Jennifer's Reviews > The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
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bookshelves: classics, science-fiction, fiction

(edited from a paper I wrote in college about the book)

In 1986, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, Ronald Regan had declared “Morning in America,” and society was going to renew itself by returning to the old values. The Christian right, in its infancy at the time, was rising in reaction to the Free Love, and the horrors of AIDs. The 1984 election gave us Willie Horton, and a reminder about how violent and evil society had become. Finally, even though Chernobyl happened shortly after the book was published, the Union Carbide disaster in Bopal, India was still fresh in the headlines—a reminder that even the air is not safe. It was not hard at the time to extrapolate the ultimate end that this cocktail of fundamentalism, conservatism, violence, disease, and disaster would bring, but what Atwood could not know, is how much of her novel would become reality in the world.

Amazingly, twenty years after it was written, there are elements of the story that have become true—perhaps not in the United States, where the story takes place, but throughout the world. The most obvious first connection is with many of the issues regarding women’s rights and religious fundamentalism that are taking place in the Middle East. It was shocking to read in the book that the initial attack on the US Government was blamed on Islamic Fundamentalists, though the story was written after the Lockerbie Pan Am bombing, and the massacre at the Rome airport. While this kind of terrorism was only in its infancy, Atwood’s insight is almost prophetic in the book. When the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was bombed, the initial reaction by the media was to blame Islamic terrorists, when in fact—like the novel—the terrorism was homegrown. The scale of the attack that took out the US Government in the novel is also eerily similar to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reading this novel in the post-9/11 world can send chills down one’s spine: the novel includes suicide bombings at checkpoints, restrictions of rights in the name of safety, blind patriotism, and an overwhelming belief that there is only one true religion, and deviants from this should be killed.

While George Orwell’s 1984 is often referred to as an insightful perspective on modern society whenever someone puts a video camera on a street lamp, or the government begins referring to negative events with positive doublespeak. Orwell’s world never materialized in full, and likely never will materialize to the degree he created. Instead it is Atwood’s distopia, seemingly outrageous at the time it was written, that became reality. This novel should serve as a cautionary warning about the result of any extremist view taken to its logical conclusion—the Taliban is proof that society cannot dismiss the notions of this book as outrageous and extreme. They have proven in the last decade, a plausible end to the error of letting fundamentalism in any form guide one’s society.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 1, 2005 – Finished Reading
November 29, 2007 – Shelved
November 29, 2007 – Shelved as: classics
November 29, 2007 – Shelved as: science-fiction
November 29, 2007 – Shelved as: fiction

Comments Showing 1-43 of 43 (43 new)

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message 1: by Jay (new) - rated it 1 star

Jay Gowen Your review supports my contention against the book--Atwell's distopia is not consistent with what more than a thousand years of history teaches us about western civiliation. Western societies move from the religious to the secular, not the other way around. To use the Middle-East as evidence of Atwell's prescience is comparing apples and oranges.

Travis Bird Well, I was amazed when I read that bit about Islamic terrorists. Actually, Lockerbie was in 1988.

Prior to the Iranian revolution people in the West perceived terrorism by Muslims as isolated/related to the Palestinian issue. Atwood's imagined scenario is somewhat prescient.

Allison My reading of the book considered the backlash against feminism and free/aware sexuality that Reagan and his moral majority pushed in the 80s. In my opinion, we are still suffering a hangover from that backlash. Fundementalist Christians are a very powerful force in this country, pumping a lot of money and well-educated young people into politics and business. Given the continuing fear of losing Christian/family values and of America being "lost" to non-WASPs, I can see a near future where this group takes more popular control and pushes its agenda in all manners. The current obsession with fertility treatments, control of reproductive rights, and the role of "modern" women echoes the distopia of the book. Being reduced to reproductive ability and then losing complete control of ones body to the state seems a very relevant issue to me.

Still, I see us at the edge of the precipice rather than already falling over the side. I won't argue that we've hit the crisis point yet.

message 4: by Voitaray (last edited Jun 11, 2009 07:45PM) (new)

Voitaray Your review is terrific and I am grateful for the history recap of the 1980's as it relates to Atwood's tale. Your first commentor, Jay, sounds quite cavalier about apples and oranges and western civilization. Male dominated religions (all?) rear their ugly excesses over and over again with the help of economic crisis, fomenting of hatreds, and of course, war. These days we have as much to fear from the Taliban (currently trying to take over nuclear-armed Pakistan) as we ever did/might from hard-line Christianity. It's a small world after all.

