The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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Geology daughter, a single mother with two infants and a teenager, and half-way through her PhD, obviously has time on her hands. She recently joined a book group, suggested they do The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which up to that stage she hadn’t read, and then according to her sister who went along with her, gave a rousing presentation. I asked her to write it up for me, and she has, and if you knew her you would know it could only be called:

Things I hate about the handmaid’s tale

Thanks to a nicely timed mini-series this book is having a public resurgence and so my book club (the meeting ground for middle aged women sans children) decided to review it – everyone liked it except me. I just couldn’t get past some major inconsistencies in the plot which totally undermined the story.

To sum it up, the story is set in post 1985 USA when far-right white Christians have mass murdered everyone in Congress and taken over most of the country, replacing the government with an extreme patriarchal, evangelist, totalitarian regime.

The birth rate of middle class Americans has been declining, following a series of environmental disasters, and the ‘handmaids’ of the title act as vessels or surrogates for infertile privileged women, apparently based on a precedent in the Old Testament.

So much here makes no sense scientifically. I’m not a big science fiction reader, but in my experience SF books tend to take a concept or a time period where history could change and then move on into their fiction, but this novel has no clear historical divergence point. Flashbacks into the handmaid’s memories of her mother’s life do not correlate with my knowledge of 1940-50 USA. I’m a scientist by trade, so I like facts and I find this lack of historical basis just research-lazy and really annoying to read.

There are also major geographical issues in the novel. During the Coup the handmaid travels for days to presumably the Canadian border, but when captured ends up back in the same town she has lived in before, full of memories of her daughter. Geographically this is extremely unlikely- if I was ruler I would not put prisoners in their home town where memories would make them resistant and they would have increased knowledge of buildings, people etc. Also does the regime cover just this little town? No, it covers everywhere to at least the border so plenty of presumably bigger towns and cities to choose from.- it’s weird.

So many issues with the character Moira. Moira is an old friend of the handmaid’s (from before the takeover) who the handmaid meets again in the red centre, and later working in the brothel. But 1. Handmaids are women who have proved fertility by having a live child, and Moira is childless so, no, Moira should not be a handmaid. 2. Handmaids are fertile, and in the brothel Moira states she has had her tubes tied (something only available to women “before”) so again- obviously she wouldn’t be a handmaid.

I have more issues- like why are the women suddenly infertile in just three years? Where have all the non-white people gone? That’s 60% (??) of USA disappeared. Why are the Japanese tourists seemingly not bothered by infertility or environmental issues?

People are hailing this as a feminist book and I think that’s nonsense. The main character is so wishy washy, and the two strongest female characters are both punished to die inconceivably horrible deaths- Moira in the brothel where women do not live longer than three years, and the handmaid’s mother in some toxic clean-up zone (where your skin may literally peel off).

Furthermore, the epilogue is set at an academic conference 200 years in the future where all the speakers appear to be male, and they make fun of women (calling the female rescue rail road the “frail-road”). Actually, that’s pretty much the same as academic conferences today.

This book indisputably highlights a number of key topics effecting women, however it is not a pro-feminist novel, by which I mean it fails to show women as capable of equality. Two major topics which appeal to present day audiences are Attwood’s predictions that the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism will be used to further a far right Christian agenda and limit civil liberties, and that the “protection” of women will be used as an excuse to limit their freedoms. For anyone who saw the recent image of Trump and seven wealthy white men signing the Planned Parenthood restrictions, the concept of the White right controlling women’s reproductive rights is not science fiction.

 

Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985

By coincidence, Kim at Reading Matters has also just posted a review (here)

 

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15 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

  1. Is there something in the air? Ten minutes after this appeared in my in-box, Kim’s landed. (Ah, I see you’ve referenced that at the end).

    I’m not sure that I can comment on this. I read and loved the book when it came out and I don’t recollect all these inconsistencies etc. I’ll just say two things. Atwood, as I recollect, calls her book “speculative fiction” not “science fiction”. I think she had specific reasons for making the distinction but this may not address your daughter’s issue.

