Book: The Handmaid's Tale - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The Handmaid's Tale
Friday, 08 July 2005 at 11:28 pm
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Author: Margaret Atwood

Details: (c) 1985 OW Toad Ltd; Pub Virago Press Ltd 1991; ISBN 0-86068-866-6

Verdict: The Handmaid's Tale is too unsubtly polemical to be a real success, and on the whole I found it rather boring.

Reasons for reading it: It seems to get referred to a lot by people worrying about current political trends. And it's a bit of a feminist classic, so I'd been vaguely meaning to read it for a while.

How it came into my hands: Another one I scored in Ely last week.

This is not the first time I've felt like I ought to like Atwood, but if I'm honest, I basically don't. I find her writing overly clever-clever, both the word-plays and the way things are structured, the clever allusions and that sort of thing. It doesn't engage me emotionally at all. Also, the story is obscured by the 'misogyny is bad!' message, which seems too absolutely obvious to justify a whole novel.

The Handmaid's Tale seems to be more or less a feminist reworking of 1984. I can't see why a feminist version was needed; Orwell's dystopia was very obviously miserable for women as well. But then I don't think most things need a specifically feminist rewriting anyway. Everything that annoyed me about tHT was made more annoying by the sense of déjà vu, of reading a lesser quality imitation of something written 40 years earlier.

The scenario described in tHT is pretty horrific, yes. But it didn't really have much emotional impact on me. Even though the narrator is drawn with a lot of detail, somehow I didn't find myself able to relate to her that well. And I don't really see the point of imagining lots of bad things that might possibly happen, if there isn't anything more to a story than that. After all, there are enough horrors and people being tortured and oppressed in reality without needing to make up a fictional brutal regime.

tHT also didn't seem to present much of a plausible case for how we might end up with this sort of dystopia. Unless possibly you believe that anyone who has any doubts about abortion is just using that as an excuse for their hatred of women and desire to keep the whole gender as oppressed as can possibly be managed. I have seen that case made, and it does seem to be applicable to some elements of the pro-life movement, but still. Reading tHT as very extended pro-choice polemic doesn't endear the book to me either.

The other huge problem with tHT is the epilogue. Without it, the ending is totally ambiguous and as such, gives a glimpse of the sort of power that Orwell achieved. Making it explicit that the misogynist dystopia was just a passing, localized political phase and in the long term everything will work out, not just for society but for the narrator herself, really spoils that impact. Also, the epilogue uses infodumps to explain things that were perfectly obvious when they were just hints picked up from the story, which is patronizing and annoying. And then trying to 'solve' the problem of how exactly the narrative came to exist, given its setting where the heroine has no access to any form of communication with the outside world, actually threw into relief that flaw. Without the epilogue, I would have been happy to suspend disbelief and simply accept that I was reading Offred's thoughts.

I stayed up late-ish last night finishing tHT, but mainly because I'm really rather bored of it and want to read something more fun. I could have just not finished it, but a book has to be a lot worse than this for me to actually give up.

I hope this negative review doesn't give the impression that I don't care about sexism and misogyny. That's not at all the case, I just don't think that the novel contributes anything to improving the lot of women in society. I mean, if you already believe that there is systematic oppression of women, you're just going to be nodding along with tHT and thinking, oh yes, aren't men bastards and what wouldn't they do if they had the opportunity. And if you don't accept this premise, (or some milder version of it), I can't see that the book is going to change anyone's mind.


Moooood: boredbored
Tuuuuune: Tzur mishelo ('Rock by whose gift')
Discussion: 18 contributions | Contribute something
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From:neonchameleon
Date:July 9th, 2005 05:02 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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I'm glad it wasn't just me who thought that.
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jpallan: default
From:jpallan
Date:July 9th, 2005 09:28 pm (UTC)
6 hours after journal entry, 05:28 pm (jpallan's time)
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I think that Americans and Canadians who can see fundamentalism at work on their continent and have seen friends end up Christian fundamentalists for no reason they can discern can relate much better than a Briton.

Religious fanaticism isn't really a valid cultural response for y'all.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:July 10th, 2005 09:21 am (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 10:21 am (livredor's time)
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I think that Americans and Canadians who can see fundamentalism at work on their continent
I hope I'm not so parochial that I don't care about the rise of fundamentalism abroad. The American political situation does affect us in Europe, absolutely.

have seen friends end up Christian fundamentalists for no reason they can discern
That's a pretty scary thing to happen. But it's kind of obvious that if scary cults were to take over society, it would be really bad. You don't really need a novel to describe exactly why it would be bad, especially given the number of real examples in recent world history.

Religious fanaticism isn't really a valid cultural response for y'all.
Well, I like that perception! I don't know, I think it's a bad idea to be complacent, but I just didn't feel that The Handmaid's Tale really told me anything new. It's like a book that goes to great lengths to point out that it would be really scary if America were invaded by flesh-eating zombies. Well, yes, it would, but if that's the whole point of your novel then you're not really saying anything.

