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Thursday, 24 June 2021

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale (4*)

Having come to realise that the horrifically violent television serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale exceeds by far anything in the original, I got the book. I certainly would not watch it. From what I’ve read, the televised version falls little short of militant Islamic beheading videos.

So, what did I make of the book? In essence, it’s a bit silly. Am I going to get into in trouble for saying that? It is feminist fiction about the subjugation of women in a totalitarian patriarchy. 

In the Republic of Gilead, women are the property of men. Some even take the names of the men to whom they belong. The narrator, Offred, ‘Of-Fred’ (sounds like ‘offered’), belongs to Fred, a ‘Commander’. She is one of the handmaids whose role is to bear children to leading men when their wives no longer can. Other women have other specified roles.

Handmaids wear colour-coded religious habits with winged hoods to prevent seeing anywhere other than on the ground ahead. They are pious and submissive, and walk with bowed heads. They are not allowed to read or write, or look at others, with compliance enforced by a system of severe physical punishments. Once each month, they are ceremonially raped by their commanders and their wives until they either conceive or are discarded.

Offred may go out, but only in the company of another handmaid, Ofglen. They are only allowed to whisper in permitted phrases.

… we peer at each other’s faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us…
“Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
“May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted response.
… “The war is going well, I hear,” she says,
“Praise be,” I reply.
“We’ve been sent good weather.”
“Which I receive with joy.” (p29)

They pass through checkpoints and look at executed corpses hanging on a wall. Offred secretly needs to know that her husband from her previous life is not among them.

And here lies my problem. Offred, and everyone else in the republic, previously lived in a free Western society. She had her own name, friends, summer dresses, a house, a car, a cat, a husband, a child and a career. Then, suddenly, one day she finds her bank account has been frozen, and on arriving at work that she and all women have been “let go” from their jobs. She and her husband try unsuccessfully to escape. She is sent to a training school to learn her new duties.

It remains vague how long it took to establish the republic, how big it is or how its economy works. The changes seem to have taken place within just a few years because Offred previously had a child and is still of child-bearing age. Gilead also seems quite small but there are references to slaves, colonies and wars. Tourists and trade delegations visit from ‘normal’ countries. It is difficult to imagine how such a place could function.

In other words, albeit an entertaining read, I find the concept ridiculous. Whereas the post apocalyptic society in, say, The Chrysalids, is entirely believable, this is not. Could we really within the space of a few years move from a present day western society to one in which women are slaves to cardboard-character men and forced to take specific roles? Would we have stood for it?

But I’ve been had. I’ve taken it too literally. It’s a satire. It does not matter whether it could be possible. What matters is that this is what a brutal patriarchy, or any other repressive regime, might feel like. And yet, for me, it gave no strong sense of terror or foreboding. Perhaps the televised version does. I’m still not going to watch it. I have no desire to read the recent sequel, The Testaments, either.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. Today, this kind of tyranny would be more of a possibility through big data, compulsory device tracking, surveillance cameras and denial of rights to specific groups or individuals, which could be any of us, men or women. Indeed, in some parts of the world, we can see it happening now. How far could it go?

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

34 comments:

  1. "The Handmaid's Tale" on Amazon Prime starring Elisabeth Moss is the only TV series that I have ever binged on. It was wonderful and a fourth series is coming up soon. Sometimes readers should be prepared to suspend disbelief and go with the flow of a writer's imagination.

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    1. Digital Spy calls it 'torture porn': "In just the first couple of seasons alone, eyes were plucked, tongues were cut out, and genitals were mutilated. We've watched a pregnant June be shackled and electrocuted following multiple rapes. We've seen people rot and die out in the Colonies while tumours grow on their sick, radiated bodies. And in one unforgettably traumatic sequence, a woman even watched her lover hang right before her eyes." (https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/ustv/a36264999/handmaids-tale-season-4-violence-torture-porn/)

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    2. What a silly review by Digital Spy. In the heart of "The Handmaid's Tale" there is humanity and depth. To reduce it all down to those moments is in my view ludicrous and says more about the reviewer than the beautifully crafted cinematographic artwork itself. Elisabeth Moss's performance was stupendous in the first three series. "Torture porn"? Bollocks!

