The Handmaid’s Tale (#33/50)

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Title – The Handmaid’s Tale

Author – Margaret Atwood

Page count – 311

In short, this book is about a society where women’s lives and bodies are controlled and valued for the sole purpose of procreation. Here is the description from the back of the book (for reference, it was published in 1985):

“Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food market whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable…”

The story is told from Offred’s perspective. It alternates between her describing what’s going on around her and a more organic, free-flowing stream of thoughts. She’ll punctuate the narrative with quotes, biblical verses, and references to songs or popular stories. It also becomes clear she’s a bit of an unreliable narrator because she keeps correcting herself, revising details or admitting she made something up to distract herself from reality. It definitely kept me on my toes.

This society’s rules are enforced under a benevolent and patronizing guise (“It’s for your own good.”). Women are only allowed to be in public in pairs. Learning to read and write is not allowed. Clothing uniforms are required, and cosmetics/jewelry are forbidden. From fertilization to birth, everything about a woman’s reproductive capacity is regulated. And it’s better this way because women are now “protected” by a government that knows what’s best for them. In the book, a character describes it as “freedom from” – as in freedom from danger. I would call it a lack of choice.

The following passage is a pretty good summary of the society’s attitude about the rules, compared to our narrator’s (helpful hint, Offred doesn’t always use quotation marks to indicate when someone else is talking, so pay attention to words like “she” and “we” and “I”):

“A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She pauses, which she savors in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives. I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit.” (p. 114)

I realize this review isn’t exactly screaming “This is a great book! You should go read it now!” But you should go read it. It’s both a story and a warning. After all, “When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” (p. 30)

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