Do you read Making Light? I think you might get on with it, and as far as I'm concerned it has more impact than the Atwood.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:July 10th, 2005 12:10 pm (UTC)
20 hours after journal entry, 01:10 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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It's five years since I read it, but I thought the book worked for me. Just because something has been done before doesn't mean it can't be done again; after all, there is precious little new under the sun. That said, I didn't think it was repeating the message of 1984, the message it was telling was different.

What got me about the book was the way I was complacently said to myself as I read along that if I were in the protagonist's shoes, I wouldn't have got stuck as she did; I would have seen the signs, and, sensitive as my ethnicity makes me to twentieth century history, got the hell out of America in time. Which made it really shocking when I discovered just how fast the transition to Gilead was: had I been there, I'd have got caught out just the same as everyone else.
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 12:20 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 01:20 pm (livredor's time)
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It's five years since I read it, but I thought the book worked for me.
Oh yes, I bought a copy for Thuggish Poet on your recommendation, I'd forgotten that.

Just because something has been done before doesn't mean it can't be done again; after all, there is precious little new under the sun.
I don't know, I think I possibly mean something different by 'new' from what you mean. I am quite happy for something to be new on a very microscopic scale, even if the basic idea is something that has been done before cos there are only so many basic ideas.

I didn't think it was repeating the message of 1984, the message it was telling was different.
Can you expand on that more, please?

I was complacently said to myself as I read along that if I were in the protagonist's shoes, I wouldn't have got stuck as she did; I would have seen the signs
I think the thing that did scare me was the bit where they cut off all the women from access to their money. It's true that pretty much all my money is entirely virtual, and there isn't really any other way it could be in current society. It would be possible for a corrupt government or even a skilled terrorist to make me destitute at a stroke, as happens to Offred. I don't think there's anything I can do to avoid that possibility, really.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:August 28th, 2005 06:57 pm (UTC)
50 days after journal entry, 07:57 pm (lethargic_man's time)

The Handmaid's Tale

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Just because something has been done before doesn't mean it can't be done again; after all, there is precious little new under the sun.

I don't know, I think I possibly mean something different by 'new' from what you mean. I am quite happy for something to be new on a very microscopic scale, even if the basic idea is something that has been done before cos there are only so many basic ideas.

I didn't think it was repeating the message of 1984, the message it was telling was different.

Can you expand on that more, please?

Mmm... tricky one, that. I suppose they do have the same message to the extent of: if you don't protect your country's liberties, nasty people can take them away. However, whilst 1984 was meant to wake people to the fact their country was drifting in the direction of permanent cold war, and totalitarianism, I get the impression the people of Britain were supposed to have been acquiescent in the rise of Big Brother (in the same way that much of Russia was acquiescent in the Bolshevik revolution, little dreaming of the totalitarianism that was to come).

In The Handmaid's Tale, by contrast, the message was more one of being alert to a minority takeover, and specifically to one by religious fundamentalists. And I disagree with your point upthread that you don't need a novel to point out that this is bad. Novels are a good way of pointing things out to people who might not otherwise see them. In this particular case; of demonstrating the false security of "it could never happen here".

I suppose both novels share the point of raising the reader's attention to a danger potentially implicit in the writer's society.

Does that help? I think I'd have to reread the book to be able to answer in any more detail than that.

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From:lyssiae
Date:July 10th, 2005 10:26 am (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry
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I read Handmaid a few months ago - I was wondering aimlessly round the English bit of the library and recognised the author (I read The Blind Assassin during my first month in Toronto). I can't say that Atwood is my favourite author; she doesn't have a style that draws me into the story, and certainly with Assassin I had to work to keep going.

Handmaid I found easier to manage than Assassin. Perhaps I'm drawn to stories about religion and how it twists or gets twisted, and in a strange way the idea of colour-coding everyone by their clothes fascinated me. Having said that, I can't claim that I found it a good book to read, simply that it was easier to get into than Assassin.

I'm a naïve person - I could recognise the message the story was trying to get across*, I just didn't care for it much and ignored it, especially when I hit the "Questions for thought and discussion" at the back.

* Interestingly, I didn't think that the underlying message was one of feminism; I thought it was about how if we're not careful, good little secularists, those nasty religion-type people will take over the world and then we'll all be in deep doo-doo.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 01:23 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 02:23 pm (livredor's time)
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I can't say that Atwood is my favourite author; she doesn't have a style that draws me into the story
Yes, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about her writing, but I agree with you. I think she's too cerebral, too academic somehow.

Perhaps I'm drawn to stories about religion and how it twists or gets twisted
I'm interested in those too, but the ruling party in The Handmaid's Tale is just such a caricature of evil fundies that I didn't feel it gave me any insight into how religion works or how it can go wrong.

in a strange way the idea of colour-coding everyone by their clothes fascinated me
Yes, that's a powerful image, isn't it?

