Monday, June 17, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)

Until this point, I have never experienced Margaret Atwood as a novelist. I am a little embarrassed by that, because everyone raves about her. I was thrilled, then, to start her most popular and one of her most-liked novels, The Handmaid's Tale. Like so many books, it has been on my radar for a very long time and I have owned it for a number of years. I decided that this summer would be the time to read it. I am really, really torn about how I feel about this book. I have been pondering it for hours, which is pretty unusual for me, because generally I can immediately decide if I like something.

Okay, so the book takes place in what I assume is the late 1990s; the United States no longer exists. It has been replaced by a hyperreligious state, known as Gilead--this is Atwood asking us to imagine what would happen if fundamentalist Christians with a very strict, narrow approach to the Bible assumed total control.

Offred finds herself in this new dystopia (which is a word that so perfectly describes what Gilead is; in the advent of The Hunger Games and Divergent, I think the word gets tossed about a little too often) where women are incredibly subjugated; they aren't allowed to hold jobs or read or do anything without spousal permission. She is a Handmaid--a woman whose sole function is to get pregnant in order to supply a child to a married couple who cannot. I think that should be sufficient in terms of plot summary--at this point, if your attention hasn't been grabbed, then don't bother reading the book.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this dystopia is that Offred lived in the time before it existed; the trope of the genre in recent years has been a powerful teen girl who is born into the dystopian society and rises up to destroy it--she has no memory of what the old ways were because those old ways are far in the past. This is not the case; in fact, Offred is maybe the anti-Katniss--she fell victim to the transition and has no intention of fighting to end the regime. Certainly by the end of the book she hasn't broken the Gileadean government, and while she's involved at least partially with a resistance group, she seems primarily concerned about her daughter rather than "the good of all".

There is no doubt that Atwood is a master--the amount of careful planning and thought involved in the creation of this world is massive, and she certainly never cheated when it came to thinking about the world from all angles. I would say The Handmaid's Tale is the most well-thought-out what-if society I've ever experienced, and that (for me) is one of the novel's best features.

Offred, too, is fascinating. She's not a heroine, I think that much is clear, but she is the protagonist and I felt very connected to her, connected in the sense that I felt like I knew her and cared about what was happening. I don't think she's a particularly likeable person, but that doesn't mean I hated her. Her lack of--I suppose "definition" would be the word, at least in regard to her personality--definition serves only to reflect the absolute power of the regime of Gilead, how easily it can crush a "regular" person.

But did I love the book? I don't think so. The book is a little too blatantly political regarding its approach to both feminism and religion--I understand that The Handmaid's Tale is an exercise in imagining a world where these two things are heavily imbalanced (and it's frightening just how possible this world could be), but at times Atwood's political agenda was coloring the novel in a way I felt was a bit overbearing. Certainly the clarity is a nice change of pace from all of the dystopias I've been reading lately where there doesn't seem to be a good reason for the new, oppressive government to exist (as usual, I'm talking about Divergent), but I never enjoy feeling as though I'm being lectured by the author about a "hot issue" (and really, when are religion and women never not going to be Important Issues in capital letters).

Another issue was the purposeful obfuscation of some events--Offred would have moments of narration in which she slipped into the past, remembering the way things used to be, and these are mixed seamlessly into her narrative of her time in Gilead. It's unclear occasionally when she's reminiscing or what she's reminiscing about. At times Offred is hesitant to provide us information, and I understand that it's because of the violent, unforgiving nature of the government, but withholding things from readers is almost never forgivable in my eyes.

And then there's the ending of the novel, an epilogue that takes the form of a transcription of a lecture from the near-distant (is this even a word combination) future (I think the book says 2195?) in which a professor talks at length about his historical discovery: a set of cassette tapes with the testimony of Offred on them. This section is clearly a departure from the previous style of the novel, and the tone is a little too smarmy; it's too eager to poke fun at academia and it's very jarring. It's problematic structurally because it allows Atwood to dump the rest of her world-building on us in one go. The information is fascinating, I'll admit, but it feels a bit lazy.

Of course, part of my problem with the book is the way I viewed it--everything about this review is an analysis of The Handmaid's Tale as a dystopian novel, and that isn't the entire point. Would it have been better if I read it only as a feminist text (in the way I've been taught to read Chopin's The Awakening, for example)? Or what about as an examination of sex, or religion, or love? There are infinite ways to pick apart Margaret Atwood's book, and I think each one would provide varying levels of reward and pleasure.

So that, I suppose, is what I can say about the book. It is absolutely dazzling in its scope and incredibly pleasurable to immerse oneself in and is truly literary in the sense that each new lens of criticism offers a different understanding. The way I read the book just happened not to be the most satisfying method; as a dystopian novel, it has a few shortcomings, but I would be delighted to have someone show me a new way to look at the text.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale may not be the most satisfying novel in the world (and certainly not the most hopeful, so stay away if you're one of those), but it is immense and looming and frightening in the way that so few books can be. There are just layers and layers here, I can feel it. But I was left a little disappointed.

My rating: 4/5
The Handmaid's Tale on Goodreads
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