Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Everyman’s Library
Publication Date: October 17, 2006 (originally 1985)
Hardcover: 392 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No. Pookas are mythological…but we’re not biblical.
Pre-Post Note: I finished this book and began writing the review before the 48 Hour Book Challenge. I didn’t have a chance until now to complete it. If the timeline seems a little wonky (I’ve now posted 6 book reviews since “The Elite”), that’s why.
Weirdly, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has a lot in common with the last book I read, “The Elite.” I didn’t read them back-to-back because of this – it just kind of happened.
Both “The Elite” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are set in future, dystopian versions of the United States, where society is organized into castes and women are denied basic rights and freedoms. They are so much alike, in fact, that I’m certain Cass is an Atwood fan and that she intended pieces of her novel to be an homage to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I had a complete nerd freak-out when I realized that “Ilea,” the new name for the United States in “The Elite” is just the middle chunk of “Gilead,” the name for the U.S. in Atwood’s book. It made me see Kiera Cass in a new light. The woman is truly multifaceted. She’s capable of subtle, dignified allusions – but she’s also made videos like this one:
In the videos, Cass dons ridiculous wigs – some black, some blonde, some red; some curly, some straight, some short, some long (but no mullets or mohawks) – and pretends to be different contestants in “The Selection,” competing for Prince Maxon’s heart.
Can you picture Margaret Atwood doing that? It’d never happen. Plus, she’s already got some pretty intense hair of her own, sans wig — and she knows it. Here’s an image of her for comparison — and her self-portrait (I like that she’s chosen to present herself as a mythical being. Those who aren’t, must pretend):
Despite the structural similarities, the tone of the two books is wildly different. “The Elite” is light & fluffy and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is dark and dense. The world-building and the politics are much, much more sophisticated in the latter. Atwood’s world is thorough and frighteningly believable. The castes aren’t a product of some ill-formed war and the levels aren’t based on professions. Rather, everything has its foundation in the Bible.
The new government in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a totalitarian, Christian theocracy. Their goal? To find lost morals and get back to “traditional” roots. To do so, they created the castes, which are different depending on one’s gender.
For males, there are Guardians (of the Faith), who are basically security guards; Angels, who are soldiers fighting the “good” fight on the battlefield, protecting and expanding Gilead’s borders; Eyes, who are spies (sp-“eyes”) or detectives (“private eyes”) that patrol the home-front to make sure that no one’s violating the Law; and finally, Commanders (of the Faithful), who are in charge. As is tradition for those in charge, Commanders seem to do nothing save for blustering about, taking advantage of their station. There are also those who are so low that they have no caste. These are men who subscribe to the wrong faith or who are attracted to the “wrong” gender (Quakers, Baptists, homosexuals, doctors who performed abortions (before they were illegal) and are being charged in the present for “crimes” committed in the past). They are either killed and hanged on the Wall for all to see, or are sent off to the Colonies where they work shoveling toxic waste until they die (which, given the fumes, doesn’t take long). Gilead’s God is a vengeful God. He is to be feared and obeyed.
For women, in reverse order, there are Wives, who are married to the Commanders; Daughters, who are the children of the Commanders and their Wives (sometimes biological, sometimes “adopted”); Aunts, who teach women how to act properly and prepare them for “service” (and who are allowed to read, a rare exception); Econowives, who are married to low-ranking men; and Marthas, who are older, infertile women, forced into the position of Domestics. Like the unplaced men, there are also unplaced women, known either as Unwomen, who are political dissidents or women who have become useless & serve no “purpose” (lesbians, widows, nuns – those without a man to tether them to allow them to participate in society) or Jezebels (prostitutes who exist for the Commanders’ pleasure). Unwomen are either killed or shovel toxic waste (the same as a death sentence). Working as a Jezebel is a way to escape colonial exile.
Then, there are the Handmaids. Their status is uncertain. They perform a vital function but because of that, they’re dangerous. They can’t be allowed to know their value, so they must exercise submission at all times, knowing that if they fail to perform their function, they’ll be instantaneously shipped to the Colonies (or worse). They exist as vessels – wombs for the Commanders’ seed. Many of the Wives are older and infertile but the Bible commands the Faithful to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). It’s also a matter of survival: there aren’t many healthy births anymore, not only due to the aforementioned infertility, but also because of the way humans have polluted the Earth. Birth defects are common. Many babies are born deformed. They’re referred to as “Unbabies” and they either die or are made to “disappear.” The small number of unblemished babies that survive are called “Keepers.” Once a Handmaid produces a child, she’s not allowed to keep it. As Unmarried women, Handmaids are considered “unfit.” The children are “adopted” by Commanders and their Wives, and after the Handmaid produces one child with a couple, she’s placed in a different home with a different couple and made to try again. But it gets worse.
