Stephen Gallup's Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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Aug 10, 2008

did not like it

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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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
August 10, 2008 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-19)

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message 19: 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 17: 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 15: 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 13: 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.

message 12: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

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

message 11: by Stephen (last edited Sep 05, 2014 01:51PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Stephen Gallup Actually, more like Islamic fundamentalists

The above link is now available by subscription only, so here's an alternative

message 10: 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 6: 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.

message 4: by Matt (new) - rated it 1 star

Matt Chelsey wrote: "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 ..."

I feel compelled to tell you that you haven't done your research here, since by 1985 Atwood was no longer resident in Canada. She began writing the novel while in West Berlin, immediately after witnessing the election results of Reagan and Thatcher, and the novel was finished while she was in Alabama. She has never concealed her motivation in writing the novel was a reaction to what she perceived was the threat represented by Reagan and Thatcher and their religious supporters to what she considered fundamental women's rights. Nor is it some sort of secret that Atwood perceived that she was writing about a future that could happen and was plausible, or that she defends the book in those terms. Nor is it some sort of secret that Atwood is anti-religious. Her stance is sufficiently famous that she is frequently interviewed on the topic of the dangers of religion and what she perceives as its threat to reason. So your whole thing about "projecting ill-will" or reading authorial intent that is not present is not only wrong, but would appear to be you projecting what you would have Margaret Atwood believe on to her in direct contradiction to her own words. I mean, it's not like she's stopped or any of this is hard to find out if you research before speaking. As late as 2006 I remember her going in an interview about how Tony Blair was secretly a member of a 17th century heretical sect and was conspiratorially manipulating the government toward some nefarious parallel of 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

message 3: by Matt (new) - rated it 1 star

Matt Liz wrote: "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 ..."

Liz, I think it is important to consider the complaint of the book as having failed prophetically in the context of both Atwood's defense of the book, and (for example) the critical defense of the book as offered at Goodreads (and in academia). Atwood defends the book by saying that what she is describing has already happened, is happening, and may potentially happen again. While she refuses the term 'prophetic', she claims her books predictions are grounded in fact and that they describe something that is not speculative but which is actually happening.

Likewise, if you look around Goodreads, you will find any number of reviewers where the reviewer claims the book is important, frightening, as worthy because what the book describes is real, and accurately describes what is going on right now.

So I very much think it is legitimate criticism to actually consider those claims. Is the book actually describing something real? Is the book an actually accurate portrayal of something? Atwood certainly claims that it is. So I think it is completely fair to ask whether or not she is right.

message 2: by Matt (last edited Jan 22, 2017 10:35AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Matt Raymond wrote: "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 worl..."

I have heard Atwood in a video interview (by Bill Moyers) deny that the book is set in the past or in any way autobiographical, and firmly assert that it is a description of a future that she believes we are working toward. I would like to know what your source for this contrary position is.

message 1: by [Name Redacted] (last edited Jan 22, 2017 08:05PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

[Name Redacted] There's also the fact that she was grounding her interpretation of Puritan history more on popular myth than on any actual Puritan beliefs or praxis. Rather like grounding your arguments about the modern West's similarities to Ancient Rome in a cursory viewing of Cecil B. DeMille's "Ben-Hur."

And the fact that for the last decade or two, the "Christian Right" has ironically been the least Puritanical, controlling and pro-censorship group in the West.

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