Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. I was a junior in high school that year and I wish I could say I was with it enough to know about the book but I didn’t even know who Margaret Atwood was back then. Not until I got to college and took a literature by women class did I learn about her. We did not read Handmaid’s Tale in that class. Instead, we read Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. Surfacing is tied for first with Alias Grace as my favorite Atwood book. Over the years I have managed to read Atwood’s poetry, a good many of her essays, and all but two of her novels, The Robber Bride and The Handmaid’s Tale.
I don’t know why I waited so long to read Handmaid’s Tale especially since I went to the dark side in college and became a feminist. Maybe it is because the book became so very popular and for awhile, especially when the movie came out (I did see that) everyone was reading the book. I am not generally accused of hopping onto bandwagons, so I stood aside and watched it drive on by. And after that it just became one of those books I needed to get to.
Well, I finally got to it. I was kind of disappointed. I liked the book and everything, don’t get me wrong. I found it intense and frightening, a story that is still all too possibly real. The writing is good, the story moves along and I found myself fearing for the safety of Offred. I hated the ending. That might be a big part of my disappointment. When I closed the book I had a “that’s all?” sort of feeling. I was expecting more, something bigger, something more damning of the way women are treated. But the style of the book, while not a diary, is diary-like and sort of documentary in a way. And even though I had feared for Offred, I didn’t get an emotional payoff at the end. Having the final chapter be a conference in the future on the history of what happened during the time of the book featuring a discussion on the provenance of the “tale” I had just read is such a bland way to wrap things up. The end needed punch, something like Orwell’s 1984 where Winston ends up loving Big Brother. Not that I want Offred to end loving the totalitarian state of Gilead, but something with a bit of oomph would have been more satisfactory.
Ending aside, Atwood does a fantastic job of creating Gilead and of explaining how it all came about. What resonated most for me was this simple bit:
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
Isn’t that how a good many horrors happen? These lines made me think of WWII and the people living practically next door to concentration camps who said they had no idea what was going on. I like to think I would notice something like a concentration camp or even the small changes towards a totalitarian society but when I read books like Handmaid’s Tale there is a small part of me that worries I wouldn’t notice, that I would ignore. I don’t know what I fear more, the possibility of being a person who ignores or living in a society like Gilead.
The book isn’t all doom and gloom, well it is, but there are moments of wry Atwood humor:
The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say, quoting another Center motto, warning us away from such objects. And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen.
“Pen Is Envy” Ha!
The Handmaid’s Tale has made its way onto high school and college reading lists. I am very glad for that because it seems a good book to foster discussion about women, religion, and politics. The book is jam-packed with juicy discussable things from the big and obvious to the small and subtle. I will leave you with one of my favorite subtle bits, one that gives me a chill every time I read it:
Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.
Now I suppose I should get around to reading Robber Bride so I can be all caught up on Atwood novels. Perhaps a book to put on my 2013 reading goals list.