The method of conception also has a biblical precedent. It comes from the story of Rachel, Jacob, and Bilhah (Rachel’s maid). Rachel is having trouble conceiving, so she says to her husband, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 1-3). So when the ritualistic attempts to produce children occur, the Wife lies down on the bed, facing upwards with her legs spread, the Handmaid lies between them, also facing upwards, and the Commander descends upon the two women, entering the Handmaid while the Wife holds her hands as if they’re bound by manacles.
The Handmaids are also stripped of their real names. Every Handmaid takes on her Commander’s first name, preceded by the preposition “of.” The protagonist is “Offred.” In Offred’s previous life, she was a wife and mother (as well as holding down a job). Her husband (Luke) was taken from her (she has no idea where he is or even if he’s still alive) and her daughter was taken from her, as well, when they were found trying to flee to Canada at the beginning of the regime switch, before things got truly horrific. Even if they hadn’t attempted to leave, Offred still would have lost them. Her marriage had been nullified, given that Luke was previously married and divorced; the Church does not approve of divorce, nor does it recognize second marriages as legitimate. Her previous child was “adopted” by an unknown Commander and his Wife.
Much is uncertain: Is Offred still fertile? (she’s not the youngest of the Handmaids and doesn’t have many years left). Will she be a good little doobie & continue to play by the rules, or will she escape? Will she ever see Luke & her daughter again? Alternately, will she decide life’s no longer worth living? Steps have been taken to prevent Handmaids from committing suicide (it’s a sin and a great temptation), but she lusts after knives she sees the Marthas using in the kitchen and sharp objects the Commander’s Wife employs in the garden.
And here’s the biggest uncertainty of all – the one that I was most intrigued by: How in the hell is “The Handmaid’s Tale” going to be made into a ballet?! For this is half of the reason why I picked up the book in the first place.
I would’ve read it anyway. I’m a pretty big Margaret Atwood fan. Not in the sense that I’ve read everything she’s ever written – but in the sense that everything I have read, I’ve LOVED. Everything that flows from her fingertips is thoughtful and strange and gorgeous. She can do no wrong. “The Blind Assassin” and “The Year of the Flood” are some of my favorite reads. Up until now, however, I couldn’t really declare my love in public – because inevitably, whenever I did, someone would ask me about “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And I’d have to answer, “I haven’t read it.” They’d then look at me as if my love was just puppy love – but it wasn’t. It was (and is) rabbit love: both passionate (I know you’ve heard of how quickly we multiply) and real (rabbits are happiest when they’re part of a “bonded pair”). If I could marry Margaret Atwood… well, I’d think about it, at least. Coming from a Pooka who’s already happily bonded, that’s saying something.
I knew I wouldn’t let the “The Handmaid’s Tale” go unread forever. I just didn’t know when I’d take the leap. All that ambiguity was erased last week when I read that it’s being turned into a ballet.
The announcement was, in equal parts, exciting and confusing. I yearned to see it performed (despite the 18+ hour drive to Winnipeg and how much I hate being cooped up in the car) but from what I’d heard of the plot, it didn’t seem like a story that would translate easily to dance. After reading it, I’m no less excited or confused.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a thought piece. It’s all reflection and very little action. There’s plenty of description; those in charge of scenery and costume design will have it easy. But what of the actual steps? There’s a lot of enforced conformity, so many of the dancers could be militant, doing the same thing all at once, while Offred is a spot of grace and fluidity (when she’s not being observed). And they could write in a dramatic, frenzied coup – although it really seemed more quietly insidious and political: the freezing of bank accounts doesn’t have much POP to it. The sex scenes could be transformed into something interesting, a la Center Stage:
But that involves much more creativity than the sex scenes in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Those in the latter are one position – a sort of “wham, bam, thank you ma’am,” minus the “thank you.”
And even those slim opportunities are rare. Most of the prose sounds more like this: “Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden… a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently” (175). I hardly think Canada’s Royal Winnepeg Ballet will cast dancers in the roles of flowers and trees, as if it were a pre-school play. I really, really, really want to know what they’re going to do.
Is a trip to Winnepeg from Massachusetts to see a ballet really that crazy? Writing this post, I’ve come close to convincing myself that it’s not. I wonder if I can convince a friend of the same. A road trip may be in my future…
While I did enjoy reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I liked it less than some of Atwood’s other works. Her style is usually wandering and tangential, but it rarely feels like it, and I felt it here. And that could very well be intentional (Offred’s stuck and so are you). If you haven’t ever read her, pick up “The Blind Assassin” first. If you’re like me, and you already know you like Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is worth a read… but you might want to do so in the winter. Things that are slow-moving seem less out-of-place then.
Pooka Rating: 3.75 out of 5 Nibbles