Unlike the people helping George Orwell’s 1984 sell out at Amazon, I didn’t decide to read The Handmaid’s Tale to educate myself on what life might be like in the “hands” of a fascist regime. I picked it up because I’d always wanted to read it. I didn’t even know much about the story at the time.
However, instead of spending the book thinking “this is such an awful way to live,” I spent it thinking “this could be me and soon.” Since I obviously can’t review this book objectively, I’m going to break this review up into what I would call a “traditional” review, followed by a “non-traditional” review.
But for each part I’m going to ask myself the same question – Self, did you like this book?
Part 1: Traditional Review
The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985 and is considered a work of speculative fiction, with a sub-genre of dystopian literature. This book has been widely read and praised by many. So, here’s the question, self, did you agree with the many? Did you like this book? Me: Yes. Absolutely. From a pure storytelling vantage point, it’s an amazing work. Here are some reasons why.
1. The way the story is told
Margaret Atwood doles out the story judiciously, forcing you to savor each moment. She leaves little crumbs of information that give you just enough to want to keep eating page after page. And each crumb gets bigger and bigger until at the very end you feel full with mass of conflicting and enlightening thoughts and feelings. It’s the perfect unfolding of a story.
2. The artful use of contrast
“I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shade; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”
The story flits back and forth between the past and present, nostalgia and reality, real and maybe not real to make a point. For example, the narrator’s recounting of the past not only helps highlight the drastic change in the course of her life but also the quickness with which fear and tragedy can change a world. This even extends into the writing. Atwood often describes this world through contrasts, playing with with the imagery of black/white or light/dark.
“We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.”
3. The unreliable narrator
“But that is my own illusion, a hangover from a version of reality I learned in a former time.”
From Girl on a Train to Gone Girl, there is lots of talk lately about the use of the unreliable narrator. It can be a great tactic. It’s also not new. Atwood wrote this book over 30 years ago and employed the unreliable narrator with such finesse that it has less to do with tricking you and more to do with a commentary on memory and how much we delude ourselves to survive. Modern writers who use this tactic, take note, Atwood was a pioneer.
4. Masterful metaphor
“The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices, thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.”
There are endless supply of metaphors in this book to think about – mirrors, eyes, colors, names. One of my favorite examples of her use of metaphor is this quote above. On the surface the narrator is just talking about tulips in the garden of the house where she currently lives. But look deeper, dig down ;), and it’s also a metaphor for the women who have the power in Atwood’s society. These women are nearly all infertile and, therefore, rely on handmaids to have babies for them. Those women in power hold themselves higher than rest (thrust themselves up, chalices now not merely wine glasses). But, it’s all for show (to what end?) They’re just empty inside, infertile (empty wombs, empty chalices) and rather morally empty too. So slowly they explode, become bitter, throwing out shards and wilting away.
5. The societal commentary
“Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a heaven for them. We need you for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”
This bleeds a little into my non-traditional review elements. But from a purely objective, work of fiction review, I have to point out that Atwood, in just a few sentences, can so aptly capture the best and worst traits of society and humanity it is striking. I find myself rolling her words over and over in my head. Like the book itself, they leave a mark.
VERDICT: Overall, from a traditional sense, I’d say this is truly a great book. I’d recommend it to anyone, particularly those who enjoy sci-fi or dystopian works. I’d give it five George Orwell heads. (If that were my rating scale. I don’t really have a rating scale.)
Part 2: Non-Traditional Review
The problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is that it feels a little too prophetic. So, again I ask myself, self, did you like this book? Me: No, it terrified me. Why?
1. It too aptly shows how quickly things can change
“It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.”
“Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”
Atwood paints a picture of a society that solves its problems by clamping down on free speech, restricting information and spreading lies through propaganda. But, the most terrifying part of the book is the swiftness with which this happened. It’s perfect from a literary standpoint. The main character is able to remember a time when she was once free, which was only a matter of years before. Her memories of being able to wear shorts and walk in the park juxtaposed against a society that forces women to wear specific clothes and serve specific roles gives the reader an understanding of how much society had changed. It also serves as a warning, things can change very fast…
2. It outlines vanquishing of the press
“When they busted the press they’d picked up a lot of the women I knew…We were dumb to think we could keep going the way we did, even underground, even when we’d moved everything out of the office and into people cellars and back rooms.”
Through the story of the narrator, Atwood explains how the press were quickly eradicated. Those in power couldn’t stand to have pesky reporters asking questions. Nope, much better to spread the concept that the press is the enemy. An oppressive government wants you to give up your rights willingly and turn over all control to them to fix things. This is dangerous and The Handmaid’s Tale lays out plainly how this happens. Clearly Atwood has done her homework because the press are usually the first target of regimes that want to subvert and control. And, so I ask the question, how do you feel about the press right now? Not a fan? And who is churning that negative narrative?
3. The willingness to trade freedom and compassion for safety
“Things continued in that sate of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. Roadblocks began to appear and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful.”
One thing this book captures that feels very true to the current climate is the willingness to sacrifice basic freedoms and even basic goodness for the illusion of safety. In The Handmaid’s Tale, disease and pollution have made children scarce and an attack wipes out the government. No one seems to object as the new rulers quickly suspend the constitution, strip away the independence of women and anyone seen as different, and begin a theocratic-militaristic rule. In the story, it seems, most people just let it happen, in the name of safety. The trade “freedom to” for “freedom from.” I think we need to ask ourselves if we’re doing the same.
“There is more than one kind of freedom… 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.”
4. A transfer of fear
“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”
The Handmaid Tale is a parable for the consequences of elevating certain people’s needs over the needs of others. In this world, the “true” Christians (AKA the rich) are the ones who flourish. The ones that follow rules and don’t question merely survive in one form of servitude or another. The rest? They meet a much worse fate. In Atwood’s fictional world, instead of facing fears, those in power have transferred that fear and terror to others. To let some some feel safe and happy, the many more must suffer. And sadly, that doesn’t really feel like fiction right now.
5. The delusions of power
“Perhaps he’d reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all.”
Perhaps one of the most chilling elements of the book is the depiction of the men in power who have no one to stop them. There are no checks, no balances. They do what they please and their motives and actions are hidden. The government makes all the decisions and the people must obey or perish. Again, these words send a feeling of discomfort through me because they sound like things I might hear or read being said by politicians if I turn on the TV or browse the web.
“He says this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. It’s impossible to tell what he believes.”
Fahrenheit 451 for Women Only
The part that of the book that upset me the most? Not surprisingly it was the fact that women are not allowed to read or write. The women are oppressed in so many ways and even oppress each other in the book. (That topic alone I could probably write a book about.) However, forced illiteracy is a classic form of oppression, employed in the US when it was trying to control slaves. Considering our reliance on social media and television, and the ever plummeting rate at which people actually pick up books, I have to wonder if this is another thing people will just let slip away, another rationalization in the name of security.
So, for my non-traditional review, what’s the verdict? First, a story, there is one moment in the book, when the main character Ofgen (eg, Of Glen, the women literally don’t have their own names anymore and are named for their men) remembers a time in the past in which her money was cut off and had to rely solely on her husband because women could no longer have their own money. All I could think was I should scoff at this as excessive and not something that could actually happen and ponder it as an interesting intellectual point in the plot line. Instead, all I could think was, I no longer think something like that is out of the realm of possibility in America.
Therefore, here’s my final non-traditional summary, don’t read this book if you can’t handle looking into a mirror and seeing your potential future.