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March 1st, 2006, 10:33 AM #1
March '06 SF BOTM: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Discussion is now open.
March 2nd, 2006, 10:44 AM #2
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.
March 2nd, 2006, 02:31 PM #3Something 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.
Before i worked it out i had been annoyed that she had such a stupid name!
March 2nd, 2006, 08:25 PM #4
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.
March 2nd, 2006, 11:00 PM #5
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:
March 3rd, 2006, 09:17 AM #6
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.
March 3rd, 2006, 03:00 PM #7
I have the newest cover:
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.
March 3rd, 2006, 05:57 PM #8
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.
March 4th, 2006, 08:35 AM #9
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.
March 4th, 2006, 02:30 PM #10
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?
March 4th, 2006, 03:41 PM #11
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.
March 4th, 2006, 11:26 PM #12
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.
March 6th, 2006, 01:24 PM #13
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.
March 6th, 2006, 03:54 PM #14
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.
A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued,girls. ...Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down. we make her salivate morally. We are hers to defined, we must suffer her adjectives.
I think about pearls.Pearls are congealed oyster spit. This is what I will tell Moira. later, if I can.
All of us here will lick you into shape, says Aunt Lydia, with satisfied good cheer.
And how about this one, my personal fav:
...The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel it's power, the power of the words it contains.Pen is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us aways from such objects. And they were right, it is envy . Just holdling it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen. It's one more thing I would like to steal.
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 by ArthurFrayn; March 23rd, 2006 at 09:15 PM.
March 6th, 2006, 04:02 PM #15Pen is Envy, get it?? Har har har