Book Review: Why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a must-read
July 27, 2017
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood's classic dystopian novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," is more plausible and terrifying now than it was when it was published in 1985. The novel, set in the near future, is eerily familiar, terrifyingly unsettling and a vital read (or re-read) in a time when the threat of the rolling back of women's rights is of concern to many.
The novel's resurgence in popularity parallels the resurgence in the feminist movement, sparked by renewed abasement of women by men in power. In the book, the U.S. is now the Republic of Gilead, and its state-sanctioned laws are based on an interpretation of the Bible. Equity as a concept vanishes as women are systematically re-educated and classified into assigned roles.
Wealthy women are Wives to Commanders. Other women, if fertile, like the book's heroine, Offred, are given the role of Handmaid. The government reintroduces the biblical practice of forced surrogacy (think Rachel and Leah and their fertile handmaids in Genesis). Women's bodies are under the control of the state. Handmaids must bear children for the ruling class. They are forbidden to read or control finances. Other women are classified into roles available in the domestic sphere — shopping, cooking and cleaning. And, there is a severely restrictive dress code in place. Loss of independence is complete.
Serena Joy, now Wife to a Commander, was a television personality who spent time espousing a paternalistic narrative of traditional values: "Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home."
Serena Joy, complicit in creating Gilead and its state-sanctioned rape of women and loss of equality, said the right things to the right people for personal power. Now, she wears the uniform of a Wife and knits. Offred, (her surrogate child bearer) remarks, "She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word."
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Offred reflects on her altered life, her altered sense of her body: "I avoid looking down at my body … I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely."
Now, women walk the streets in pairs and are protected. "No man shouts obscenities to us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles."
No more worries about whose bodies need to be safeguarded because of their great value — controlled and protected from men.
"I am a national resource," thinks Offred.
The goal is for Gilead's biblical law to become "ordinary" and the past to be forgotten.
"This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will," Offred is told. She clings to memory, to stories, as if they are a letter to a loved one, anyone, that she might be remembered, seen, saved.
By the end, the reader is entrenched in this insane world that has normalized the loss of civil liberties, ultimately dehumanizing everyone.
The book has been both feared and loved through the years. It has been banned, appearing on the American Library Association's list of the top 100 banned books of the decade, in both the 1990s and 2000s. It is a book worthy of discussion.
The library's book clubs will discuss "The Handmaids Tale" on the following dates and times.
- 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5
- noon Tuesday, January 9.
Those interested can sign up at the library or online at steamboatlibrary.org.
This book is available at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore and Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Michelle Dover is circulation services manager at Bud Werner Memorial Library.