the handmaid's tale book review

the handmaid’s tale book review

the handmaid’s tale by margaret atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the classic dystopian novels, sharing bookshelf space with Orwell’s 1984, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Margaret Atwood’s focus is less explicitly anti-Soviet as the other examples of this genre – the context is a religious totalitarian state rather than a State Socialist one – although the forms of oppression the state sponsors have been used by feudal monarchies, fascist and state socialist regimes as well as religious ones through the ages.

The story is set in Gilead, an area of the United States that has been taken over by religious fundamentalists – the actual religion isn’t made clear. The religious fundamentalists have staged a coup in response to a perceived decay in morality, and environmental damage which has lead to a dramatic fall in the birth rate. Members of the ‘old religions’ are purged, as are other undesirables, and a stratified society is established with each person being assigned to one of a small number of roles. At the top are the Commanders (always male), and their Wives, there are Guardians (some sort of military police force – male), fertile females become Handmaids (effectively breeding machines) and infertile ones become Marthas (domestic servants).

The book follows the fortunes of one of the handmaids. We see her playing out her assigned role, harbouring a hope that things will eventually change for the better, and suffering occasional flashbacks to the time before the coup.  Keep reading for more of The Handmaid’s Tale book review                            

themes in the handmaid’s tale by margaret atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale book review will now consider the two main themes in the book. The first covers the many forms of oppression that ruling elites have imposed on the masses over the years. Gilead is essentially a mash-up of many regimes of various types. As Margaret Atwood states in her Forward to the latest version of the book, all of the types of oppression described in the book have actually happened in real societies, and as such the book provides a powerful insight for the uninitiated into the methods the powerful have used to retain power. The second theme is how the oppressed, and even the oppressors, deal with a situation of such naked oppression.

forms of oppression

People love lists, we’re told. Well, I can’t think of a better way of handling this section of The Handmaid’s Tale book review than by providing a list of the types of oppression applied by the religious fundamentalists of Gilead, and attempting to find a real world situation where each type of oppression was actually applied. Let’s go – in no particular order..

Oppression specifically applied to women

  • Restricting visibility – the Handmaids are made to wear headdresses – kind of like hoodie hoods, but elongated at the front and stiff – such that their field of vision at the front is extremely restricted, and they have no peripheral vision – maybe horse blinkers might be a better analogy. The most obvious corollary would seem to me to be the burka, which has been reported to restrict vision and make the wearer feel cut off from the environment immediately around them. Wearing the burka has been mandatory in some Islamic societies – Taliban Afghanistan is one example – although in other Islamic societies it is up to the husband’s discretion whether a wife has to wear a burka.
  • Using women for breeding purposes – for many readers I’m sure this is the most shocking aspect of the book – each Commander and his wife are assigned a woman of fertile age (Handmaid) as a breeding machine. The Commander has sex with the Handmaid once a month in an elaborate ceremony with religious overtones. I can’t think of a perfect analogy for this, although the Nazis in Germany famously developed a breeding programme where fertile Aryan young women were paired with health Nazi males with an intent to develop master race babies.
  • Restricting the work and activities that women can do – In one scene in The Handmaid’s Tale, early in the fundamentalist’s establishment of Gilead, all of the women in an office are told to go home, they no longer have jobs. Their access to bank accounts is also removed. Saudi Arabia and some other fundamentalist Islamic regimes would come to mind in terms of still legally restricting what women can and can’t do. In 2017 women are still not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, although this is slated for change in 2018 due mainly, it is reported, to the cost to Saudi families of having to hire drivers to drive the female members of the family around. According to UN Women, “79 economies have laws that restrict the types of jobs that women can do. And husbands can object to their wives working and prevent them from accepting jobs in 15 economies.” And this doesn’t take into account social conventions and prejudices which have effectively achieved similar restrictions without the force of law.

oppression applied regardless of gender

The Handmaid’s Tale book review now considers cases where oppression is applied regardless of gender

  • Mandating types of dress and consumption according to position in society – In The Handmaid’s Tale, each rank is assigned a colour to wear, and handmaids are not allowed indulgences of various types. These laws are called Sumptuary Laws – “Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures in the matter of apparel, food, furniture, etc.”. As Wikipedia explains:  “Historically, they were laws that were intended to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies and morals through restrictions, often depending upon a person’s social rank, on their permitted clothing, food, and luxury expenditures.” In the late Middle Ages these laws were used as a way of restricting the conspicuous consumption of the rising bourgeoisie – if this class appeared wealthier than the ruling nobility it was feared it could undermine the nobility’s presentation of themselves as rich and powerful.
  • Killing those that don’t fit/are considered a threat – various types of undesirable from the elite’s perspective are killed and their bodies hung on hooks on ‘the wall’ for public display. Elites throughout the ages have of course killed people that threaten them – in medieval England it was customary to display the heads of those killed on pikes as a threat of the fate that would await anyone considering rebellion or transgressing one of the rules.
  • Spies – In the Handmaid’s Tale there are a group of spies called The Eyes that report on those transgressing the laws. Spies have been used by virtually all (all?) ruling elites of any stripe, up to the present day, to report on and monitor any internal elements that threaten their power.
  • Change of language – changing the meaning of words was of course a technique used in Orwell’s books – double-speak . In The Handmaid’s Tale xxx …… xxx . A modern use of this technique would be the definitions of the word ‘Freedom’ and ‘Democracy’ which are used in  very restrictive senses – to the extent that they become meaningless or mean the opposite of the true meaning of the words – by the liberal democratic elites of the capitalist world.
  • Collective ceremonies and violence – all elites organise collective ceremonies where they reinforce the values that form the basis of their power. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Handmaids are encouraged to take vengeance – i.e. rip apart and kill – a man accused of being a pedophile. The closest analogies for this that I can think of would be the communal stoning of adulterers used in some Islamic fundamentalist countries today, including Iran.
  • Changing a person’s name to imply ownership – Handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale relinquish their former names, and are known by a name that links them to their current Commander -eg ‘Of Commander’. In ancient Greece and Rome, and in the American and Caribbean slave states, slaves were given names by their masters.

Ok, so Gilead was pretty oppressive. How did the inhabitants of Gilead deal with this oppression?

dealing with oppression

Amongst the oppressed there were three main ways of dealing with their situation:

  • Escape – there was an underground movement that helped people to escape – in this case to Canada – via a network of safe houses.
  • Suicide – Fearing this possibility, the elites made it difficult for Handmaids to gain access to anything that might assist them in this project – compare with prisons in the developed world, for example – but some found a way despite this.
  • Resignation, whilst taking opportunities to rebel when safe – the handmaid we follow in the book takes this approach. She is outwardly compliant, although hateful of her oppressors. She will take risks within limits, and relishes any chance she can get to gain some power over her situation.

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to have been, in Gilead, any attempt to organise actual resistance, only escape. The handmaids had a resource that the elites needed – I wonder why more wasn’t made of that potential power…

Amongst the oppressors – we only have one example of an oppressor in the book, the Commander. Although he clearly benefits from the new status quo, the one thing that seems to trouble him is that his power over his handmaid isn’t complete. He feels like, as with a prostitute, that she is only performing her duties because she is forced to do so. He wants to believe that she actually wants him – he encourages her to spend time with him, wants her to kiss him ‘like she means it’, and takes her out on a ‘date’. Nice guy.

And now, finally to our actual review: The Handmaid’s Tale book review

the handmaid’s tale book review

The Handmaid’s Tale book review: so what do we make of the book? It’s a very well written, easy read, and contains plenty of food for thought and dinner party conversation. I must admit to not finding it particularly shocking – I guess a knowledge of history to some extent conditions you to the shocking things elites will do to retain power. And it isn’t feminist. Does it have to be? Why should a female author be expected to write a feminist book each time? One small niggle in my mind (aside from the lack of resistance) is the lack of children. Where did they go? The whole society seems organised to keep the birth rate up, and children are fetishised to an extent even today’s western societies would find extreme… but where do they go? There wasn’t one example throughout the book (at least that i can remember) where a child appeared other than at birth. No toddlers, no schools, no teenagers. Not a bad thing in my mind, but it does seem strange given the context.  My rating: 9/10.