Reviews: The Handmaids Tale

Probably a Viciously Effective Piece of Satire... When It First Came Out

The Handmaid's Tale is a dated book that just does not work any longer. It was a cripplingly-focused satire on the society, organizations, and values of The Eighties in America, principally the excess power of the religious fundamentalists and conservative values in American politics.

Nowadays, though, while still powerful, they are generally not seen as all-powerful as they must have seemed then. Popular and general culture fractured due to everything from the Internet to cable. Genuine tolerance became a virtue with The Great Politics Mess-Up. Backlash against institutionalized old ideas like racism and sexism are now coming from everywhere rather than a few drug-hazed college campuses. The world changed. We may not live in a utopian paradise, but we do live in a better, more socially-conscious world than Atwood did.

And now, the constant, crushing reminders of how much everything sucks in Gilead aren't an effective painful portrait of Christianity's ability to be warped into a tool of oppression like any other religion. The constant references to how much everyone hates women aren't a vicious vocalization of things everyone thinks but no one says. It's all just a slog.

To paraphrase a famous quote about some of G. K. Chesterton's work, The Handmaid's Tale shot at a moving target, hitting the bull's eye as the target retreated over the horizon. I'm sure if I read this book when it first came out, it would have gotten me right in the wince-brain. But trying to be "relevant" rather than timeless, it inevitably secured its own slow slide into obsolescence as the things it was relevant to become irrelevant.

On the one hand, it might not be completely fair to hold that against the book, but on the other hand, truly great works of dystopian satire, like 1984 and Brave New World have managed to pass that hurdle, because their satire was not focused with laser-like intensity on their own day. There is precisely one universal, timeless theme that The Handmaid's Tale even tries to tackle, and it does so with an utter lack of subtlety, doing nothing new with the age-old idea that "Sexism is bad, m'kay?" The book is a relic of its time whose lessons can now be better learned elsewhere. Not recommended.

Dystopian Edict: The Novel

This is a review brought on from seeing the trope Dystopian Edict and being reminded of an old highschool reading.

Handmaiden's tale plays the Dystopian Edict trope to the hilt. Over the course of the novel, literally everyone is shown to be miserable and their lives are micromanaged to what would be a parodic extent if it were not played entirely for melodrama.

There are glimmers of interesting psychology, showing how even people in power feel some twinge of guilt at the system but mismanage it and showing some subversion of laws amongst the upperclass. However, the need to continually beat you over the head with the fact that this is a crapsack world and show how their day to day lives are so minutely managed defeat any realism of the book. Attempts to remind us how real it is fall flat since unlike most regimes where day to day life is promised to be protected for the most part, this one is hated by literally everyone in the book.

There is a lot of real psycological drama in the books and the beginnings of some things that could be interesting if explored deeper. It could be argued that this presents these deeper issues in a way that younger audiences can take them in if it weren't for the fact that it presents them with sex constantly worked in awkwardly. Were it done more subtlely and nuainced, I could take it seriously enough to address these issues, or if it avoided these issues, I could take it as a sort of introduction to the psychology of a dystopia. It instead falls heavily into complicated issues without the nuaince and maturity required in order to remind us, the dystopia is in fact a crappy place to live.

The Epilogue where Nunavut is a major world power leading a conference and tried to sum up the moral of the whole plot was when my book hit the wall.

There is no subtlety, the Republic is a shit place to live and none of the characters are sympathetic except in so far as they are victims of this increasingly implausibly shitty place to live.