The Handmaid's Tale


Next on the ever growing list of books to write about is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. There was a group that read this book in my grade 12 English class. I can remember being interested in the premise and thought that one day I might read this book. That day has come.

I usually like to go in blind when it comes to books, it allows me to stay in the moment with the story and helps with developing organic thoughts. Unfortunately, in this case I chose to read this book because I knew enough about it to want to know more.

The problem with knowing something about this book was that I became impatient with the pace of story development. The narrator doesn't reveal everything at once, the information comes in as necessary. The world building is written in such a way that it seems that everything keeps on getting worse and worse as more details are uncovered, yet at the same time this is how bad it is from the start. Maternal and feminine language is used to develop the environment long before giving any explicit details are given.

What really sells this book for me is the feedback from the narrator on their remorse of the entire "tale". The events are pieced together and at times are made to be more or less than what they are by the narration; like that one story that you tell your friends at dinner that's been slightly exaggerated, just so it flows better, or just to get a few extra laughs. It becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on that The Handmaid's Tale is being told as a reflection, making the reader question whether everything is happening in the present or if certain events are added in post-script.

Or perhaps the best part is that there is no good character in the book. Under the circumstances it seems everyone has their pitfalls. And much like real life, the ones who are romanticized are never what we except them to be.

My expectation with this book was to find parts that were worthy of criticism, which led to an almost defensive reading by me. Instead what I found was that as with all stories, it's up to the reader to make their own conclusions based on the information provided. Dystopians are great for fueling political agendas; a horrifying caricature of a believable flaw within society; a warning that if we continue down a path, bad things will come.

For me, this book isn't as black and white as men vs. women. It seems that both genders suffer from how society functions in their world. There are a lot of men who are simply serfs to those who are higher up than them. And the whole sex slave thing clearly isn't favoured by anyone. In fact, everyone seems to be cheating the system in some way, as if they all know what's currently in place is inhuman, yet can't afford to stand out from the crowd individually—this is great foreshadowing for the revolution that is to come. In the book it's explained that it was either this option or have the human race go extinct from lack of procreation—the way of the panda. I think there's good reason to argue for the other option. As is beautifully shown in A Clockwork Orange, life becomes meaningless when we remove free choice.

And it's not just the women's lives that become meaningless, anyone and everyone we takes part in this system is affected in some way. What this means is that women's issues are everyone's issues; which require everyone's efforts and input to be properly dealt with.

What I've noticed after reading a few dystopians is that there are elements to the world building that are shared among them. While different authors express what they feel would be a dystopia in their own way, certain patterns seem to arise anyway. What's important is being able to notice the reoccurring patterns in these books and becoming wary of them. Despite our differences, there is moral commonality among us that defines what a dystopia would look like.

For instance: people don't want to be lied to. And they want freedom. A lot of books are manifestations of these morals; and at the same time they define them.

In The Handmaid's Tale we know that the world presented is flawed because it feels flawed. Atwood makes this apparent by contrasting the events of the book with descriptions of nature, showcasing how disturbed the world has become. You could take a wild guess and say that it feels that way because all women are enslaved, and that might be a pretty good guess, but I think it's better to access the patterns of behaviour across multiple books with a similar flawed feeling to reduce the guess work. This way we can circumvent a whole range of flawed scenarios instead of just one; essentially developing an ethical philosophy. I think most good books are really philosophical essays that are nested in long-form narrative example, and the role of the reader is to retrieve the philosophy from the narrative and incorporate it into their life—whether they realize this or not.