Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cannonball Read #19: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I finished The Handmaid's Tale very quickly, but committing myself to write a review has been very difficult. Two weeks have passed so my impressions of it are not so fresh, and I will be doing this by memory. (Note to self: I should not wait two weeks to write reviews.)

Before picking this up, I had several friends tell me that I would probably really like Margaret Atwood's writing. I'm not sure if it's because my face screams "WOMEN IN DYSTOPIA" but to be honest, I was a little slow on the uptake with the story. The entire book is the account of Offred, a handmaid in the imaginary future Republic of Gilead. In this alternate reality, the population is slowly declining, and therefore, babies are priced above everything. As a handmaid, Offred's job is to get pregnant with a high-ranking Commander of the Republic, give birth to a (hopefully) healthy baby, and give it away to her Commander's cruel wife. This new society has also taken pleasure out of sex, and out of everything in everyday life. With Offred's story, we learn about life in Gilead, about how it was before, and how she feels about being valued only for her ovaries and not for anything else.

Throughout the book, I craved for Offred's descriptions of the past when things were close to our reality. I wanted to understand how they could go from a society such as we live in - to some weird, literal-Biblical living in such a short span of time. Offred could still remember having using her own money to buy things that she needed, choosing her own mate, having a child of her own. Now, as a Handmaid, she uses food tokens to get meals for the Commander's household; she is not allowed to let anyone see her face; and once a month, the Commander fucks her (and according to Offred, that is the only appropriate word) with his nasty wife in the same bed.

There are some things that made no sense to me whatsoever - like if these Gileans (is that what we call them?) were so hot to conceive, why only one baby-making ceremony a month? There was also mention of some Japanese tourists in the Republic, and how Offred just gawked at the women in short skirts. This implies, to me, that they might not have population problems in other parts of the world. So why not copulate with them if they wanted children so badly? The ending of the book, which is a speech by some scholar in the future who treats the account of Offred as historical text, explains a little about the history of how the Republic came about, and I also got the impression that Gilead society was kinda xenophobic. However, I felt like that still conflicts with their Ultimate Goal, which is to have babies and keep the population up.

Though now that I am typing this, I am actually very unsure what the Republic's Ultimate Goal was. The immediate take-away, from Offred's point of view, might seem like it is to have power over women. But the Commander is an example of one of the members of this society who is not happy with it, though he would never admit it because he is a dumb hypocrite. There seemed to a be a constant sense of unfulfillment in Gilead society, not just for the Handmaids, but also for the high-ranking officers.

Atwood's writing is strong, though it took me a while to get used to it. Even though her descriptions of the current Republic were realistic (in a way) and touching, it was hard for me to commit fully to it emotionally. Every now and a then, a question would pop up in my head about some random point, and I would try to suppress it. The result is that I came away with an image of a fake world feeling like it was a fake world. Does that make sense?

My favorite part was the end of the book, but not because it was the end. I thought it was so funny to read how the scholar was talking about Gilead like it was impossible that such a society ever existed, and that it was impossible for it to happen again. He talked about it almost like he was talking about a fairy tale. And I completely identified with that, even though chapters ago, I was all wound up over Offred's "adventure." It also answered some of the "logical" questions I had throughout the book, so that was nice that Atwood tied up the loose ends.


blakspring said...

we must be on the same wave-length because, though i read this years ago, i just reread it a few weeks ago. and i really like this book a lot, though i like most dystopia stories.

yeah, it's not perfect and i too wondered how such drastic measures happened so quickly, even though clearly there was a whole other world still out thee. but perhaps it's like how women are treated in some of the extreme circumstances in the middle east, like under taliban rule.

regardless, the story is well done and i too love the glimpses of the past. offred still has that fighting spirit, still has some hope, throughout the book. i like to think that she makes it to freedom.

Denesteak said...

lol, i'm afraid to click on the link to the comment above you. Don't wanna hurt my computer.

You know, I kept wondering throughout the book whether if Offred was a admirable character or not. Even she laments, at the end, and begs us to forgive her that she has lost her resolve because she had that driver to canoodle with and she was in love with him. And she doesn't pay attention to the resistance.

And I know a part of it is also that she has... inner resolve, and that she never forgets her past life, and that's admirable in a sense. But there were parts of the book that just made me so sad.