Saturday, 8 April 2017

Guest Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
First published in Canada by McClelland And Stewart in 1985.

Guest review by Rob Shackleford
Australian author Rob Shackleford is a graduate of Central Queensland University where he studied journalism and ancient history. His interest in history is put to good use is his first novel Traveller-Inceptio, a science fiction work where a crack international team of Special Services soldiers are sent 1000 years into the past, to Medieval Saxon England, at a particularly turbulent period of history. I've got a copy of Traveller-Inceptio to read and will be blogging my review later this month.

Rob's rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She has only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.
Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful evocation of twenty-first century America explores a world in which oppression of women, and repression of the truth, have become justified.

Rob says:  Margaret Atwood is a highly acclaimed author known for her incisive speculative fiction, perhaps the best known of which is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, published in 1985.

Like all novels, this is based on a premise. There is a dystopian near future where the US Government has been taken over by puritanical, religious fundamentalists, creating a nation called the Republic of Gilead. This is a repressive mix recognised in Orwell’s ‘1984’ and today’s North Korea, where a Christian fundamentalist dictatorship has removed the rights of all but the elite, where women’s rights are non-existent and the breeding of healthy babies is a priority.

This is the diary of Offred, a Handmaid, a new class of women who are essentially reproductive slaves for the ruling elite of men whose women, for reasons not fully explained, are unable to bear children. Offred once was a normal American woman with her own name, a husband, child and a job, but with the disintegration of freedom and society is captured as they attempt to escape to Canada. She becomes a Handmaid, a fertile woman who has broken the strict gender and social laws. Handmaid is an obvious reference to Biblical figures Jacob and Abraham, each of whom took their wife’s handmaid or servant to breed children when their wives could not.

The story is rather slow, though the atmosphere and world created by Atwood is gripping and, in today’s world of Trump’s USA, perhaps poignant in view of the rapid change of power and women’s freedoms. Interestingly, as with many books of a dystopian future by US authors, such as the world described in the Hunger Games, there is no real world outside of the USA.

The Republic of Gilead is heavily structured and ruled by white men who are Commanders of the Faithful. As with any repressive regime there is a secret police, called the Eyes, of which all are terrified, for disobedience to the regime will result in a violent, torturous death or banishment to the Colonies, which is seen as a death penalty.

The rulers are supported by the military known as the Angels, and the Guardians of the Faith.

In Offred’s diary, she describes the women of the time. Attwood created clear class structures, each of which dresses in relevant colours of rank. Offred dresses in Scarlet (the scarlet woman?) while the Wives dress in Blue. They are the elite, though they wear Black if widowed. They are usually sterile.

There are the daughters, children of the ruling class, who dress in White.

Aunts are the cruel and often brutal trainers and monitors of the Handmaids, who are seen as tainted women who have a chance to redeem themselves. Aunts dress in Brown.

Marthas are infertile, older women. This is another Biblical reference to Martha who, in the New Testament, was more concerned with the practicalities of life. They dress in Green.

Econowives are low-ranking common folk who dress in all colours to show they have all of the above responsibilities. Offred is the Commander’s Handmaid and her role is to have babies. In the Ceremony, where his wife is present, the Commander copulates with his Handmaid to produce offspring. If Offred doesn’t fall pregnant, she risks being cast out to the Colonies, for to be barren is the fault of the woman. The Commander soon becomes fond of Offred, which causes friction between the Handmaid and the Wife. He eventually takes Offred to a club or brothel where only the elite men may go. Offred is dressed in clothes and makeup banned in the Republic of Gilead, and is displayed as a possession to impress his colleagues. This is a place where the Commander will have sex with Offred outside of the restrictions of the Ceremony. Offred receives her name as she is a possession ‘of Fred’, suggesting Fred is the name of the Commander.

The Republic of Gilead is not a happy place, with an oppressive atmosphere and primitive technologies reminiscent of the Soviet era. There is an underground rebellion, where secretive rebels attempt to help Offred, as well as wars against other religious groups, such as the war against the Baptists. Other races, such as African Americans, known as the Children of Ham, have been shipped to the Colonies, while Jews and Catholics are tolerated, murdered, or shipped overseas.

To add another layer of interest, the epilogue reveals ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ style historical document under study by scholars after the fall of the Republic.

The Handmaid’s Tale is described by some as a Feminist work of significance, and ironically is still of relevance over thirty years later.

A movie of The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1990 that starred little-known Natasha Richardson as Offred, Robert Duval as the Commander and Faye Dunaway as his wife. What is perhaps significant is that a new TV Series of the Handmaid’s Tale is due to be released later in 2017 and stars Elisabeth Moss of ‘Mad Men’ as Offred and Joseph Fiennes as the Commander. The timing of the release is interesting in view of the controversial Presidency of Donald Trump, which some feel espouses policies that have been described as sexist, racist, against freedom of speech and religion, and designed to amplify the power and wealth of the elite. That such a change in US politics and attitudes has taken place so quickly might suggest that Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ can be, like Orwell’s ‘1984’, a warning of where wresting of power from the people can lead to places few want to go.

Though not a cheery, Sunday Afternoon read, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is thought provoking and essential to any interested in a clever, prophetic critique of where society could go if we aren’t careful.

Thank you Rob!

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  1. I read this book 3 years ago and I'm inclined to agree with your assessment of how important it is to see the demise of women's rights if we let it. A cautionary tale for the ages, if i may say so myself.

  2. I haven't read this classic yet, but I own it and am very much looking forward to it. It doesn't sound like it is going to be a fun read, but it sounds meaningful and like it has a lot in it to think about...

    1. It's one of my favourite Atwoods and one that really got under my skin when I read it