Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale - Review

Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Source: Used Book Store

Goodreads Summary:

In this multi-award-winning, bestselling novel, Margaret Atwood has created a stunning Orwellian vision of the near future. This is the story of Offred, one of the unfortunate “Handmaids” under the new social order who have only one purpose: to breed. In Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships, Offred’s persistent memories of life in the “time before” and her will to survive are acts of rebellion. Provocative, startling, prophetic, and with Margaret Atwood’s devastating irony, wit, and acute perceptive powers in full force, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once a mordant satire and a dire warning.

My thoughts:

This book is moving, powerful, thought provoking, and scary.  I am still thinking about this story, and feel it will stay with me always.

The main character, Offred, is handmaiden to a Commander, and we see her life in bits and piece- her memories of the time before, her life as a Handmaid, her times with the Commander, with Serenda Joy who is the Commanders Wife, much as she glimpses her life in bits and pieces around her white wings.  She is not happy, yet knows she is better off then the the old women, and the Handmaidens that have messed up, who go where the Unwives go, the Colonies.  These people are forced to clean radioactive waste and live in squallor, knowing that in a few years they will die from the exposure.  She could also be a Martha, one of the domestics that clean and cook for the families.  Yet Offred is freedomless, forced to be a breeding machine for the privileged elite who cannot produce children. 

Handmaids are not allowed to read, although since they were the first wave of women forced into this life, many of them are college graduates and can read, such as Offred. But to open a book and actually read could cause them to have a hand cut off.  Other offenses could lead to being hanged on the Wall. They also cannot drink or smoke, or have caffiene, they need to keep their bodies pure and clean for the purpose of childbirth.  Even their names are changed, to show the ownership of the men who they are serving. Offred = of Fred. They have three chances with three different Commanders, living with one Commander a few months before moving on if the union does not prove fruitful, to get pregnant, and if doesn't happen, they are Salvaged or sent to the Colonies.

Offred only has her memories of her dead husband and redistributed child, to keep her occupied when not shopping, sitting in her room, or servicing the Commander. It freaked me out more to read that the Handmaid must put her head on the stomach of the Wife and hold her hands as the act was happening. The Commander she lives with though, seems to be sort of liberal, and feel as claustrophobic as Offred, and invites her to clandestinely meet him in his study, to play Scrabble, read and talk. He was growing on me, until the one night he takes her outside bounds, disguised as a Wife, to a Club, where the women are dressed provactively, and he tells her that men need variety.  In the times past he said, women dressed in different outfits to provide that variety, but now since they all dressed the same, the Handmaids in red, Marthas in green, Wives in blue, that men now needed different women to create the variety.

At this club, Offred meets her old college roommate, that she had been envisioning creating havoc as she did at the center where they were trained and indoctrinated into being Handmainds.  Her friend Moira had escaped, but was now a girl at the Club, a prostitute that doesn't get paid, just there to create "variety" for the men.  She was no longer fighting the system, merely surviving it.

At the behest of Serena Joy, Offred sleeps with their driver, Nick, in the hopes of creating a baby.  Serena Joy thinks maybe the Commander is sterile, and she really wants Offred to have a baby for Serena Joy.  For Offred and Nick to do this, the consequences could be death.  This was to be a one time thing, but Offred continues the affair in secret, and finally believes she is pregnant.

Now comes the only part of the book I didn't like - Offred is taken from the home forcibly, in the black van that portends death or life in the Colonies.  The reader is left with a mystery: Was Nick an Eye, turning her in for their affair, or was he part of the underground resistance group, Mayday, and helping her escape? I like concrete endings, and I am choosing to believe that he helped Offred escape, where she would try to make it to England, where women are allowed to be themselves. 

What makes this book so haunting is that it doesn't seem like something that would never happen, in fact when one looks back at human history, it doesn't seem like an impossibility, with all the atrocities that have happened in the past. Let's hope it never does.

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