    The other thing is that I’m not sure of the term “pro-feminist”. Did Atwood call her book that? I would call it feminist though because Atwood is highlighting a society in which woman are subservient, are controlled by the state for the state’s purposes. I don’t think a “feminist” book HAS so show women as capable of equality (to me that’s a given). It just has to highlight a feminist issue. It could show women as capable of equality if it wants to argue that society is seeing women as not capable, but it could also assume that as a given and focus on showing disempowered women and what that means (for the women, for society, for men, for whomever/whatever the novelist wants to target). Does that make sense? I’m probably not as articulate as I could be – and it is a LONG time since I read the book. I did though find it chilling.

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  2. It’s too long since I read this book to argue with this … except to say that I read it before the Taliban, and then the world saw the way the Taliban implemented so many of these repressions against women it was spooky. Afghan women refugee (who had been educated middle class women with careers in Kabul) told me of their utter disbelief that the repressions could be happening; I’ve read about similar things happening in Iran after the Islamic revolution. Whatever about the facts and the geography, Atwood got it right that religious fundamentalists always target women.

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    • I believe Atwood’s point is that western, christian fundamentalists are exactly the same as muslim fundamentalists, or would be if only they could get away with it.

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  3. Go Victoria! I must admit it does irritate me when SF or SF does not follow through on logical storylines, especially scientific ones. It seems to me that the credibility of speculation comes from highlighting relatable accurate fact and veering logically off from there. The cleaner this line, the more powerful the story. I have no idea how Attwood classifies this story but i do know that ive recently heard people that have become interested due to the series call it ‘pro feminist’ and Victoria’s right, it isn’t.

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    • You probably should have written “Go Geology Sister”, but I’m just very pleased after all these years to have you write in with a comment! I’m afraid I’m with Lisa and Sue (Whispering Gums) above. Bearing in mind that Atwood herself claims it is not a ‘feminist’ novel, I nevertheless believe that the “pro-feminism” lies in the portrayal of women’s disadvantage – the “speculative fiction” aspect is just an exaggeration of what happens today, not an invention.

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    • What exactly is “pro feminist”? According to Wikipedia, pro-feminism means supporting feminism, and is usually used for men who support feminism. As Atwood is a woman, I guess I’d agree with you that it’s not pro feminist!! Otherwise, if we mean it’s about making a feminist argument, which is how I saw it, then I stand by my original comment that it does. We’ll have to agree to differ it seems.

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  4. I’m not sure how this novel would be categorized as feminist other than it’s taught in every women’s studies class and read by every feminist as a warning to not become complacent. I never would have imagined scenarios like women who have miscarriages being charged with murder, being forced to hold a funeral for miscarried tissues, and being probed (not a regular ultra-sound, but a PROBE) before being allowed to have an abortion. These are just a few issues women are facing in the States. Somehow, the company Hobby Lobby fought to claim they are a person, not a corporation, which means that they can claim that due to religion, they will not pay for their employees birth control, regardless of the reason for its use. I mean, it’s sheer madness, and the “science” in the book aside, it’s a terrifying look at what’s not that far away in the future.

    However.

    I do really enjoy how your daughter clearly picks out what she likes and doesn’t like and explains why. Gets right to things!

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    • Thanks Melanie, I was hoping you would respond. SF has always had a role to play in political debate by extrapolating trends or even just possibilities from the present and it is clear this is what Atwood has done with the oppression of women. It seems The Handmaid’s Tale was important in second wave feminism and hopefully the TV series which is about to screen in Australia will prove equally important to younger feminists.

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      • I almost wonder if The Handmaid’s Tale is more about making women into feminists than being a feminist novel. I think it’s meant to scare women enough that they seek out ways that things are not equal that perhaps they’ve been ignoring for a long time. I mean, even Republicans claiming birth control shouldn’t be covered by health insurance don’t have a dozen kids, which means somewhere along the way they’re using some method to stop reproducing. I believe it’s the “I’ve got mine, now fuck you” theory of how to run a government. Pardon the language.

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      • I think Abortion (and Climate Control) have been caught up as symbols in the battle of right vs left. The problem is that as positions harden scenarios like Handmaid’s start to look more and more realistic.

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  5. hello! yes you’re all probably right about the pro-feminist thing. I don’t know anything about literary classifications ( a lot about rock classifications though); the concept of the book being feminist was been spoken around a lot by the common people and it irks me. If you imagine not knowing if the writer was male or female then the book becomes really creepy….yes- i’m always happy to disagree on things.

    I did look up the “speculative fiction ” tag- and it seems to be a classification used in this case specifically to get out of being scientifically viable…. some other nice reviews around which rant on about it 🙂

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