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  2. I attempted to watch it on TV but found it an unpleasant experience so I am not tempted to read the book.

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    1. It seems that some don't mind watching suffering while others do. However, the book is not particular explicit.

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  3. Well, I would point to westernized Iran taken over by the Taliban as an example of how quickly things can change for women (and everyone else) in a military dictatorship that has just overthrown the previous regime. I've been watching the TV series -- just finished the 4th year. Yes, it is occasionally physically violent but no more so than a typical dick flic action pic. It is well worth watching!

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    1. I believe Margaret Atwood has said that there is nothing in the book that has not actually happened at some time, but I think we would have to change quite a lot in Europe and America before conditions allowed that kind of change. I don't watch many modern action pictures either.

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  4. I have no desire to either watch it or read the book - not my kind of stuff.

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    1. We seem to be 2 for and 2 against so far. I found the book interesting.

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  5. After a few decades of interviewing refugees from many places on our globe, all I can say is that the premise of the tale, as you describe, is, sadly, not as ludicrous as one might hope.

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    1. I know that terrible things have happened elsewhere, but as I said to Debra, I don't believe conditions here would allow it unless they gradually changed. Then it might happen.

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  6. This is one book and TV series that I have no desire whatsoever to read or see. There are places in this world where unbelievable and very wrong things do happen.

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    1. There are, and it is disturbing that they also seem to be perfectly acceptable to many in those places.

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  7. If you liked this novel you will enjoy *The Parable of the Sower* by Octavia Butler, set in an America where people have become tribal.
    Octavia Butler (1947-2006) wrote one of creepiest sci-fi stories ever written, *Bloodchild*, in a collection of the same name, for Seven Stories Press. A black woman, she struggled to make her name.

    My hardback edition of *The Handmaid's Tale* has a black and red cover, with the author's name and title embossed on the dustjacket, rather than printed.
    The stylised figure of the young woman is wearing the iconic red frock with the white bonnet. Published by Vintage and beautiful to behold.
    I did not believe in Atwood's dystopia.
    The Puritans were nothing like the Taliban, they supported women.
    Haggerty

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    1. I might read that at some time but not sure about Bloodchild. Good point about Puritans. I have a s/h Vintage edition 1996.

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  8. Disclaimer: I have not watched the movie or read the book. But I'm going to tell you when you live in a country where people scream epithets against the taliban, yet have no problem chipping away at the rights of women, it gives me the heebie jeebies.

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    1. I appreciate what you mean but things have come a very long way since Germaine Greer's book and I think would have to go back a very long way indeed before Atwood's scenario became a possibility.

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  9. No one is screaming epithets against the Taliban.
    Militant Muslim males butchered innocent people in the streets of London and MI5 were aware of their activities.
    Thousands of little girls are taken out of Britain for FGM and Scotland Yard can't be bothered mounting a proper investigation.
    Be very glad you are living in the post-Christian West, where you can play the role of patriarchal victim in your own Marxist fantasy.
    Haggerty

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    1. We do seem to be too wary of offending some minority groups.

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  10. I read the book in 1986 and I thought it was wonderful. I watched the film, which I didn't like, and the first series on television, which I thought was faithful to the book, which isn't surprising as I think Margaret Atwood was involved with the production. I'm gearing up to reading the book again and wondering if my opinion will be different now that I am a wife, a mother and a grandmother.

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    1. I believe it is the later series that have the more explicit content. I'm glad I read the book but was disappointed not to think it as impressive as expected. I thought it overly descriptive and light on thoughts and feelings. Perhaps The Testaments which would the Booker Prize hold together.

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  11. I watched one episode and will not watch another, totally depressing and dystopic. Put me on the side who hates violence and futuristic horror. Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine the author's thoughts on it.

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    1. Dare I say it, but it crossed my mind that parts of it might be based on the author's sexual fantasies.