I'm a naïve person - I could recognise the message the story was trying to get across*, I just didn't care for it much and ignored it
I do sometimes do that with overly polemical stories, but in this case I didn't think there was much to it besides the message.

Interestingly, I didn't think that the underlying message was one of feminism; I thought it was about how if we're not careful, good little secularists, those nasty religion-type people will take over the world and then we'll all be in deep doo-doo.
I think it was trying not to be anti-religion, it was against Biblical literalism / fundamentalism and using religion as an excuse for misogyny. But I agree it did come across as pretty condemning of religion, and the token 'nice' Quakers didn't really dispel that impression too much.
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finding_helena: default
From:finding_helena
Date:July 10th, 2005 05:10 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 01:10 pm (finding_helena's time)
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I enjoyed it because I like stories that are set in alternate versions of the reality we live in. As far as feminism goes, it's too far off from where we are to have that much of an impact. Even if they do succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade here, there are way too many people they'll never bring under their fundamentalist spell and eventually things will swing back the other way. But I liked the story as a story.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 01:51 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 02:51 pm (livredor's time)
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I like stories that are set in alternate versions of the reality we live in.
I like those kinds of stories too, but I found that this one didn't work for me. Fair enough, anyway.

As far as feminism goes, it's too far off from where we are to have that much of an impact.
That's the optimistic view, and I think it's likely that you're right as well as hoping that you are. Many feminists, and others, do believe that society is in serious danger from Christian fundamentalists, though of course that in itself doesn't make The Handmaid's Tale realistic.

there are way too many people they'll never bring under their fundamentalist spell and eventually things will swing back the other way.
For the sake of argument, the very definition of a dictatorship is that a small powerful elite is able to control the majority of the population despite being outnumbered. So it's not necessarily true that if the majority of people are sane, fundamentalism can never be a political threat. I agree with you, though, I'm not particularly scared by Atwood's scenario myself.

But I liked the story as a story.
I didn't, and that's the main reason this review is so negative; without a story to hold it together I don't see the appeal of polemic and cleverness. But hey, de gustibus and all that.
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coalescent: default
From:coalescent
Date:July 11th, 2005 01:35 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 02:35 pm (coalescent's time)
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The Handmaid's Tale in one minute.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 01:54 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 02:54 pm (livredor's time)
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Cute, thanks for that.

I'm a bit inclined to write "The Handmaid's Tale in one second": Opression bad, freedom good. Also, men suck. But that's probably unfair.
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elemy: default
From:elemy
Date:July 11th, 2005 02:35 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry
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You're of stouter heart than me - I didn't manage to finish it. I quite like some Attwood, particularly The Robber Bride, but I couldn't finish the Handmaid's Tale.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 01:58 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 02:58 pm (livredor's time)
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You're of stouter heart than me - I didn't manage to finish it.
Did you not finish it because you found it too disturbing, or too boring? If the latter I came pretty close to giving up myself, except that with very few exceptions I finish everything I start.
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rysmiel: words words words
From:rysmiel
Date:July 11th, 2005 04:38 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 12:38 pm (rysmiel's time)
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Have you read Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time ? I should be very interested to see what you think of it.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 02:14 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 03:14 pm (livredor's time)
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Have you read Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time?
The only thing I've read of hers is Body of Glass which I absolutely despised, so I've not been in any way tempted to try anything else of hers. I could be convinced though, especially on a rec from you.
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blue_mai: default
From:blue_mai
Date:July 12th, 2005 07:48 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 08:48 pm (blue_mai's time)
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i havent read any atwood but i did see the film, and it rather impressed me. as in it left a lasting impression rather than me going 'oh wow!' at the telly... late night films on telly is something i like. and i was quite young at the time and it was just when i was getting into them. you might not know this but i have a very high tolerance for films on tv (and music videos) but very very low tolerance for tv programmes. no, i dont understand either. but i will happily watch utter shite so long as it's feature-length. anyway. i liked it (already established that that's not a great recommendation). but i havent seen it since. i think i also liked it's alternate-reality thing. and the colour-coding. and i definitely empathised with the lead. and one of the blokes in it has incredibly blue eyes. ahem.
bit of a daft ending though. even for a youngster as i was.

btw i am alive, yes. didnt really think of logging on to lj, but then i've not really been keeping up with it lately.
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livredor: portrait
From:livredor
Date:July 22nd, 2005 02:37 pm (UTC)
12 days after journal entry, 03:37 pm (livredor's time)
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Hiya, good to hear from you! I'm very hooked on LJ, but I know not everybody is; one of the nice things about it is that it's no obligation, you can keep up with it more or less depending on your mood or life circumstances. Hope things are going well for you anyway.

I don't think I knew there was a film of The Handmaid's Tale, actually. The colour-coding must have worked really well on film, and that medium probably circumvents a lot of the showing off with language games and point of view issues and they probably sped up the pace a bit because they always do in films, and some books at least benefit. I agree the ending was daft; the book was so much more effective without the epilogue.

I also didn't know either that you like films or that you dislike TV programmes. Interesting.
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