Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, an historical figure in the dystopian country of Gilead, where women are ranked only by what they can contribute to society: offspring.
Why I Liked It Then
This was the first of Atwood’s novels that I read (though I literally *just* finished Cat’s Eye, and plan to read the MaddAddam trilogy as part of my reading challenge this year!) However, I read and loved her poetry as a writing student in college, and found the writing in The Handmaid’s Tale equally lovely.
I read it for the first time in 2013, just a few months before Joel and I were married. I’d borrowed my mom’s copy, and when I returned it, she mentioned that she’d been exactly the age I was when she read it, just a few months before I was born.
As you may recall, I was also going through a bit of a post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction phase, and this perfectly fit the bill. While Atwood’s dystopian society is sometimes unfavorably compared to those of Brave New World and 1984, it is still a deserving companion to those classics, and features some notable elements of a post-apocalyptic society: assigned roles (for the women of Gilead), and an underground network attempting to stage an uprising.
Why It Still Speaks to Me Now
Though it’s called dystopian, there’s something more understated about it – Atwood has often called it speculative fiction, instead. She says in this interview with Publisher’s Weekly, “[m]y dystopias aren’t fanciful … They are based on logical progressions from places we find ourselves in now.”
It was interesting to read the 1986 New York Times review of The Handmaid’s Tale that criticizes the book for not being recognizably plausible. But reading it 30 years later, when the overwhelming majority of our politicians are still white men and women’s bodies are seen as a political issue, it still hits home for me.
I started writing a diatribe about this, with regards to the current concern over the Zika virus and the CDC’s recent recommendation that women in their childbearing years who don’t use hormonal birth control refrain from drinking alcohol – but it was too wordy, and this post on Slate says it better than I could. (Basically, that men contribute half of a child’s genetic material, and should have equal responsibility in pregnancy prevention, or alcohol abstention.)
The detail that sticks with me most about The Handmaid’s Tale (and that it had in common with Cat’s Eye) is the somewhat accidental feminism of both protagonists. Offred remembers her mother as one of the bra-burning feminists of the 1970s, but Offred herself becomes the historical figure in opposition of the institution that oppresses women. She makes connections in the network of people who are working to bring down the leaders of Gilead, but never thinks of herself as one of them. (Likewise, the protagonist of Cat’s Eye joins a group of feminist artists, but never feels like one of them.) Though neither is outspoken about it, their small, everyday actions add up to make a powerful impact.
Though Atwood has been recognized for the feminist themes of her novels, the real reason to read them is her writing. She is meticulous in detail, poetic, and often subversive.