Book Club: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Like all women cautiously observing America's politics, my book club recently read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

There are SO MANY THINGS to say about this book! If you keep scrolling down below the photo, you are giving permission for me to spoil the book, because this is going to be full of spoilers.


First of all, like all of Margaret Atwood's dystopian futures, this one seems frighteningly possible. You read it and think, "yes, this could happen." Then you read more and think, "that could happen, too." In fact, I think the only thing that keeps us truly safe from a Handmaid's Tale-style takeover is that it was brilliantly planned and executed in the novel, and I don't think today's Men's Rights Activists are capable of this level of organization.

Plus, a clean execution of the removal of female rights also depends on electronic funds being the only way people access money, so as long as cash holds on we have some modicum of safety.

Phew.

Okay, now let's talk about Luke, her husband pre-takeover. He appears to be a pretty solid, egalitarian-type guy. They both have good careers and independence and I got the impression reading it that they both were invested in equal care of their child.

Yet, once she loses her job and access to her funds, there are some quiet and incredibly disturbing moments. He comforts her, saying it will be alright and that he will take care of her. When I read that, it felt wrong. Upsetting. Because he shouldn't be soothing her. He should be furious. He should be making plans to escape. This also bothers her, but she is too afraid to ask because she needs him to survive.

How about Serena Joy? What a fascinating woman! Someone who once was a key public figure in the movement, now relegated to home life. She must live the life that she preached, and she clearly hates it.

Nick! What a mystery. I believe that he was a part of the resistance all along, but of course there is just enough ambiguity that this may not be the case. I was so happy for her to have the small solace of her nights with him, enjoying her small rebellion, and yet so afraid the whole time that she was securing a terrible future for herself.

My book club read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It is brilliant, terrifying, and fascinating.

Here's something: you know a society is just the worst when living as a prostitute in the brothel seems better than being any other female role. The rich ladies get married off as teenagers and seem to be unable to leave the house. The handmaids are basically cattle, given the "choice" of being walking wombs or terrible death. At least the prostitutes don't have to pretend that they serve some holy purpose. At least they don't have to live with their rapists and their wives.

The women designated as cooks and housecleaners may actually have it the best. It seems that they just do their job and don't have to be raped at all (although who knows). They are comfortable enough, certainly, to pass some judgement on the handmaids. It isn't clearly stated, but it seems that only women of colour are housekeepers.

Speaking of rape, in the book, Offred says that it's not rape because she had a choice. "Not much of a choice, but a choice." I will state the obvious and say that when your choice is between death or unwanted sex, it's not actually a choice. Either this is a product of the book being written in the 80s, or it's Offred trying to mentally justify her life and make it seem less bad.

Offred herself is a magnificent character. She is clearly a strong, feminist woman, and she has many flaws. She sometimes seems to believe the rhetoric of her oppressors. She doesn't hug her best friend for a month after she comes out. She is complicated in her attempt to survive and maintain dignity and imperfect in her judgements of others.

Confession: I didn't figure out the way their names worked (that they are "of" the man they are living with) until she met Ofcharles. Offred and Ofglen just seemed like weird names. Not only are they stripped of their previous names, but they don't even get a name that follows them through life.

Two more notes of brilliance in the book:

The academic speech at the end. It is jarring to suddenly shift to an academic analysis of Offred's story, and it also more tightly draws this world into our current understanding of the world. There is one part where the speaker cautions his audience to not judge this society too harshly, citing the many stresses they were under. It reminded me of the academic rhetoric now when we discuss other cultures or past societies' terrible treatment of women. We are always cautioned not to use our Western standards, or current standards, to judge them, as if there is no standard of humanity to which we must all be held, regardless of when or where we live.

The second moment of brilliance is the arrival of the Japanese tourists. You suddenly realize that the whole world isn't like this! Not even the whole country! And it's not even a closed-off society like North Korea, it's open. People are coming, seeing this horror show, and then walking away with some interesting photos of a strange culture. Nobody does anything.

Nobody does anything when they see it with their own eyes, and then in the future, academics suggest they not be judged.

Welcome to humanity.


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