So I have finished the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and I’ll tell you about it.
This is another dystropia, which is a negetive view of the future. In this book a Christian version of Islam has taken over the US, which forbids women to work, own property, read, or write. Another factor is that the birth rate has been declining, such that the human race (or so I thought, later I found out it was just caucasians) is becoming desperate. The government uses an obscure passage from Genesis, taken wildly out of context to build a system of ‘handmaids’. These are women who are forced to have sex and hopefully become pregnant by the husband of a woman who hasn’t had children for him. The passage they use is when Sarah tells her husband Abraham to take her servant girl and have children with her so that their line will continue. In the Bible this does not turn out well. In the Handmaid’s Tale, things get even worse. This is the story of one of the Handmaids, told in her own voice.
She talks about a kind of brainwashing process the handmaids go through at the beginning. The children they had before the regime are taken away from them. Handmaids are women who are viable for pregnancy, but have something negative in their past. Like being divorced, having an affair, or being a nun. After this period of ‘training’ they’re assigned to a household, where the handmaid lives with the family she’s trying to have children for, has sex with in a weird religious ceremony, and hopefully gets pregnant. She stays in each home for two years, and has three such assignments. If in those six years she fails to produce a healthy baby, she’s declared an Unwoman and mysteriously disappears.
This book is haunting, hypnotic, graphic, and very compelling. However, I didn’t catch Atwood’s point, if she was trying to make one. Unless it was that fighting abortion and pornography might not be taking us in a direction we want to go. I have heard feminists talk about this book as being, “A logical progression from our present circumstance”. This I do not agree with. In order to make this happen the regime had to simultaneously shoot the President and mow down Congress with machine guns, after which they quickly suspended the constitution and shot protesters on sight. Atwood talks about being slowly boiled alive without realizing it, but this story does not take place that way. A hostile take-over is not a logical progression, it’s a possible tragedy.
While this sounds like a sordid piece of anti-christian propaganda, on closer inspection is doesn’t stand up that way. The factions you hear about the ruling regime fighting are baptists, quakers, and catholics, along with gays, pro-lifers, pornographers, divorcees, and feminists. Atwood clearly points out where they have contorted the bible to say what they want, and elimated parts that don’t agree with their system. Since women aren’t allowed to read they can’t find out for themselves, and Bibles are kept locked up and are only to be read by high officials of the government. She does not point out the context of the original scripture about the handmaids, which I really wished she had. The only part that really worried me was at a women’s rally when an official reads the passages from Paul that women don’t like too much. Sadly, these were not taken out of context, but they were enacted to an extreme without any consideration for other passages that would temper the message. Still, it was freaky.
I enjoy reading good writing like this, but I can’t help wishing that someone with that much talent would write something beautiful.