The pile of books read-but-not-yet-blogged is teetering and threatening to topple again. Here’s the oldest one in the pile (in terms of when I read it, not when it was written). Unfortunately it’s also the thinnest one in the pile.
Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is an exploration of what society could develop into as a result of widespread sterility, and a fundamentalist desire to control sex and anything sexual. It’s a story about society, not far in the future, where religious fanatics have gained control of the US society and reshaped it according to their will.
Individuals’ rights are severely curtailed and everybody is assigned a specific role from which they are not allowed to deviate. Women in particular have lost most of their freedom. By the time the book starts, women are all either wives, household servants, or childbearers for other women who cannot have children. (Fertility has suffered after some sort of nuclear accident or other environmental catastrophe, and is now the highest priority for all women.)
Offred, the narrator, is a Handmaiden, effectively a childbearing slave. Her life is one of restrictions and routine. She is allowed nothing except that which is prescribed. The book is presented as her diary, as she goes about her daily life of empty routine, boredom and frustration – and remembering (trying to remember) life as it was before, her child, her husband.
Not much really happens in a book, yet a great deal is said about society and about Offred’ life. The back story – how she, and society, got to where they are today – is uncovered piece by piece. This is sometimes a frustrating and confusing process, because of the large gaps in our knowledge. But as a whole I found it very well told and well written.
Commenters who are dissatisfied with the book complain either about how unrealistic the scenario is – which to me just means that they have not understood the meaning of satire – or about the language. The language is somewhat… non-standard in places: sentences have odd broken rhythms and repetitions. Possibly somewhat pretentious, but I thought it fit the story and the narrator’s state of mind. This was more work than reading a run-of-the-mill book of fiction perhaps, but well worth it: chilling, gripping, engrossing.
It is interesting to note that the book was first published just over 20 years ago, in 1985. It was a reaction to the then-current feminist debate about sexuality and pornography, in particular discussions about forbidding pornography for being demeaning to women. 20 years later it is not western feminists but Muslims who provide a more current backdrop. Their stated aim is likewise to protect women, but instead they curtail the freedom of those they claim to protect. The same kind of patriarchal ”for your own good“ rules abound in the book. Replace Christianity with Islam, and it probably gets close enough to some of the more repressive and fundamentalist Muslim societies today, where women have no right to property or to a job, or to walking in the streets on their own. Or, for an example from ”closer to home“ (in some sense) consider fundamentalist Christians’ attempts to control women’s reproductive rights.
But the book is more than just a dystopia about women’s rights. It’s a story about control, routine and emptiness; about humans being reduced to a single function. (Ironically a society that has forbidden pornography because it objectifies women, ends up objectifying them more than ever.) It’s about society’s unsuccessful attempts to stand still: even as they try to control everything and everybody, people find their ways to break the rules. Even those who are supposed to enforce the rules and set an example will break them if they get too restrictive.
This is one of the very best books I’ve read recently. I also liked Atwood’s Oryx and Crake a lot (it was the first of her books that I read). Now I’m wondering why it took me so long to discover her. Will have to buy more of her books, definitely.