Not Your Grandmother’s Patriarchy
An Honest Review of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
TL;DR - 7/10. Spoilers ahead.
Three book reviews, three different dystopias. I’m sensing a theme here. Hey, it’s what I like, okay? It doesn’t hurt that The Handmaid’s Tale is having a bit of a moment thanks to the success of the Hulu series of the same name. I actually haven’t seen the show, but the advertisements were enough to give me a flavor of the world Atwood created, and it piqued my interest enough to give the book a read.
For the uninitiated: The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America that has experienced a collapse, a revolution of sorts, one that blends the most oppressive values of Puritanism with good ol’ fashioned tyranny. Women are no longer permitted to have jobs, read, write, or have any sort of autonomy. Rather, they are reduced to property, either of their husbands or of the patriarchal state of Gilead. The book is written as a first-person account of a Handmaid, an indentured servant surrogate mother, and details not only her life under the regime, but also before and during the transition.
Given the current cultural/political climate and the themes of the book, I was under the impression that it had been written recently. Imagine my surprise to learn it was first released in 1985. Where I saw this criticism of the marriage of church and state as a reaction to the modern GOP’s capitulation to Evangelical Christianity, it’s actually a response to the Soviet usurpation of the Russian Orthodox Church. Where Atwood references Islamic terrorism and its use as a scapegoat to institute a military coup, she’s talking about the rash of attacks that took place during the Cold War, not 9/11 or the ensuing American wars in the Middle East. It marks the book out as being quite prescient and an early warning against capitulation to such elements.
The climate of totalitarianism and subversion that Atwood creates is also spookily realistic, no doubt helped by the fact that it was written, at least in part, when she was in Cold War-era Germany. In Gilead, it’s impossible to tell who is a true believer and who isn’t. There are whispers and secrets aplenty, subversive secret societies, and secret police trying to track them all down. What’s more, the upper echelons of this society have access to certain privileges and vices that are closed off to the lower class. This is what American communism looks like.
Let’s talk about the patriarchy of Gilead for a moment. In this world, women aren’t allowed to have anything of their own. Handmaids don’t even get their own names; Offred is a patronymic made from the combination of the words “of” and “Fred”, expressing who she belongs to. Very little happens in this world that isn’t under the scrutiny of and by permission of men. The penalties range from mere corporal punishment to death, even being posthumously labeled an “Unwoman”. The intent is to reduce women to little more than slaves, walking incubators for the state.
As a male reader, it would be easy to dismiss the book as a hysterical feminist tract meant to paint us all as monsters. That would be a mistake. The men under this regime are treated terribly, as well. Let’s be clear: they are treated significantly better, but the regime stifles thought and dissent from all corners, regardless of gender. Sex outside of marriage is outlawed, as is masturbation and homosexuality. Wives are distributed by the state, and if a man isn’t of a high enough status, he doesn’t get one. There is also a war still ongoing, and it seems that nearly all of the men get shipped off for duty. There were a few passages I found to be a little unfair to my gender, but overall it’s quite well balanced.
“Wow JB, I’ve read your previous reviews and you never give this much praise. Why only a seven?”
The style, that’s why.
Seriously, it’s a major turn-off for me. In fact, I started reading this several months ago, and then put it down after three or four pages. Here’s a tip: poetry, in prose, is like a spice. A little now and again enhances the flavor of a story, but if you use too much, you risk flooding the reader’s palate with bold similes and metaphors, and the story is lost. A representative sample from The Handmaid’s Tale:
I almost run down the hall, the stairs are like skiing, the front door is wide, today I can go through it, and the Guardian stands there, saluting.
First of all, this is comma abuse. There are at least four complete sentences in there, depending on how you want to combine things. They’re Hemingway short, but at least he had the good sense to use periods. Second, “stairs” is a noun, “skiing” is a verb; comparing the two is nonsense. If you mean “going down the stairs”, fine, but then say that.
Then there’s the cloying deepity:
Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
I can’t think of myself, my body, sometimes, without seeing the skeleton: how I must appear to an electron.
I think that this is what God must look like: an egg. The life of the moon may not be on the surface, but inside.
Ugh, fucking gag me. Here’s another lesson to be learned from Hemingway: Kill your darlings. If you write something that you think is great, but it obscures your story, delete it. Be clever on your own time, not on mine.
Now, all of this might be forgivable in the name of Style, if it weren’t for the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale is written from 1st person POV. This means that the main character is acting as narrator, speaking directly to the reader, just as I am speaking to you now. But nobody speaks this way! In the Epilogue, it’s revealed that the book is actually a transcription of a set of surreptitiously recorded cassette tapes, stitched together by future researchers to understand what happened during this time period. This means that Offred is, in actuality, meant to be speaking these words aloud, and my delicious dystopian tale is drowned in ketchup.
Despite my misgivings, The Handmaid’s Tale is a good book, and certainly worth reading. I barely scratched the surface of how the themes presented relate to today’s world; I’d be willing to bet whole doctoral theses have been written on the subject. You might have to hold your nose a bit to get through, but it’s worth the effort. Final score: 7/10.
Another Honest Book Review: