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March 6th, 2006, 05:55 PM #16Pen is Envy, get it?? Har har har
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
March 6th, 2006, 08:23 PM #17
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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.
March 6th, 2006, 10:06 PM #18
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 by ArthurFrayn; March 6th, 2006 at 10:17 PM.
March 7th, 2006, 07:50 AM #19
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 by Ouroboros; March 7th, 2006 at 06:00 PM.
March 8th, 2006, 08:49 AM #20
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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.
March 11th, 2006, 12:29 AM #21
For the sake of being somewhat comical, I will share this Book-A-Minute link with you:
I had a laugh over this. I hope some of the rest of you are able to find some humour in it too.
March 14th, 2006, 07:05 PM #22(There is a good speculative fiction story going until the END, which is INANE and LITERARY, because it is ILLEGAL for a work of LITERATURE to have CLOSURE.)
I love the Handmaid's Tale, i gave it 10/10, it has a firm place in my top 10 favourite SF when i first read it, and i own 2 copies so i can lend it out.
I thought the distopia was as well thought out as any of the great examples (1984, Brave New World). People often seem to have more trouble suspending disbelief fot HT though. I think because of the gender politics to some extent - people can beleive in evil dictatorships, but it is difficult for many in my generation (and in the west) to believe that wholescale subjugation could be accepted by a whole society. They may accept the idea intellectually, but emotionally it seems so innately ridiculous, which gets in the way of enjoying a book.
But for me, a major distinguishing factor of HT is how personal it feels. With 1984 and Brave New World i always felt a distance in the writing, so i rarely felt emotionally involved with the protogonists. In HT, Offred doesn't feel to me like an everyman character, used mostly do show is the society: her personal everyday experiences are absorbing in themselves. I wanted to know what happened to her more than i cared about the details of the society.
I admit to being biased, as i love Atwood's writing - i've often read passages by her that seem to be describing the underlying feelings (although not the form) of incidents from my own life. Its the prose which makes this book great, the interesting and to a small extent original ideas are just icing on the cake.
I even liked the literary ending It had closure in terms of the local situation (ie Offred escaped), but left the future open. I would have prefered it without the historicsal afterword even - i didn't need to be told that the society wasn't viable and eventually collapsed, it felt like a sop to feminists.
March 16th, 2006, 11:01 AM #23
Originally Posted by Yobmod
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I don’t think this is a major problem. As stated previously – Atwood isn’t aiming for realism. I do think it could have been worked differently (or even left out).
March 16th, 2006, 12:03 PM #24The problem with HT is the transition to dystopia. It's a bit jarring.
But i guess i agree, that it does read like the transition was jerky and extemely fast - a couple of lines showing Offred ignoring the news from other states or the growing resentment of fertile women would have made the build up better, maybe. But i think leaving out the transition altogether would have scared off mainstream readers more - they want a direct link to 'real life' IMO.
Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower does similar things - how society got how it was is neither explained, nor completely ignored. As a result i've seen people say the society was less believable.
I guess the lack of transition in Brave New World etc, allows reader to imagine it being far in the future, or in a different country. When the transition shows it happening now, in your own country, it is difficult not to think 'that isn't how people would react' etc
May 12th, 2007, 03:04 PM #25
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Wow. Not exactly a work of artistic subtlety. I'd describe this novel as more thinly-veiled diatribe than social commentary. Nevertheless, I agree with those who found it a quick and easy read. Atwood's prose is a very good writer and does present an effectively depressing view of a possible future world but, in the end, it didn't really work for me for several reasons of logic.
It's very hard (I would go so far as to say impossible) to buy into our contemporary society devolving into the book's totalitarian regime over the course of a number of years. And, at one point in the narrative, the protagonist even points out this extreme unlikelihood (again, I would go so far as to call it an impossibility) and glosses over the logic bump by paying lip service to the effect of "sure, there were demonstrations and people protested but it didn't help". Are you kidding? And, yes, people will point to some of the post-911 infringments on civil liberties but, again, that's a long, long way of from the world Atwood has created here.
And while I suppose I could buy into the possibility that a society could devolve to this point (though not over the course of a few years), it would be entirely dependent on the reasons for the drastic drop in the birthrate and the rise in sterility. Yet Atwood takes the easy out by not even getting into it.
Being Canadian, I've had my fair short of Canadian lit. shoved down my throat growing up and Atwood was an author I, well, never acquired a taste for. And this heavy-handed entry isn't going to change that.
May 12th, 2007, 03:05 PM #26
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May 13th, 2007, 12:04 PM #27
What happens in THT could and has happened outside of the West, and in that context the timeframe of the book is not implausible.
In other societies, where unlike the West sufferage for women has not had a hundred years to become culturally entrenched, a sea change akin to what occurs in THT could occur much more readily.
For example, the first big demonstrations that led to the Islamic revolution in Iran began in January 1978... And in December of the following year they were approving a theocratic consitution and installing the Ayatollah. As distateful to us in the west as the 'reforms' which followed were, it was a remarkable event in the sense that it took everyone by surprise by happening to quickly and with no military unrest, financial depression or defeat in war to precipitate it.
I would prefer to read THT not as a commentary on Western culture and its treatment of women, but as an indictment of oppressive theocratic states in general. Setting it in the West means it hits a little closer to home.