March '06 SF BOTM: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Erfael, Mar 1, 2006.

  1. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    Discussion is now open.
     
  2. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I'll start off a bit.

    Given all I'd heard and imagined about this book, I thought it would be much more than it was. I expected ideas and musings on our own time and the real dangers of where we are now leading to what she was positing in the book. In the end, I didn't really feel that much of any of that was brought through.

    That said, it was a really easy read that maintained interest. (Who can fault a book with clandestine Scrabble?) I found it to ultimately be pretty depressing as far as the vision of the future and the almost complete lack of optimism at the end.

    One of the interesting things I found about the book was that everyone was participating in this great machine that had been created, but no one seemed happy about it, even some of the people who we suspect were integral to starting it up. The wives were resentful, the husbands were sneaking out on the town, the Handmaids were in terrible spots. I guess it says something about intentions getting out of control.

    Something I never, ever caught on to while reading: Offred -- looks like Off Red. Made sense since the handmaids wear red. I only got it in the end when they TOLD me that it was Of Fred that that's what that was referring to. Not sure if that was purposefully deceptive or if we were supposed to sort of figure that out.

    I guess after all the Atwood hoo-ha I expected a little more, though. Not like I felt it was a waste of time, but that the same concept could have been used to do much more, even within the confines of the same story.
     
  3. Yobmod

    Yobmod Yobmod

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    I really liked how this was revealed. Not the actual anouncment at the end, but from meeting the other handmaids while shopping whose names were Of[man's name].
    Before i worked it out i had been annoyed that she had such a stupid name!
     
  4. Kailana

    Kailana New Member

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    I read this book last year. I had started it before, but it just didn't appeal to me at the time. It was pretty good the second time, but I am just not a Margaret Atwood fan. I suppose because while she says things about society and such, she does not do it the way I would have expected her to do it. I suppose I had too many questions in the end.
     
  5. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    I first read this book over a decade ago in college some sort of British Novelist class, IIRC. I suppose the fact that 1984 was also on the reading list is one reason I will always connect the two books. Of course there are many thematic similarities, with the oppressive governments and what not. I don't think Atwood's was as terrifying, but they are both warnings, perhaps, of where society can head towards.

    The symbolism was pretty strong throughout, especially with the names and I think the name of the country, which IIRC was a dystopic Canada?

    I'm not sure which edition everybody else had, but my cover is very similar to the one below. Well, at least the cover image is the same, even if the text and layout are a bit different:
    [​IMG]
     
  6. Kailana

    Kailana New Member

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    I can see the warnings, don't get me wrong, but I just can't get into Atwood. I know I am supposed to, she is like the great Canadian author, but to be honest the only book I really liked by her was Oryx and Crake. Handmaid's Tale was the other one I managed to finish, and I also read it for a class in university. I think for me I tried to downplay what she was saying in the book because as a female I would like to think that our rights are going to improve, not get worse. Of course, you never know, history generally repeats itself, so in the future women could be worse off and add the technology advances, it could really be a bad situation. So, the novel did disturb me.
     
  7. Katya

    Katya New Member

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    I have the newest cover:
    [​IMG]
    It's captured my interest for some time, although I hadn't picked it up until I saw it here.

    Rob, it takes place in the USA in the future.

    I'm not quite done the book yet, about halfway through. I find the writing style to be quite different than I'm used to, and I find that she keeps switching from present narration to the past narration, and not just in her flashbacks. Maybe it's just the way I'm reading it, but I find it dischordant.
     
  8. Ouroboros

    Ouroboros Give me liberty!

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    I've been told that it's possible to figure out that the story takes place around Cambridge, Massacheusets (sp?), although I've never worked it out. I think the role that Canada plays is as a neutral power that accepts a small number of women through an underground railroad.

    I'm a little hazy, however, as its been several years since I read this (it was while I was in Japan, pretty much firing english-language books into me because I was so homesick).

    Occassionally I still sting when I read interviews with Atwood where she asserts that this novel is 'most definitley not science fiction', which she explains is 'full of martians' and whatnot. Back then, she preferred to let it be known that this was speculative fiction in the mould of Orwell's 1984. How times have changed, eh? (Look for more recent threads on Atwood where her opinions are slightly more moderate when it comes to the genre).

    The Handmaid's Tale is a superb book, albeit hardly a pleasant one to read. Few dystopian societies have been realised by an author in such a visceral manner. It's hard to read this and not feel outraged.

