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The Handmaid’s Tale: the book reviewed

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, written by Margaret Attwood, and published in 1985. It is presented as a first person narrative, by an unnamed woman. She is now known only by her new name, Offred, given to her since the new regime took power. It denotes that she is “owned” by Fred, a Commander in the regime. Other handmaids are named using the same format.

The novel describes a totalitarian state, bent on eradicating all aspects of life which do not accord with a strict, literalist reading of the Bible. It is a theocratic dictatorship, where all power resides with men, and women of all levels of status are strictly controlled.

The government seeks to reverse the political and social advances women made in the 1960s and 1970s, and it has removed women’s right to control their own sexuality, and their reproductive choices. It emerges that matters as commonplace as reading and writing are forbidden to all women, and left in the hands of men. The right to vote has also been removed.

The production of babies was very high on the regime’s agenda. Women with viable ovaries were rounded up, and then placed into suitable homes, in order to breed. The biblical story of Jacob and his wife Rachel, is clearly the inspiration for the practices imposed on the handmaids.

Unable to produce children, Rachel offers her handmaid, Bilhah, as a child-bearing vessel for Jacob, so that his line will be assured. Bilhah will have no future claim on any children produced, and her consent to the sexual contact is not required.

The setting is Boston, Massachusetts. The book is set in the “late twentieth century”. It relies entirely on the handmaid’s recollections, which have been sourced from a collection of audio tapes, found a century or so later, and here the subject of a scholarly dissertation.

The Epilogue as exposition

This expository device, called “Historical Notes”, appears at the rear of the novel, and purports to be an appendix. It is an essential element of the novel as a whole, if we are to understand the world that Attwood has created. It allows us access to Offred’s innermost thoughts, fears and hopes, and explains why the dictatorship was installed, and some of the doubtless many mechanisms involved in exerting, and maintaining social control.

It explains some of the concerns within the leadership of the regime; the collapse of human fertility, environmental degradation, the failings of established religions, and a corruption of moral and social norms. Women are seen as the weakness in the fabric, and their suppression is the solution.

It treats the action of the book as being solidly from the past, historical. The lecture resists the temptation of triumphalism, or post-facto moralising, but it does treat the events described as quaint, and consisting of several ‘periods’. The observations presented in the book are treated as primary source material, and not overtly judged by the person giving the lecture. The ‘normal’ of this future is different to ours, but in a suggestive and uncertain way.

Is the book successful in its creation of a dystopian world?

Margaret Attwood has commented, in response to winning a science fiction award for this book, that none of her material belongs in the realm of science fiction. She went on to explain that all the privations and punishments, used here mainly against women, have been practised, somewhere on earth, in the past.

Men are also strictly controlled, but in less intrusive, de-personalising ways. And men can rise to power. Women cannot. The depiction of a repressive system of government is heightened by its setting in parts of Harvard, and other familiar landmarks around the city.

There is a long history of dystopian writing, but the two books with which this novel is mostly compared, are Brave New World, and 1984. The reason this novel may create more of a lasting impact than either of them, is that her world is made from real, everyday examples which we can relate to personally. Even now, the U.S. Supreme Court is examining Roe v Wade again. So this is not science fiction, because, even though it was written last century, we can recognise, if not the totality of the book’s repressions, aspects of the thinking, the fear of women’s empowerment, the wish to put the genie of freedom back in the bottle.

Attwood wrote this novel in 1985, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Thatcher (elected in 1979) and Reagan (elected in 1980) were forerunners to a reactionary assault on civil liberties in the English speaking world. The Handmaid’s Tale foretells where the neo-conservatives were heading. Margaret Attwood is a politically aware writer, and she was no doubt conscious of this shift in the wind of the the late seventies and the eighties.

She also part-wrote the novel in West Berlin. The East German state was known to engage in continuous surveillance of its people, just a stone’s throw away, and the East Germans cast a long shadow over West Berlin. This awareness of repressive measures was obviously in her mind as she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. She has admitted as much.

The recent resurgence of interest in the novel is arguably directly associated with Donald Trump’s election, in 2016. The rise of the religious right, the assault on women’s rights, the rise of the #metoo movement all speak to the relevance of the book, but also to the need for such a book, now.

Recent legislation in several U.S. states, as well as in Poland seeks to criminalise abortion. This appears to be heading toward another round of theocratic law-making, and pressure on women’s lives. So the book, although written over thirty years ago, still delivers a timely warning. Stay alert. Your freedom is a valuable, but fragile, thing.

This book is written to reflect the world view of a late twentieth century, educated woman, making her way in a repressive and dangerous world. Margaret Attwood’s writing is above all else immensely intelligent, and accomplished. I believe that every word is meant, as is, and that the book is enough.

The movies and television shows will never deliver the punch that this seemingly slight book will. This is a harrowing story, but it fulfils its purpose. It makes us take the ongoing threats to our freedom very seriously.

 

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7 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    Hmmm ….. This is the world of Benito Duddo, Grand Dictator of New Holland, Suppressor of Aboriginal Rights and Purchaser of Third Rate Weaponry for a 20th century war on dissenting voters.

  2. Kathryn

    Hmmmmm, sounds like the type of world the entitled misogynists in Morrison’s LNP would favour! Considering the number of men in the Morrison regime outnumber women 2:1, and that those women tend to hold subservient positions, the dystopian future (mentioned above) is becoming more and more real when our nation is being misgoverned and mismanaged by a pack of smug, white alpha male misogynists.

