Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

What is she doing with her hands?
The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopia set in a world with high infertility meaning Handmaid's are forcibly employed as, to all intents and purposes, Mistresses, but with the express wish to have children; thereby making them describable as choice-less surrogate mothers.

This is the first time I've read anything by Atwood and I was incredibly impressed with her writing style. Two pages in, I'd realised that I'd been so enraptured in the writing that I haven't even paid much attention to what happened. This was a trend which continued at other points, often meaning I had to re-read entire chapters. But I think it was worth it, since one so rarely finds something so well written and enrapturing merely because the text is beautiful. Also, the environment and lives of those around our protagonist- which were bleak, depressing and abominable in many ways- seemed almost surreally pristine. I'd compare it to ice since everything seemed so perfect, but you knew it was cold world, with sharp edges, and viable to smash in an instant.

I was also pleasantly surprised with the world itself, since it wasn't a predictable dystopia. I know there are other dystopias based around infertility and the way society combats it, but this was published in 1985, hardly the height of dystopian publishing. Also, this world was much more freshly a dystopia. Though I probably have read one, I can't remember a dystopia where the story began such a short time after the establishment of this society. Rather than a protagonist who was told stories and recalls them as hope and ideals, Offred (our main character, so named because she is the 'mistress' Of-Fred) remembers the time and can describe how she felt. It also adds the interesting element of how true is what she tells us? In such dire conditions, better times are always remembered as better than they were.

The most interesting thing about the book though was the idea of: Freedom from rather than freedom to. This society defends itself saying there are restrictions in order to guarantee safety. You may not be able to buy alcohol, but there is no (okay, small) chance of you being stolen from. It's an interesting idea, and I think anyone would pause for a moment reading that, since who are we to say what is better? We live in a world were freedom to is the only possibility without open dictatorship, but freedom from is also a powerful thing. I would always choose the former (to) but I live in a freedom to society so I am biased. Having freedom to you can choose to live so as to have freedom from, but living in a world of freedom from you'll never have true freedom to do whatever you want and face consequences as they arise. The book suggests that Freedom comes at a price, and that society reached a point where that price was too high.

I liked as well how the whole dystopian society was explained. Basically, it was power grab and the more rigid application of a Patriarchy, given women no rights. It suggests there was response to feminism much more violent to our own. Eventually a military group faked a terrorist attack on the President and Congress and then took control- indefinitely. The reason it works was that this was done in such a short time so anyone who knew and wanted to stop it wouldn't be able to: it would already be established and have the power to 'silence' revolutionaries. It then goes on to indoctrinate women, who lose all the rights as free citizens. It presents men as overly sexualised to the point that they want to copulate merely at the sight of the women. I'm not explaining very well, but every new stage of the dystopia we learn is a logical continuation of the last stage.

So I really liked this. I like that my first foray into Atwood's books has been so successful and I hope to read her again. I think I'll also point out that the tone of the book is never really happy, and I can't remember once when it was hopeful: so don't read this if you're looking for a happy read.

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