The Handmaid's Tale - still relevant?


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The Handmaid's Tale - still relevant?

dec 6, 2006, 12:13 pm

The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985; and thus was likely written more than a year before. It is considered a dystopian novel, a warning novel that paints a worst-case viewpoint. Atwood was responding to the rise (and rants) of right-wing politics, the menace of Christian fundamentalism (i.e. The Moral Majority) in politics; and the continued oppression & victimization of women. So she asks, "What if?"

Interestingly, I thought about this book recently when I was watching the movie, V for Vendetta, which was written in same era and responding to similiar things. Clearly, the movie producers thought the story had relevance today. What about the Handmaid's Tale?


Personally, I see the story as relevant today as it was when I first read it in the 1980's. It was downright scary then and it is still scary now. For me, it will never be just a great story. I won't go into personal details but I spent a good part of the 70's in a sort of softer Gilead. While some of the scenarios in the story seem far-fetched; I can imagine this what-if story better than most.

So, when the US current administration came to power, I proclaimed, "Gilead is upon us!" to my husband. And I have not been disappointed. The things Margaret Atwood railed against in the early 80's have cycled back twenty years later. While it is not my intent to start a political rant among us; it is my intent to start a discussion.

If Margaret Atwood had been writing this novel over the last few years, how might she have extrapolated the future differently?

Do you think Offred, Serena Joy and Moira are realistic women?

Do you think Atwood fleshed out the male characters, the Commander and Nick, adequately? Did she need to?

Do you think she succeeds in her warning? Does she still succeed today?

What scenes from the novel did you find most powerful?

Please feel free to add your own questions, comments..I'm just throwing some out there to get us warmed up:-)

dec 19, 2006, 1:11 pm

I need to go back and re-read Handmaid's Tale to remember the details of everything, but I have heard a number of different people comment on how depressingly relevant that book remains.

mar 2, 2007, 5:14 pm

I saw Atwood speak not too long ago, and she said that people constantly refer to the current US administration (as you did) and then ask her, "How did you KNOW?" She replies that what she wrote about has not come true, not here; it just COULD.

I have a lot of Canadian friends, and (if I can make a generalization) they (and other countries, ok, and me too) tend to perceive us as having two parties which are BOTH extremely conservative. We have a choice between conservative or scary-conservative. So what seems to us a huge change may seems to people elsewhere not much change at all. I'm thinking that while perhaps young people who are just reading the book now are reminded by their current "leaders" of Gilead, it's possible that Atwood has always perceived the US as Gilead-like.

jul 2, 2007, 4:34 pm

>1 avaland:, Hi avaland - Well, I have finally gotten around to organizing my thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale. This post is very similar to one that I just put in a different forum in a thread about this book. I hope that's ok. It does contain MAJOR SPOILERS, for anyone who has not finished the book.

I had never read any of her books before, but I am interested in dystopian literature and this one keeps popping up on lists of 'must-reads' everywhere (whether specifically dystopian or not). While I didn't love it to the extent that some people seem to, I did really enjoy it.

One of the most interesting things about the book for me was that many of the women in the novel thought about these changes in very ambivalent terms. Many of them had campaigned for these changes, before they realized what they really meant. Women became protected from things they used to fear, like rape and pornography - so there was an element of paternalism in all this. As one of my former profs says - "For Their Own Good." I guess its hard to know if these changes were actually introduced with a benevolent intent or if this was all just a smokescreen, but clearly women became oppressed and objectified in new and different ways under the regime. The revelation that there was a whole class of women who were kept around for the sexual gratification of men - and that Moira, the protagonist's longtime friend, was one of them - also revealed that they continued to be objectified in the old ways. This was also interesting in light of the whole virgin-whore dichotomy that sometimes gets talked about in feminist circles - these men were so obsessed that they created actual classes of women to embody the hierarchy. Women were either for marrying, reproducing, or pleasure - no one women was allowed to play all these roles.