Benjamin Wetmore Willie Horton was from the 1988 race. Others have pointed out some historical errors, I think it suggests a desire on your part to mesh many iconic moments together to fit your narrative rather than those events actually weaving together as nicely as you'd desire.

Specifically, I think it's hard to argue that modern feminism faced a setback by 9/11, or that theocracy returned, or that the roles of women were somehow subjugated as a response to national tragedy. It's pretty convenient to use every major historical moment and spin it in such a way that proves your thesis, a perfect non sequitur.

I realize this is, from what you say, a college essay and so, perhaps, this is too tough, but so it goes.

message 6: by Uk_id (new)

Uk_id @Ben Wetmore: What you said is along the lines of what I was thinking.

message 7: by Bert (new)

Bert It sounds like what the far right wants to do today in this country. Replace the constitution with old testment law

message 8: by Finn (new) - added it

Finn Very thoughtful review, thank you!

message 9: by Donna (new)

Donna Bert, come out of the cave. There is a whole world you are missing. BOTH parties are working with the wealthy to remove all rights, including those supposedly guaranteed by the constitution. But they want plutocracy, and they have no respect for the Old Testament unless it should happen to be the most expeient way for them to assume total control. They are far more likely to be GATU worshippers, the antithesis of the Old Testament.

KarenC As we watch the 2012 Republican candidates debate and try to out-conservative each other, you may all want to reconsider your comments about this prescient piece of literature. How could Atwood have seen this coming 27 years ago?

Elizabeth @Donna, Plutocracy is a pejorative term and isn't based on any kind of actual political philosophy. Basically it's a reference to the lack of consideration to the lower classes or the poor. It's not a political affiliation that one would intentionally choose. Unless you meant that the current political parties are ignorant to the social needs of this society and therefore seem more like a plutocracy which would be more accurate. I doubt that our author Ms. Atwood was trying to predict the world as it is now. She probably did her research and found out about how the Islamic Fundamentalists treat their women, since the current state of the Islamic people has been in place since forever, and drew some pretty dire consequences from those assumptions. So I doubt she really had any insight but based on the culture and occurrences in the 80's she was able to visualize the potential outcome and devise a distopia where men are allowed all the freedoms and woman are debased.

Karolyn I was struck by this too and especially the fertility issues pre-HPV.

message 13: by Donna (last edited Jan 17, 2013 09:19AM) (new)

Donna I meant it as a perjoragive term. Those to whom it refers have no (or since you are nit picking, *few*) specific political organization(s), but their desires align so often, they can be thought of as an organization, for all practical purposes. Islam (as in Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Western influces, btw) is but one form it takes.

message 14: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane To whoever said Western civilization moves from religion to secularism (as if that were some sort of truth from heaven), I disagree. Iran was a secular, Western nation until the Revolution when it thus moved toward theocracy, and ousted the Shah. It is now one of the strongest theocracies in the world. The same thing can, and will happen to the United States unless we stop our petty squabbling and keep voting against these sorts of people.

Karolyn @Diane agree! Myth of progress:

Karolyn Also -- how about the change in present day Russia with strong evidence of collusion and support between the state and Orthodox Church in a formerly officially atheist country.

Mickey America is about as Christian fundamentalist as China. Or Syria.

Mickey Diane, point out for us all the laws being passed in the US that prove we are moving towards a religious society and not a secular one. Is America more secular now or not?

message 19: by Goryla (new)

Goryla nice coment

message 20: by Kate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kate Please tell me you all know the Taliban is not Iranian.

Abhilash Nandi A great review. I must say.
Still after reading the novel I had certain doubts which I couldn't phrase myself.
Like why was Artwood so inclined on the extremists such as the K.G.B???
Your viewings cleared some doubts and helped a bit with others.

Except the above mentioned.

I really cannot believe that Artwood foresaw the talibans and others "." "." s just by researching medival Christianity, the K.G.B , the byzantine period.. the post WWII Canada.

Nevertheless, TY

message 22: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Having read this novel in a time when Douchebag Trump is proposing ID markers for Muslims and state governors are refusing Syrian tefugees, I am astounded and horrified by how familiar the world of "A Handmaid's Tale" feels to me.

message 23: by Kate (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kate Well said. When I first read this book about 20 or so years ago, it made a lasting impact on me. To this day, I am wary of fundamentalist religious beliefs and the way women are often viewed, treated, or could be treated, if dynamics go unchecked.

message 24: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Nazi Germany meets Isis, verses women.

