Saturday, August 18, 2018

Reading The Handmaid's Tale

I'm a pretty passive reader. Even when reading for research, it takes more mental energy to engage critically with the author's ideas than to simply let them wash over me until I turn the last page. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is different. Not only did it transform me back into the kind of bookworm I was as a kid--reading while walking, getting dressed, or brushing my teeth--but it also inspired me to lie in bed on my one day off in seven, just thinking about it. Atwood herself observed once that The Handmaid's Tale has "haunted" her in the thirty years since the book was published, although at the time it was an intensely productive but not self-reflective period. Funnily enough, it was the historian's talk at the end that really got my juices flowing. The result is a blog review a whole four months in advance of my annual Books I Read This Year list.

Although I had loved Atwood's short story "Bluebeard's Egg" as an undergraduate, I had gotten all the way through college AND graduate school without reading The Handmaid's Tale in either a feminist studies class or on my own. I really only knew the premise from the promos around the current Hulu series (now confirmed for a third season), of a dystopian future in which a violent theocracy uses women as reproductive vessels. I was enthralled with this book from the first few pages. I was struck initially by two things: 1) the narrating character's word play, which I assume came from Atwood herself and which is so prominent throughout the book that I can't pull out a single favorite passage, and 2) the way that the reader's view is blinkered, the environment and context revealed piecemeal, much like the main character's point of view is physically limited by her headdress and practically limited by the regime's control of (mis)information. Fragmentation comes up repeatedly in the story, from the flashbacks set between action "in the present" to the body parts mailed to defectors to the bits of recording scattered among dozens of cassette tapes.

I found the characters nuanced but not entirely knowable, which fits the setting in an oppressive society wrought with spies (::cough:: DDR, USSR), as well the style of writing with a narrator who is not omniscient. I particularly appreciated that Atwood had Offred tell Moira's story in Moira's voice, letting this female figure speak as herself in a culture that sought to silence women. I found Offred's reflection that she had responded to Finally, I thought about the passage of time. The table of contents contains seven "Nights," suggesting one week--of creation? By the narrator's description, the events in the present tense take place from early spring to late summer of one year. It was harder to tell how many years had elapsed since the Sons of Judah had taken over the country--perhaps three? And of course Offred's memories stretch back to her childhood in what sounded like the mid- to late twentieth century. Atwood's critiques of American culture and politics made me wonder what it would be like to read this book alongside Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for its expose of physical and chemical danger to the environment.

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