    Atwood explained that this was an exploration of what would happen if commonly-held beliefs about women were taken to their logical extreme ('A woman's place is in the home', or 'Women prefer the company of women'). More generally, it is a study of totalitarianism in relation to gender, and Atwood took her subject material mainly from the puritan tradition in the US, which is extremely interesting ... it wasn't something I realised until much later.

    It's timely material, in my opinion: Now more than ever. The west, imperfect as it is, is a comparative heaven when it comes to the rights of women, in comparison with countries where sharia law is in force. In many ways, they are more horrifying than Atwood's Gilead in a multiplicity of ways. How conscious Atwood was of that when she wrote this book, I don't know. But as opposed to wondering whether we will see Gilead in the west in the far future, we should bear in mind that there are dusty countries in the present world which are not so different to Gilead, where the rights of women are concerned.
     
  9. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    Thanks Ouro, I knew Canada played some kind of important role in the book. Like I said, it's been over a decade since I've read it.
     
  10. Kailana

    Kailana New Member

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    I often wondered if one of her points to the novel was to show that Canada is a better haven for women than the US? Just because the "good" place is Canada in the novel. Or, she is quite loyal to her country and maybe she doesn't want to say anything bad?
     
  11. Ouroboros

    Ouroboros Give me liberty!

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    Well, from a human rights point of view, Canada and the scandinavian countries are regarded as 'angel states' which meet the highest standards. As such it seems plausible enough that it would tacitly act to help those falling on the wrong side of Gilead's law.

    I'd be surprised if Atwood was motivated by patriotism in her portrayal of Canada. My guess would be that, like most leftists, she'd regard herself as an internationalist.
     
  12. Kailana

    Kailana New Member

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    That's true. The truly partriotic authors include their country as the central place in the novel. She rarely ever does this. Most of her novels take place elsewhere. Well, of the ones I have read. I find it funny, though, that she is supposed to be from an angel country. We have as many issues as I am sure most other countries do. It is amazing how being peaceful can change how you are viewed. But, if se believes we are angels than I can see that being behind her choice.

    Has anyone read enough Atwood to suggest whether she is pro or anti America? I have read a few, but it was so long ago I hardly remember where they take place let alone what she says.
     
  13. Katya

    Katya New Member

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    The Handmaid's Tale struck a chord in me. I found the back-story, in comparison with what was actually going on to be poignant, well timed, and character developing. I felt that it really showed how much she had changed, how much her life had changed. I have been trying to think about whether I liked the style with the flashbacks better than I would if Ms. Atwood would have started the story with their flight, and I think I appreciate the flash backs. At first, I found it confusing - the first bit about the Red Centre, then she delved into the "present", or her experience as Offred.

    I found the relationship between Offred and the Commander to be an interesting one. I see how so many affairs are started, and this one was no different. I loved her description of the Scrabble game, how she fingered the plastic playing pieces, savouring the feel, and using the biggest, most complex words she could think of. I know that when my family plays scrabble, it is often with short or simple words. I admire how she ate up the opportunity to use her brain in that kind of way. I enjoyed her simple enjoyment in reading dated fashion magazines, such as Vogue. I appreciated his simple pleasure in watching Offred, however I felt that his hand cream, and the other things he gave to her were only to butter her up for the trip to Jezebels. That disappointed me, but I think that I expected it all along.

    The interrelationships between the Handmaid's and the other house staff was interesting - how Offred was Cora's salvation, but Rita had no use for her, but as a grocery delivery person.

    Selena Joy was an interesting character. I wonder if she had any choice about having a handmaid, or if the governing bodies just decided that the Commander should have children, and that was what was going to happen. I can understand her dislike completely. I wonder what the motivation behind her deciding to get Offred pregnant by Nick was - whether it was just to get her out of the house faster, or if she really wanted a child. It seemed to me that she just wanted to get rid of Offred. If she couldn't get pregnant by Nick, then at least the Wife would have a reason to have her gone - she slept with someone other than the commander.

    I think my favourite part of the book was Offred's relationship with Nick. I liked their stolen moments, when she seemed to be more like herself.

    Overall, I think I enjoyed this book, while it hit home with me. It made me think about what "could" happen, and where our society is presently. I found it interesting through and through. It wasn't necessarily gripping, but had enough intrigue to keep me reading.
     
