so.  When I first read it, I saw all of her vitriol for the evil governmental set-up as anti-religion.  Again, I can't imagine what book I was reading because today I see no sign of it at all.  What I do see is a critique of blindered, unthinking, dogmatism without soul.  If there is a God anywhere in the state religion of Gilead, he's not much apparent in the actions of the people.  Indeed, the most significant thing said of the god of Gilead is in a banner that masks the original purpose of a building, "God is a National Resource."  God as utilitarian, God as excuse and enforcer.  This is what Ms. Atwood attacks well and thoroughly--for true faith still exists and many are persecuted for it.

The book is a wonderful view of the kind of thought that leads us all down the wrong path.  It is saavy and even a little eerily predictive.  It is well written and certainly engaging, encompassing a story of rebellion and love.  And it ends a little ambiguously.  It is ripe with potential.

Analyzing my reaction of many years ago, all I can conclude is that it was part and parcel of who I was at the time.  The book was wildly popular and at that time, I will admit, that was certainly a nail in the coffin for me.  Popular was necessarily trashy, no good, certainly NOT literature.  I felt the same about art, music, and anything else that was popular.  If the masses liked it, it obviously wasn't meant for the ubermensch class I obviously belonged to.  Ah, the arrogance of youth--how utterly repugnant it appears in retrospect.  If I could go back and change one thing now it would be this attitude that has so long deprived me of many good and wonderful things.  That whole intractability with regard to reexamining my own prejudices has been a great burden to bear--and I encourage any of you who are currently going around with your noses turned up at anything for much of any reason--reconsider--you are only depriving yourself--no one else is affected or even much influenced by what amounts to a very ugly attitude.

Highly recommended--****1/2


  1. Steven,

    Great review! I had missed the point that there really was no real religious thought or belief present--merely the use of certain tenets for maintaining control.

    As for my "mild" endorsement, I must confess that I was still half asleep when I commented on the prayer, else I would have provided a much stronger plug.

  2. Dear Fred,

    I didn't see a comment on the prayer--I was referring to an off-hand comment made with regard to one or the other lists I'm always blogging. You had made an assertion that contradicted the erroneous impression that I capture here. That led me to be interested enough to pick the book up again (for which I thank you).

    I really did enjoy reading it this time around and I am puzzling and puzzling over why I had such a negative encounter the first time. However, I have journals that I hope will tell me some of that, should I choose to pursue that lunacy further.

    Thank you for commenting today.



  3. Steven,

    I had left a comment after the post about the Lord's Prayer, but I now see that it has disappeared into a black hole somewhere in cyberspace.

    I am glad that my comments were helpful. It is a great book. I have tried reading others by her, but I quickly lose interest. There's something about The Handmaid's Tale that grabs me that isn't in her other works.

  4. Dear Fred,

    Thanks, this comment is also helpful. I may try others, and there is one that appeals (The Penelopiad) but I've had the same experience, although I always suspected it was because of the bad taste of Handmaid's Tale. Perhaps with that demolished, I can take on others with greater pleasure.




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