I was especially intrigued by the portrayal of the main character's husband because although he is not one of the men who is directly involved in taking away women's rights, he is not exactly a fighter for these rights. The narrator feels that when her financial rights are taken away and her money is controlled by her husband, he kind of likes it. He also suggests to her that the changes are just temporary, she should just wait it out, and discourages her from participating in protests against the oppression of women because he thinks it won't do any good. I just couldn't shake the feeling that he was not really as a nice a guy as she sometimes thought he was. Especially when he killed their cat so that it wouldn't give away their attempt to escape to Canada. While I didn't think the message of the novel was anti-men, it sort of suggested that men as a class were kind of all the same - willing to sacrifice women's privileges as long as they themselves were not harmed. Even the relatively benign men were all too willing to become 'guardians.'

But the book also shows how men eventually come under the system and find themselves oppressed by it - the restrictions on which men can reproduce, etc. Although I don't want reflect on everything that happens to the women in this book through its impact on men, I thought was a good choice. It enriched the book by showing the horrible bargain that they had all made - some willingly, some unwillingly.

I liked many of the narrative tricks that the author used, especially later in the book and with the ending. At some point, the narrator becomes more self-conscious and starts referring to the reader and starts acknowledging that she is telling a story and that she has some degree of control in shaping it for the reader. Later, she starts completely making up different scenarios for how an event happened, admitting that it didn't actually happen that way or that it would be nice if she could say it had, but it didn't.

I really appreciated that Atwood left the ending so unresolved. You never really know if there was an actual underground movement (until the epilogue) or if the narrator was just being played and ended up being carted off somewhere horrible. I appreciated that there was no pretty story at the end, no big revolution, no epic showdown. It just wouldn't have worked in a novel where everyone seemed so resigned to the current state of things, despite their knowledge that things had once been different. The understated tone reminded me a bit of Never Let Me Go, which I also really enjoyed.

I LOVED the final portion of the book - it was an awesome twist. At first I did not understand what I was reading. But then I got it and I loved it. I liked how this was sort of an "outside" voice that could fill in objective, historical details about Gilead in a way that Offred could not necessarily do, since an insider does not see her situation in the same was as a later outside might. I loved that the Offred portion of the book was actually a reconstruction of her diary from audiotapes, based on educated conjecture from some unknown (?) person. It throws the whole narrative into question, which is fascinating to me because I am a huge geek. Really unexpected and cool. I loved how it ended.

On a side note, can I just say how dumb I felt when I realized (like almost at the end of the book) that all the Handmaid's names were "Of - so & so". I had realized that they all had similarly constructed names that were distinctive from "normal" names, but it didn't really occur to me that even their names reflected their status as chattel. :)

jul 2, 2007, 4:57 pm

Wow, fanny, what a lovely piece of thoughtful writing. You make me want to reread it once again!

I'm going to check my interviews of Atwood and see what she says about the book; if I find anything I'll post it here.

jul 2, 2007, 5:20 pm

Cool. I'll look forward to anything you can find. And thanks - I'm glad you enjoyed it. I am trying to be more thoughtful about the books I read instead of just tearing through them and moving on. :)

jul 2, 2007, 9:18 pm

Excerpts from various interviews included in Waltzing Again, edited by Earl Ingersoll (pictured above). It will sound a bit piecemeal...

Margaret Atwood (1986): When I first started thinking about it {The Handmaid's Tale}, I thought it was such a wacko idea. I wrote it with some trepidation. It could have been the worst failure you could possibly imagine. I was afraid people would say it was stupid, silly. There was also the risk it would be thought feminist propaganda of the most outrageous kind, which was not really what I intended. I was more interested in totalitarian systems, an interest I've had for a long time. I used to read Second World War stuff in the cellar when I was twelve or thirteen, for instance.