Stephanie This is a wonderful review, and I appreciate all of the recent historical context you put into it. Readers just picking the book up for the first time probably only look through the lens of current events, which is understandable, but we do often forget that a lot of the scariest things in the book aren't based on things that were new when Atwood wrote the story. She's of the generation where WWII and the atrocities of the Nazis was fresh in the mind of so many, and that does come out in parts of the book too.

message 26: by Rem (new) - added it

Rem This review REALLY made me want to read this book. That must have been some paper you wrote in college!

Koontzs This book has haunted me since I read it 25 years ago. And now, it has come true is many countries. Is the USA next?

Caroline I cannot believe this book was written so long ago and so little has changed in the world. It is all scarily recognisable.

Diane Lisa, are you serious?

Pat (not getting friend updates currently) I haven't read this but am planning to read it now. I too, have noticed a gradual eroding of women's rights, particularly in the US. few share my concern, but then I've been around the block a few times and have seen the way things are changing. Let's hope that sanity prevails.

message 31: by Heather (new)

Heather Ugh!! Not politics against OUR President Trump in Goodreads too!! Grrrrrr!😡

Pat (not getting friend updates currently) You're quite welcome to him! But no, it was more a general comment against increasing fundamentalism and paternalism around the world.

Natalie Jordan Fuller I think there is more influence from before the novel. Cambodia for example.

Susan Hartnett Great review!

message 35: by V (new)

V Edwards Like a number of other comments here, i was erring against reading the book until I read this review. I will now definitely read. Thanks Jennifer

message 36: by Sandeep (new)

Sandeep "I too, have noticed a gradual eroding of women's rights"

Pat, what laws have recently been paased that "erode" women's rights?

Pat (not getting friend updates currently) Well hello, a US state (can't remember which one) now has a law that can hold women guilty of murder or manslaughter if they have a miscarriage or stillbirth that resulted from something they did. Hard to prove I know but nevertheless. And what about the de-funding of any organisation that conducts/advises on abortions. Some of these organisations also do vital work in family planning/contraception and general health advice for young women. Not to forget that a number of countries are swimming against the tide and have made homosexuality illegal (obviously this one affects men too) Nigeria is one I think but whatever it is, there is one in Africa. And Russia has also strengthened its anti-gay stance. Then let's not mention the appalling treatment of women by the taliban and how women face the lash for daring to drive a vehicle in Saudi Arabia. Just a few examples.

message 38: by Puja (new) - rated it 5 stars

Puja Narula With recent curbs on abortion and other anti-women moves in the US by President Trump, this book is now becoming a reality in the US too!

Karen Schwarzwalder Our best option is to vote now and forever for candidates who will not be seduced by people like Trump. Think about Rich Cordray.

message 40: by Erin (new) - rated it 5 stars

Erin Hi, Lockerbie happened in Dec. of 1988. After the novel was written. It took out many workers of Roman Haas, a chemical company near me in suburban Philadelphia.

message 41: by Claudio (new)

Martinez Claudio

message 42: by Jennie (new)

Jennie Lyn You may wanna try reading this:
It's an uplifting inspirational book. After going over a book slump, I finally found a gem in the helm! I can assure you Ania's book will not let you down. Everyone can relate as every 20 years old goes through it. I don't know about you but if not all, most of us experienced. You can get helpful tips. Recommended for youths and anyone who's feeling stuck in the age 20. You must get yours and happy reading! Make sure to leave a review and recommend it to your friends. Share the inspiring message.

message 43: by Zahra (new) - rated it 1 star

Zahra I appreciate the historic context that you provide in your review. I like to point out that your point about "Atwood's prophecy" is not valid; the women's rights issues in the Middle East precedes Atwood's novel by tens of centuries. Atwood has copied an account of what goes on in religious dictatorships (polygamy, forced marriages, etc.). This book only does slightly more than copy and paste a list of issues. I admit that for the American audience that may not be as educated on this subject, this book is a good read!

"Amazingly, twenty years after it was written, there are elements of the story that have become true—perhaps not in the United States, where the story takes place, but throughout the world. The most obvious first connection is with many of the issues regarding women’s rights and religious fundamentalism that are taking place in the Middle East... Atwood’s insight is almost prophetic in the book."

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