Reviews: The Handmaids Tale

The Handmaidís Tale

I watched the Hulu series adaptation of The Handmaidís Tale before I read the book, so I was already familiar with the story. I was curious to know the differences and read it for myself. While both the series and the novel are rather different, they are excellent in their own ways. Reading the novel was a more intimate view of our narrator Offred.

The novel is heavy on description and light on plot. It is like a stream of consciousness narration of Offredís thoughts. Most of the novel is describing her surroundings, her daily life, the structures of the society, and her back story. The novel is beautifully written, so while you might think a story like this could drag, it doesnít. Offredís thoughts are very rich, reflecting a woman attempting to make sense of and cope with her current world, and fantasizing about the smallest matters. When you are in a situation resembling solitary confinement, what else is there to do? There is also much pain in her words. While she has come to accept her reality, it is clear that this has and continues to wound her.

Although the regime in the novel is fundamentalist Christian, I donít find it to be anti-Christian; it is anti-fundamentalism. Acknowledgment is made both in the book and in the series, that this type of oppression and fundamentalism is not inherent to Christianity. The form of Christianity present here is so twisted and so extreme that itís not even that devout or religious, but used mainly as a justification for what the regime does. They wanted to make a society that is purer, more traditional, and justify the use of handmaids, so they turn to religion.

My critique of the book is that the explanation of the fertility crisis is rather unrealistic. Iím sure the idea for the story began with the author wondering, ďwhat if a society forced women to be child bearers?Ē and explained it later, but the explanation doesnít sound plausible to me. Also, because the entire book comes from Offredís perspective, Iíve been left wondering what life is like under the regime for everyone else: the average children, women, and adults. It is fascinating to learn from Offred, but Iíd like to see how it affects other people too.

Altogether, I enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale and if you watched the series, I recommend picking up the book to experience the powerful monologues of Offred. Like most dystopian novels, this book is controversial, but if youíre a fan of the genre, I recommend it.

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.