Stephen Gallup's Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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Aug 15, 08

did not like it
Read in August, 2008

Here's a story that describes the essentials of what life would be like for women if Islamic fundamentalists took over our civilization. Long robes are mandatory, as are some kind of facial covering. Education is forbidden. Women exist for the pleasure and procreation of the men who control them. In short, pretty much like the situation that prevailed under the Taliban. Mark Steyn makes a pretty convincing case for that being Europe's inevitable future, but Margaret Atwood places the action here in North America.

I'm being flippant, of course. The grim future Atwood presents is supposed to be the result of not standing up to the conservatives, with their Moral Majority. I see it was published in 1985, during Reagan's second term, and the narrative tells us that the utter collapse of all that's good occurred at about that point.

Since then, unless I'm living in an alternative universe, life has continued along more or less as before. This year it looked for a while as if a woman might even become president.

So much for Atwood's dire predictions of the future.

Again and again in writing reviews of books, I run into this situation in which somebody uses fiction to advance some harebrained political view. It's getting quite old. It's even worse when the author's aim is so poor. Every culture faces threats, but the Christian Right is and always has been pretty far down the list. A coworker lent me this one, so at least I spent no money on it. But I regret the time wasted.

As a story, the narrative improves somewhat toward the end: Things build toward a climax, there's foreshadowing that something dreadful is about to occur, and clues provided lead one to imagine what is likely to happen. But then the author just drops the ball. When the story ends we don't know for sure if the protagonist was betrayed or rescued. I'm at a loss for understanding why it was handled that way.

Anti-utopian writing is an honorable genre. As far as I know, however, nothing has approached those two classics, 1984 and Brave New World. In this case the comparison is pathetic.
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message 15: by Chelsey (new)

Chelsey A little nit picky, but I felt compelled to add that Margaret Atwood was probably more influenced by the political climate under Mulroney rather than Reagan, since Atwood is Canadian. I might also add that peoples "harebrained" ideas about Atwood's intentions in writing this book don't have much to do with Atwood's actual intentions in writing her book. Other people might have projected their ill will towards the "Christian Right" or the "Moral Majority" onto this book, but from what I could see Atwood herself didn't have much interest in paralleling either of them.

Her work has always been morbid and feminist, usually with some fantasy elements thrown in. That she would write a book like this doesn't come as much of a surprise. It also doesn't come as a surprise that American readers, and even reviewers, filter the content of this book through their own lens and interpret it as taking a shot at their Christian Right and its proponents. Personally, I didn't see that at all. I saw her attempt to show how women might be treated in a society after a nuclear explosion threatens the future of the country after most women become sterile, not how women might be treated if conservatives and christians got their way.

Anyway, that's just my two cents. :)


Stephen Gallup That's an interesting contribution. Thank you. The question of an author's intentions vs reader responses always fascinates me. I'll concede that the lens I view things through may be as specialized as a feminist's. (Although I don't concede that it's a distortion. :) )


message 13: by Chelsey (new)

Chelsey Why you're very welcome. :) People's different interpretations of a novel fascinate me as well, because once a book hits the shelves, it's no longer say, Margaret Atwood's book anymore, and what she intended to say with her book doesn't really matter anymore. The story belongs to anyone who reads it, which means there are now thousands of versions of The Handmaid's Tale in existence.

I tend to view things through a feminist lens. I'm curious as to what lens you view things through, if you wouldn't mind telling me.


Stephen Gallup I'm not sure there's a handy label like feminist for my lens. I see you added "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to your list, and my response to that book (and the links therein) might shed some light. Guess basically I'm not comfortable with fiction that appears to have an agenda or that otherwise seeks to manipulate me -- and might be predisposed to react more negatively to that than is justified. For example, I see too that you gave 5 stars to "The Glass Castle," which I did not much like for the same reason. It may be that I was too hard on that one.


message 11: by Chelsey (new)

Chelsey "Feminist" is a pretty handy label, isn't it? xD But I think I understand where you're coming from, and for the most part I agree. Sometimes fiction with an agenda can be good and even powerful (Animal farm as a short but sweet political allegory), but most of the time it comes off as patronizing, especially if you don't agree with the agenda the book is trying to set. Every author is shaped by their experiences and those experiences often show up in their work, but an author that gets up on a soapbox or beats their reader over the head again and again with a certain message doesn't usually write the best fiction, because they're more concerned with relaying a message than telling a good story. I'm surprised you saw that in "The Glass Castle"; I only saw a good story. I had the best time and the best laughs reading that book, maybe because I have lots of siblings and had a slightly wacky, unstable home life myself.

I checked out your "Have read"s and "To-Read"s as well; you seem like a pretty diverse, balanced reader. I put "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" on my list because you gave it a 5 star review.


Stephen Gallup Just to clarify, the only thing I worried about in "The Glass Castle" was what I felt to be an attempt to shape the story to heighten its impact as opposed to providing a little introspection and exploration, perhaps from the adult perspective. Obviously that wasn't what the author wanted to do, so I just had expectations (based on other memoirs) that weren't met.


message 9: by Chelsey (new)

Chelsey Oh I see. I hadn't read any other memoirs at the time I read "The Glass Castle"; our high school book club was reading it and I went into it not knowing what to expect.


Anne Islamic fundamentalists? More like ANY sort of religious fundamentalists.


message 7: by Stephen (last edited Sep 05, 2014 01:51PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Stephen Gallup Actually, more like Islamic fundamentalists http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles...

The above link is now available by subscription only, so here's an alternative
http://www.redstate.com/2014/09/05/si...


message 6: by Stephen (last edited Mar 12, 2014 08:53AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Stephen Gallup Like my review of 3 Cups of Tea, this one draws occasional critical remarks from folks who are intolerant of views that diverge from their own and/or those who think the comparison to Islam is unfair (as if Atwood's depiction is not already unfair). And yes, I delete such comments since they add nothing to the conversation about this book.


Raymond you may be curious to know that Atwood doesn't consider this to be a novel about "the future." She talks about her influence being a combination of interest in 17th century Puritans and actual world travel to countries where freedom isn't protected. It's more closely related, I think, to Hawthorne than Orwell. She says it "is my book about my ancestors." Thanks for getting me to think about this even if we don't agree!


Stephen Gallup Thanks for that input. It's been a while since I read this. There may well have been cues of that intent in the text that I missed.

I do recall visiting Japanese tourists who doubtfully asked the women if they were happy. That wouldn't seem to fit in a story about her ancestors.

Author intention is a fascinating subject, but in the end any interpretation of a work has to be supported by the text itself. If reading this again I would look for something that justified that stated purpose.


Kristin I actually loved the ending and not finding out whether she'd been betrayed or not. I felt it was an appropriate way to end a book in which nothing is certain and you can trust no one. I highly doubt our protagonist found out the truth or ever would. Honestly, I don't think there's any other way it COULD end. I may be biased, though, since I loved the read. :) Thanks for your thoughts!


message 2: by Liz (new) - rated it 5 stars

Liz Nix This was an interesting review. I think it's fine to dislike the book, but, from this review, it almost felt like you didn't like the book because it didn't predict the future. If so, maybe Atwood should put a disclaimer on the cover that says something to the effect of "this is not a prophecy, it is a work of fiction." Then maybe people wouldn't be disappointed that they had prepared for a biblical dystopia to no avail.


Stephen Gallup Well, no. Offhand, I can think of works by Edgar Rice Burroughs that missed predicting the future by a country mile. They're not great literature but they work just fine as fiction. My objection here was to what I perceived as ax-grinding.


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