Atwood (1989): I see it {the liberation for women as a precarious achievement} as precarious and based on general prosperity, because you know who goes first in a crunch. You know that when all the men came back from the war the women got kicked out of their jobs to make room for them. Under pressure, you can't depend on human nature to remain the way you think it ought to be. Under pressure people do strange things. They hang people as witches, they riot, they toss out their democratic institutions and put in bad people that you and I don't like.

Well it's {the Republic of Gilead}not out of the question. Possibly they won't bring in the clothing as I've described it, but some of the other things are things that a number of people with political power in the United States have said that they would like to do. When Hitler said those things, people thought at first it was just rhetoric, but I don't think you should ever suppose that what people say they want to do is rhetoric. If the fundamentalist establishment in the States says that women's place is in the home and that homosexuals deserve death, I don't think that you should ignore that. There are various pressures, forces that will possibly, come into play, not definitely, but possibly....When people get scared enough they'll agree to all kinds of things they wouldn't agree to before.

*I'll keep an eye out for more*

Redigerat: sep 6, 2007, 12:40 pm

there's no question in my mind that this book is still as relevant -- if not even more so -- today as it was in 1985.

like many other atwood readers, i encountered her first as required reading in a Women's Lit class in college. we read Handmaid's Tale midway through the semester and it was like a bomb exploded in my brain and sensibilities. this book GOT to me... made me think, feel, curse, and cry. even then, in the cocoon of the Clinton years i'd kill to return to, THT was such a blatant warning as far as i was concerned that it may as well have had a big red stamp on the front proclaiming "think it can't happen? think again."

like >1 avaland: avaland, i connected Gilead and the current administration immediately. not just for the actions or policies or theologies but for the *attitude* and *feeling* it/they exude -- cocky... untouchable... "whaddya gonna do about it?"... etc.

i wrote a thesis paper on Handmaid's Tale my senior year, connecting the Gilead regime and values with Victorian-era mindsets and mores, particularly as they pertained to sexuality: the stifling and demonizing of sexual urges; sex for procreation only; practical asexuality. the ties i found between the details in the novel and the research i did were intriguing... and they're wholly applicable to the current Christian Right's attitude toward sex, sex ed, and reality.

the "Freedom to" and "Freedom from" argument by Aunt Lydia has always morbidly fascinated me... as has the support shown to the current administration by some women. such a strong fight to maintain such self-marginalization.

absolutely still relevant.

apr 6, 2010, 9:55 am

When I read the book a couple of years ago, I thought it was brilliant, but not a likely scenario for the future. I have since discovered that this book is still hugely relevant. The patriarchy/quiverfull movement( they are fundamentalist evangelicals) is alive and well in the US and in other countries as well. The women are considered inherently inferior to men and born to serve men and to obey them without question. They are not allowed to go to school, work outside the home, speak in church, and the list goes on and on. They live "under authority" of a man (father, husband or brother). The funny thing is that one of the most active member of this movement is a certain Lydia Sherman. She has a blog about the only job fit for a woman, i.e homemaker. And just by reading her, you can tell she's all about "freedom from...". So they've already got an Aunt Lydia. There's a book called Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce which is about this movement in general. I highly reccomend the following articles by William Einwechter, a minister of this movement:

If these people ever gain political power, the reality for women will be much scarier than in The Handmaid's Tale.

apr 12, 2010, 10:18 pm

I have heard that Atwood did not make up any of the oppressions that she details in the book - all of them actually happened, just not all at the same time and place.

jan 6, 2011, 12:02 am

Currently reading The Handmaid's Tale for the first time and am finding it a powerful and disturbing read... It really makes you take a closer look at politics and society.

Redigerat: jul 19, 2022, 8:53 am

Det här meddelandet har tagits bort av dess författare.

sep 6, 2019, 10:59 pm

I love Margaret Atwood's books, although I haven't read any in a while. I haven't had the strength to face the sad realities that she brings, but maybe I will read her new novel. She is an incredible writer! I absolutely agree that she should win a Nobel Prize.