  14. ArthurFrayn

    ArthurFrayn the puppet master

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    This is a fine,well written dystopian novel, grim as might be expected. The novel basically seems to be an exercise in which the subject of female subjugation as practiced in parts of the Muslim world, is reimagined as it would occur in the United States. Atwood uses the Puritan heritage in the US to create a viable parallel. Of course, in order to make it as bad as it is, she has to make sterility a central issue. To those who think "this could happen here" please keep in mind that's a big stacking of the deck, and in any human society that faced obliteration due to infertility this could happen-it doesn't need to be a theocracy.
    If you accept the above as the outlined objective of the novel, you're in good shape. And you can have fun with the satiric elements that Atwood puts into play like Serena Joy, who is obviously a Tammie Faye Baker type figure.
    The novel is an easy read, and has a steady pace, but picks up a notch when the Commander smuggles her out of the compound. As a work of character fiction, I like that she has not made the central protagonist a Tess Trueheart, and her romantic allegences become as slippery as this nightmare world demands. The main problem I have with the novel is an ongoing whiff of cleveritus which is dealt with in one of my least favorite manners, in that, the novelist credits all their coy cuteyisms to their characters.

    For example:

    Very cute. There are a bunch of these little morsels sprinkled throughout the novel. Of course, it's our "unreliable narrator" at play.

    And how about this one, my personal fav:

    Pen is Envy, get it?? Har har har. A "Center motto"? C'mon now, I don't think so. :rolleyes:

    Apart from what I established as what I thought was the goal of the novel, the central model for this novel would seem to me to be, (and I'm suprised it hasn't been mentioned here yet) The Diary of Anne Frank right down to the ambiguous ending in which the fate of the narrator at the end of the book remains unknown.So if that's the case, it could very well be that Margret Atwood had not done any reading of SF and really thought it was just about spaceships and martians as she states it is in the interview included in my edition. Then this novel does not have to be classified as SF as far as I'm concerned either.

    On the other hand...sometimes like with Vonnegut, these people doth protest too much...

    In doing her feminist lit studies in college, I would be suprised if Ursula K LeGuin didn't at least come up in passing, and perhaps Kate Wilhelm as well. With that in mind it should be pointed out that an essential section of Wilhelm's novel (which I just read several books ago) Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang deals exactly with women being used for their reproductive function in a sterile society to the omission of all else.In short,life as an incubator. It might be a coincidence, but read that novel and decide for yourself. I highly recommend it, and actually like it better than this novel, although Atwood is perhaps the more gifted prose stylist.

    3 1/2 stars for this one,though. Worth reading.
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2006
  15. Katya

    Katya New Member

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    Oh my goodness... I didn't even pick up on that until you spelled it out! Hilarious! :rolleyes:
     
  16. odo

    odo Registered User

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    Humm, unfortunetly things like that (and "Offred = Off red") got totally lost in the translation (I read it in Spanish).

    Anyway, I did enjoy the book and found the style almost perfect, with powerful images and excellent characters (only Serena Joy was a bit stereotypical to me). I also liked the flashbacks and remind me of "Fugue for darkening island" by Jonathan Priest, which shares some topics with Atwood's novel.

    The thing I liked the least was the last chapter with, imho, unneeded explanations and a completely different tone which I found inconsistent with the rest of the book.

    4 stars out of 5
     
  17. Hereford Eye

    Hereford Eye Just Another Philistine

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    When I read this book, four or five years ago, I did not realize that Atwood is Canadian so that possible flavoring never entered my mind. I accepted the piece at face value.
    Unlike Art above, I didn't see the fertility issue as important as he does. in fact, I remember thinking it was an excuse for the government, possibly spurious, nothing more. I simply recognized the Puritan ethic at work and believed the consequences Atwood drew from them. I must admit that the ending frustrated me. I wanted her to get away. The near final line still resonates with me: "Violation of state secrets."
    Like 1984, big brother won. That ending made me pay more attention to my world.
     
  18. ArthurFrayn

    ArthurFrayn the puppet master

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    That's my whole point. There couldn't be a hope in hell of a theocracy as ferociously regimented as this one to thrive, if there weren't a climate born of the kind of desperation that broad range sterility could bring about. Just couldn't happen in a country as large as the US with as diverse a population as it has.
    The sterility issue is key, or the story is completely and totally implausible on any level. IMO,natch.

    If sterility wasn't an issue, the primary concern of a theocracy of this nature in the US would be racial,not sexual, and that isn't brought up in this novel even marginally.
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2006
  19. Ouroboros

    Ouroboros Give me liberty!

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    Demographically, europe is changing dramatically as a result of plummetting birth rates in 'old europe', as contrasted with vibrant birth rates among the immigrant population. In small countries, such as Holland, this is likely to yield a long-term effect on their status as secular states. With a fastgrowing muslim population, change is inevitable.

    Could an oppressive theocracy on the scale Atwood describes arise in a western country?