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    2. Now that IS a daring thing to say !
      Atwood tells a good story like Ira Levin in *This Perfect Day*.
      David Karp's *One* is set in a benevolent state where citizens spy on each other. In his 1953 novel Karp anticipated Cancel Culture.
      I defend feminism when talking to reactionaries, reminding them about the bad old days of unequal pay, and what women had to endure in Victorian and Edwardian culture.
      If only Barbara Castle had been our first woman Prime Minister !
      I am reading a wonderful book, *Patch Work - A Life Among Clothes* by Claire Wilcox.
      It's about motherhood, mortality, memory and clothes' moths.
      Haggerty

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    3. Tsk, tsk, tsk, Tasker. The idea that women are secretly titillated and motivated by rape fantasies is one of the oldest misogynistic lies there is. Margaret Atwood would eat you alive for that remark! But maybe it would just play into your cannibalism fantasies, LOL?

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    4. I did not take any ideas about rape from Tasker's remark, Debra.
      It is as you say a diabolical lie invented by rapists and abusers. Tasker's thoughts suggested something much more complex, something to do with power, beyond the writer's conscious grasp.
      Doris Lessing treated dominance and subjection in her novels such The Golden Notebooks.
      As does Angela Carter in The Sadeian Woman.
      Speaking for myself, I prefer Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Christina Stead, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Stevie Smith, Penelope Lively, Colette, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Jane Gardam, Penelope Mortimer, Edna O'Brien, Julia O'Faolain, Susan Hill, Marguerite Yourcenar, Isak Dinesen, and the lady they called the other Elizabeth Taylor, my favourite postwar novelist.
      Haggerty

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    5. Unknown, all sex in Gilead for Handmaids was forced, nonconsensual and therefore, by definition, rape. Yes, it involved power and domination but not by consent. That's the point.

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    6. Unknown is the learned Mr John Haggerty. Apologies for kicking all this off with my mischievous comment.

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    7. If I had known you were being *mischievous* I would not have written my last comment, Tasker.
      The Handmaiden's Tale is so lurid in its treatment of patriarchy that one feels compelled to ask open questions.
      At times Atwood writes like a Five Point Calvinist (see online).

      Power interests men and women and is sought after openly.
      Dominance and subjection are played out in office and boardroom.
      Our city skylines are about power as is property wealth.

      Judeo-Christianity is patriarchal but it had restraining mechanisms involving eschatology, judgment, punishment of sins.
      We have no shared myth, only a weak appeal to be law abiding.

      Phantasy is imaginative enactment of hidden desires and is a term used in psychoanalysis.
      If Atwood develops a phantasy it is that men may be far worse than we think they are from our reading of history.
      And now men must pay for what they have done and still do.

      Young American women are wearing the Handmaiden's red robes and white bonnets in their pro-Planned Parenthood demonstrations.
      An over reaction? But then a man would say that, wouldn't he?
      Haggerty

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    8. Atwood was mischievous or provocative in writing it.

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    9. That too is an open question, Tasker.
      I heard someone say that one out of three women in Scotland had experienced sexual abuse from men, and most never reported it.
      Sarah Everard's abduction and murder led to an all-night vigil (badly handled by the Met) and articles The Wall Street Journal on *the safety debate in the United Kingdom*.

      If The Handmaiden's Tale is lurid in its depiction of depravity, it reminds me of man's condition when sin becomes an outdated concept. This is the point on which I would hammer the New Atheists like Dawkins and Sam Harris.
      I remember when a friend advised me to read Calvin and I burst out laughing, *Who would read a lunatic like Calvin?*
      Thirteen years later I am still reading him: a spiritual giant.
      Haggerty

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  12. The Testaments is a little too obvious and contrived too - it rounds events off, but in a way that's too neat; too contrived - not quite deus ex machina, but not far off. Not enough inner story to support the outer narrative in either book.

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    1. Absolutely, almost superficial. It's nice to be agreed with.

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    2. If I were writing the review now I think I would make more of the insufficiency of the inner story. But the book is what it is, and Atwood chose to write it like that.

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