    ‘Deeply sexist & actually a misogynist’: Allegations against Christian Porter & Alan Tudge go to the heart of LNP problem

    Long before Morrison, Abbott and Howard came into power, the LNP have been regarded as the worst, most corrupt and misogynistic regime ever seen in this nation! The LNP are overflowing with appalling white alpha male supremacists whom the ex-LNP minister, Julie Bishop, so aptly described as “swinging dicks”. As far as these contemptuous chauvinists in the LNP are concerned, there are only TWO places appropriate for women: in the kitchen and/or the bedroom! Perhaps the worst of them was that disgraceful, swaggering political parasite, Tony Abbott, who even had the GALL and temerity to appoint himself as Minister for Women! WOW! No wonder Tony Abbott quickly attained international notoriety as one of the worst, most appalling homophobic misogynists in the western world ….

    https://www.9news.com.au/national/tony-abbott-called-misogynist-sexist-as-he-pushes-for-uk-trade-job/932dbefb-3942-43e2-82a1-fbb325fee309

    The fact that this loathsome political party was overflowing with appalling – even criminal – predators (like Alan Tudge, the notorious Christian Porter et al) and is STILL overflowing with alpha male misogynists like Abbott and the smug, smirking male supremacist, Scott Morrison who believe they have the right to continue to target, bully and intimidate women with impunity, is a RED FLAG WARNING as to the way so many ultra-conservative, born-to-rule alpha males in the LNP view women as “second class citizens” who’s only role in society is to bear children and serve the needs of men! When you compare THAT archaic way of thinking to the Labor Party whose female members comprise more than 50% of the ALP cabinet, have absolute equality and are treated with respect and admiration, the difference is marked and glaring!

    https://theconversation.com/memo-liberal-women-if-you-really-want-to-confront-misogyny-in-your-party-you-need-to-fix-the-policies-157687

    Women who are Murdoch-manipulated enough or foolish enough to keep on voting AGAINST their own best interests by voting for the LNP over and over again, seriously need to WAKE UP and get a reality check! LNP-voting women need to realise that they are voting for a regressive pack of non-achieving, incompetent alpha males who want to ensure the continuation of male dominance by ensuring that women are disempowered and “kept in their place”! Along those line, working- and middle-class Australians who vote for the LNP are also voting for an elitist regime that despises them!

    https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/morrisons-misogyny-sends-his-popularity-plummeting,14923

  3. The AIM Network

    Hi Kathryn, our apologies for your comment getting caught up in moderation. The system often does that if there are multiple links in a comment.

  4. leefe

    There is sod all in that book that is not done now to women somewhere in the world. Especially to women from minoirty groups.

  5. Andrew J. Smith

    Interesting, saw the film version decades ago but now there are many other good research works in the US on the impact of Evangelical and/or conservative Christians, joined at the hip with nativism, to form GOP voter coalitions that can then be used to shepherd through autocratic nativist libertarian policies; been a ‘long game’ since the ’70s via what are now known as fossil fueled Koch (Donors’) Network think tanks.

    Two of late are first Katherine Stewart’s (2020) ‘The Power Worshippers: : Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. For readers of Democracy in Chains and Dark Money, a revelatory investigation of the Religious Right’s rise to political power.

    For too long the Religious Right has masqueraded as a social movement preoccupied with a number of cultural issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But in her deeply reported investigation, Katherine Stewart reveals a disturbing truth: America’s Religious Right has evolved into a Christian nationalist movement. It seeks to gain political power and impose its vision on society. It isn’t fighting a culture war; it is waging a political war on the norms and institutions of American democracy.’

    The other is Ann Nelson’s (2019) ‘Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. In 1981, emboldened by Ronald Reagan’s election, a group of some fifty Republican operatives, evangelicals, oil barons, and gun lobbyists met in a Washington suburb to coordinate their attack on civil liberties and the social safety net. These men and women called their coalition the Council for National Policy…..She traces how the collapse of American local journalism laid the foundation for the Council for National Policy’s information war and listens in on the hardline broadcasting its members control. And she reveals how the group has collaborated with the Koch brothers to outfit Radical Right organizations with state-of-the-art apps and a shared pool of captured voter data – outmaneuvering the Democratic Party in a digital arms race whose result has yet to be decided.’

  6. Andrew J. Smith

    This week from the UK’s Byline Times, good article synthesising many seemingly disparate groups and ideologues behind anti-abortion movement in the US:

    The Long Backlash Against Abortion in America‘ Sian Norris and Heidi Siegmund Cuda 5 May 2022:

    ‘*The White Supremacist Backlash. Alongside male supremacy and a misogynistic backlash, white supremacy and a racist backlash are crucial to understanding the attacks on abortion rights in the US.

    The far-right’s objection to abortion is fueled by the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which claims that white people in the US are being ‘replaced’ by migrant people from the Global South. This replacement, the baseless theory goes, is aided by feminists repressing the white birth rate via abortion and contraception – thereby “degenerating” society as mentioned above….

    …The Billionaire Backlash. “For decades now, the Koch cadre have known that they could never achieve this radical transformation unless they find voters so they have relied heavily on the religious right and particularly white evangelical protestants who have now slid into Christian nationalism,” Nancy McLean, author of Democracy in Chains, told Byline Times.*’

    The Long Backlash Against Abortion in America

  7. wam

    The men and women of abraham’s god who use the bible to justify their action against women are the religious right in Australia. No church dogma has women as important above the eyebrows. Menstruation is the process god made to render women incapable for 25% of her ‘god working’ life and the installation of the fear of blood is the cornerstone of perpetuating the superiority of men and proof that god’s design is the reason women cannot be equal. The inability to question men and women as to their religious beliefs in equality, menstrual blood and abortion. I believe there will be legal implications in Australia when the supreme court judges trump appointed overturn wade and roe(the republicans prevented obama appointing over 100 lifetime judges)

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