    Of course: Logically speaikng it is only improbable, never impossible.

    The question would be better framed as 'when' and 'how' would such a situation come about.
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2006
  20. Mugwump

    Mugwump New Member

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    My thoughts - apologies for posting them in the February reading thread. I've been away from the forum for months and I didn't check the Reading Group list.

    A quick and effortless read, which started on Sunday evening and finished yesterday lunch. A lot easier to digest that some other stuff I’ve had my nose in lately, although that’s not to say it’s lacking intelligence or sophistication. Atwood’s prose is inventive, crisp, lively and – most importantly – digestible (I can’t think of a good comparison at this moment), with no obvious language abominations. The chapters are refreshingly short and to the point, which helps keep the attention from wandering. The narrative structure (flitting back and forth in time between several relationships – fiancée, friend, mother, child etc.) was disorientating at first and continued to be so (albeit mildly) throughout. HT is further complicated by the accompanying historical notes, which twist the book on its head and oblige the careful reader to begin again from page one.

    I’ve read several comments that it should be considered an anti-totalitarianism tract similar to Orwell’s 1984. Whilst there are similarities – the use or restriction of language, and communication and the obliteration of identity as a mechanism of exerting power, hate speech/Particicution and so forth – I’m not convinced the comparison is a good one. Atwood seems more interested in exploring the slavery women create for themselves through incommensurate compromise. This is highlighted in the scene where Offred’s mother (the Atwood mouthpiece?) chastises her for thinking Luke’s willingness to assume the role of cook (formerly the exclusive duty of women) is some indicator of true sexual equality. The theme is explored further in the Red Centre (a thinly disguised Victorian Catholic school for girls), where the Aunts (nuns) meekly accept a subordinate life outside the centre in exchange for the chance to sadistically wield ultimate power inside their small domain. The Particicution scene is another good example of women satisfying themselves with small (and in this case – fabricated) victories whilst letting the war slip further and further away. I can’t quite work out whether the Victorian portraits dotted through the novel are a bleak reminder of freedoms fought for long ago (and now lost) or merely a means of re-enforcing female submission. Also I’m can’t shake the suspicion Atwood is playing empty rhetorical games. After all, the willingness to acquiesce before tokenism is a human trait before a female one.

    Neither the plot nor the surrounding story bears careful scrutiny. The description of events leading to this drastic social and cultural transformation of America is perfunctory to say the least and the Commander (who seems like a pared down Mustapha Mond) defies any kind of rational description. The impregnation ritual had me choking back the laughter, but to be fair to Atwood she is playing for laughs. The book isn’t aiming for realism.

    I do enjoy Atwood’s sense of humour, which borders upon caustic. Serena Joy’s Lily of the Valley perfume, the irony of ‘provocatively dressed’ Japanese tourists (women) gasping at the austereness and self-discipline of Gileadean women. As for the bit where Gilead and Iran are described as the last late twentieth century Monotheocracies – I couldn’t help but giggle whilst thinking … this isn’t too far from the truth.

    That said, I did get a bit bogged down at times (as an explorer of themes Atwood is first rate, but I’m less convinced with her understanding of the mechanics of storytelling). Two-thirds in I was definitely flagging but she rescues the meandering plot at Jezebel’s. Although I spotted the earlier set-up, the appearance of Moria was a bit of a shock. Throughout the book you’re teased into thinking of her as an icon of independence and defiance - a faint ray of hope for Offred to cling to in her suffocating isolation. The reveal of her as a prostitute, made-up like a Playboy bunny (of all things!) is the final straw for Offred, who accepts the futility of trying to live up to the standards set by her mother. Life isn’t about making a stand for this or that noble cause – it’s about surviving. And surviving often means abandoning anything or perhaps everything you hold dear. Congratulations to Atwood for successfully pulling off the central irony: a blistering feminist tract articulated by someone who has effectively renounced feminism.

    I was a bit peeved about the under-use of Janine, who was the one character that truly grabbed my heart. The scene in the Red Centre where she confesses to being gang-raped and is then brutally forced to admit her ‘culpability’ by not just the Aunts but the students themselves was harrowing.

    I’m glad the whole thing didn’t drift into happilyeverafterville, but I’ve got reservations about the ending. I can’t decide whether the final historical notes enhance or detract from the book. If this is a reconstruction of ‘Offred’s’ reconstruction, has her message effectively been rendered meaningless?

    Overall I enjoyed HT. It certainly gave me a lot to think about, although I’m not sure Atwood’s reasoning is entirely coherent. I vaguely recall a HT movie with Robert Duvall in. I might check it out.