Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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it was amazing

Margaret Atwood's 1986 The Handmaid's Tale is a deft, beautifully written, philosophical and yet also evocatively emotional rendering of life and loss and love in an American theocracy of the formerly near future. An artifact from the era of Jerry Falwell's so-called Moral Majority and "the infamous AIDS epidemic" (1986 Houghton Mifflin softcover, page 304), of "Take Back the Night" marches (page 119) and college term papers on "date rape" (page 38), when the internet could only be imagined in its various specialized guises of "Compucheck" (page 21) and "Compudoc" (page 59) and "Compucount" (page 85) and "Compubank" (page 173), the book nevertheless rings as true and timeless as George Orwell's 1984. There is no doubt, though, that this work gives a woman's perspective in a way Orwell never could have done.

Just as in Orwell, there is the question of just whom the forbidden tale of a first-person narrative--there only Winston Smith's diary, while here the whole book itself--really is addressing. Smith hopes, vaguely, that he may be addressing some unimaginable future when thought is free once more, but Atwood's narrator is even more in the dark, and even more aware of it:

"...I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it's a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I'll say. Just you, without a name. .... You can mean more than one.
I'll pretend you can hear me.

But it's no good, because I know you can't." (pages 39-40)

Everything about this novel, everything, is exquisitely crafted. The enslaved female narrator sometimes perceptive about the self-satisfied society about her and sometimes amusingly ignorant of pieces of the past-- The plotting that starts in medias res sometime after the Revolution and slides up and down the timeline unexpectedly as it gives such tantalizing glimpses of the nation of Gilead and its beginnings-- The lush descriptions of fecund nature without and the feelings of the body within-- The book is thoughtful and allusive and writerly; there's no mistaking it for a quick beach read cranked off once or twice or thrice a year like clockwork.

So... Years after "they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency" and "blamed it on the Islamic fanatics" and then "suspended the Constitution," claiming "it would be temporary" (page 174)...is life truly worth living for a Handmaid, a former "adulterer" who, due to her previous evidence of fertility, in this world of declining birthrates is given to a Commander for the government-ordained purpose of breeding? Perhaps. For there indeed are worse things: being hanged on the Wall in a white hood and with a placard denoting one's supposed heresy or abomination (page 32), for example, or, having been unable to produce children, being declared an Unwoman and sent to the Colonies to clean up "the toxic dumps and the radiation spills" until "your nose falls off and your skin peels away like rubber gloves" (page 248). Occasionally there even "have been...incidents" of obedient Handmaids being shot at checkpoints by guards thinking they were "men in disguise" with bombs (page 20). There is a war on, after all, "going on in many places at once" (page 82)--Baptists "rebels" are being "smoked...out" of their "stronghold in the Blue Hills" (pages 19-20), "members of the heretical sect of Quakers" are being hunted down (page 83), and "the Children of Ham," meaning Blacks, are being "[r]esettle[d]" from the smoking, shell-pocked ruins of Detroit to "National Homeland One...in North Dakota" (pages 83-84).

Aside from the occasional checkpoint mistake, though, in the genteel, tree-lined streets at "the heart of Gilead...the war cannot intrude except on television" (page 23). Yet, still, the window in a Handmaid's room is "shatterproof"--not against the possibility of slipping away but against "those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge" (page 8)--and the bathroom mirror "has been taken out and replaced with an oblong of tin, and the door has no lock, and there are no razors, of course" (page 62). At the same time, though, Atwood reminds us that even in the supposedly "free" days of yore, it still was a man's world, and women were constantly in danger, with the narrator "remember[ing] the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew: Don't open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don't stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don't turn to look. Don't go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night" (page 24).

Nothing here is simple, therefore. Nothing is 100% bad versus 100% good. Clearly, however, the smug, puritanical, and merciless Gilead is not the kind of place any of us would prefer to be. Is there any escape? Perhaps--perhaps not. Even the "Historical Notes" section at the end of the book, from an academic conference on "Gileadean studies" near the very close of the twenty-second century (page 299), will not quite reveal. But that is appropriate, for certainly there is no escape from the artistry and the introspection of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a 5-star read that likely will continue to enchant and allure, and poke readers' intellects and prod their consciences, hopefully even unto the year 2195 she envisions.

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Reading Progress

May 9, 2021 – Started Reading
May 23, 2021 – Shelved
May 23, 2021 – Finished Reading

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