Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

Follow-Up: A Single Story

A year ago, I wrote about my search for various things, including stories about single ladies living their lives without worrying about their singleness:

But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage.  This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending.  I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.

This turned out to be a bit difficult, such that I am returning to it now with what little bit of insight I’ve gleaned over the past year.  Since readers and friends all suggested one or two books at most, and that with some amount of struggle, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed an entire section at the library or bookshop.  Initial suggestions included:

Miss Marple stories – Agatha Christie
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
The Thirteenth Tale – Dianne Setterfield
The Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux (autobiography)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – Mark Twain

It’s a small field, one friend suggested, because for centuries, a lady’s singleness didn’t just mean loneliness, awkwardness amongst the society of couples, or agonizing over whether she was fulfilling her telos.  It meant being without provider or protector, in a time when it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide for or protect themselves.  Thus, she said, the only stories of that type to be expected would focus on nuns – living within the provision and protection of an abbey – or great queens, who held enough power to concern themselves with affairs and interests beyond their marital state and household management.

I later learned that, unbeknownst to me, The Atlantic had published an editorial on the same subject about a month before I addressed it.  Ms. McKinney’s concerns were somewhat different from mine; she seemed to call for a story with a female protagonist and no love subplots whatsoever, which is a rather formidable task.  She made a few suggestions, not all of them equally hopeful:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Housekeeping –
Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Help
– Kathryn Stockett
The Awakening –
Kate Chopin
The Devil Wears Prada –
Lauren Weisberger
Salvage the Bones –
Jesmyn Ward

More useful than McKinney’s musings were the comments.  Normally, the comments section of any given article online is a wasteland of hatred, name-calling, and poor grammar, but these responses contained thoughtful criticism and a plethora of recommended titles.  Here are a few comments that struck a chord:

Lasting love is perennially hard to find… for both men and women, so it makes for good story and character development in literature.

Girls too young to be interested in boys made good stories. 

I think there are probably more love-plotless books in the YA category than the adult category

It’s not spite [on the part of publishers]. They won’t choose it simply because it doesn’t appeal to them, so they think it won’t sell. It doesn’t appeal to them because they aren’t used to it. They aren’t used to it because there are NONE IN THE SYSTEM.

I also disagree with your premise that self-discovery is always a solitary process. Why can’t a woman’s process of self-discovery include a little romance? That doesn’t mean that the entire purpose of her life is now to be married and have kids.

…To some extent human biology, and psychology, cares about reproduction because otherwise the species dies. So it’s likely at least some characters will have a drive for heterosexual love or sex unless there is a reason none of them do. (It’s a children’s book or they’re all children, it’s set in a monastery or convent, they’re all gay, it’s some kind of futuristic unisex setting where people reproduce by cloning, etc) But this isn’t really a male/female issue. I think there’s likely few novels, for adults, with male protagonists where love or sex has absolutely no role.

The author overlooks the fact that in the past looking for a man was more than about looking for love; it was about looking for a secure future–the equivalent of a job. For this reason many female authors such as Jane Austen are quite unsentimental when it comes to husband hunting…

I grew up reading the lives of saints. That is as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to meet. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a strength of character that allowed them to face the unknown, challenge norms – even lead men into battle if that is what God called them to do.

Yes, we need more female protagonists that represent the modern woman. No, I don’t expect to find them in the Victorian Era.

I went through the various recommendations to see if they were, indeed, what I was looking for.  Admittedly, I am working from secondhand sources, because I wanted to share the possibilities before reading through all of them; precedent suggests that I wouldn’t have posted this for another 5 years if I read them all first.  But based on Goodreads, the following books show some promise in depicting women whose stories are not romances:

The Crow Trap (and other tales of detective Vera Stanhope) – Ann Cleeves
A Field of Darkness
– Cornelia Read
Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
Clan of the Cave Bears/Valley of Horses – Jean Auel
Deed of Paksenarrion Trilogy – Elizabeth Moon
Friday – R. Heinlein
Titan/Wizard/Demon – John Varley
Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Little Bee – Chris Cleave
The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf

Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to report back on how happy or fulfilled these characters are.

Please let me know if you have any additions, corrections, or thoughts on this list!