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Old 30th Jun 2008, 20:51   #6
laughs in the face of fear
kirsty's Avatar
Join Date: 9 Aug 2007
Location: Oxford
Posts: 991
Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

I thought I'd copy and paste my post on THT straight from my blog.

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS. I'll try and blank them, but in case I miss any...

I first read this book when I was 16, and at high school. I was studying it for my CSYS English dissertation on alternative worlds. I loved it from the word go, and have read it countless times since.

The novel is set in a time chronologically contemporaneous with now (or with 1985, when it was published, but it could equally be 200 but in an alternative world where America has been overthrown by a theocracy and it now The Republic of Gilead, and lives are now to be lived according to strict rules. People are divided and alloted social status on the basis of gender, colour, caste, and fertility. Men are the important ones - all men are now in the military with the top rank being Commander of the Faith. They are given Wives who have to dress in blue, like the Virgin Mary. If they have Daughters, the Daughters must dress in white until marriage. These men, too, are given a Handmaid, who dress in red with a white head-dress that obscures their periphiral vision: they can only see directly ahead, or down. Handmaids tend to be women who have broken "gender laws". They have complained, they have protested, but they have to be fertile. They are there to bear more children for the Husband. They have no identity of their own, they take the names of their masters. Our narrator, our Handmaid, is Offred. Of-Fred.

For those women who break more serious gender laws, are lesbians, are sterile, are widows, or were nuns are officially Unwomen. They are not useful to the regime - they can't bear children. They are sent out into the Colonies - the wilderness - to die a slow death from radiation sickness. Homosexual men - gender traitors - are also sent out there to die with them. All of them, men and women, have to wear grey dresses.

There are Jezebels. They are confined to secret clubs for the pleasure of the Husbands and their guests - they dress in provocative outfits from the Time Before. Cheerleaders outfits, school uniforms, and so on. They have make up. There is The Wall, where dissidents uncovered by the Eyes (the secret police force) are hung as a deterrent to other possible rule-breakers.
Offred had a husband and a young daughter before the regime change happened. The three of them tried to flee to Canada but they were caught. Our narrator - whose real name we never learn, though it's suggested it might be June - is sent to be a Handmaid, their daughter is adopted by a Commander of the Faith and his Wife, and we never learn the fate of her husband, Luke. She watches everyday to see if he is hung on the Wall, but he isn't there.

Offred isn't getting pregnant and if she doesn't soon then there is a fear that she will be deemed sterile and an Unwoman. Men, you see, cannot be sterile. Only women. She is advised to secretly take another lover, Nick, to increase her chances of conceiving. But... is Nick an Eye? What about Ofglen, her neighbour Handmaid, with whom she has been illegally communicating?

It is too easy to say that this is a feminist novel, though it is. Not only does it make stark warnings about the position of women in society, but it also attacks fundamentalist religion, and the way that women are literally represented in the Bible and other religious texts, which is the reason that it is one of the Top 100 most complained about books in terms of studying it in school in America. It is one of my most favouritest books in the whole world though, and opened the floodgates of my Atwood-Love. In The Handmaid's Tale she manages to show the full gamult of womanhood by showing everything women were and could be before the theocracy intervened. It showed the potential of power of women, and how they needed to be repressed for the ultra-religious society to work. Women, for the rulers, were always the spanner in the works. It's a call to metaphorical arms to women to reach their potential, and to make their own lives on their own terms. Much joyous fist-waving ensues from me.

I don't care if Margaret Atwood signs books with a fancy machine, I think she's amazing.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Other Stories | Books 10
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