Contemporary Literature · Science Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, a handmaid in an alternate-future society in which extreme conservative Christians have taken over the society. Women are forbidden to work, read, travel anywhere alone – women are forbidden to have lives, basically.

I’ve read it before, but it’s this month’s book club pick so I reread it. (And then it turns out I can’t make it to book club because of an emergency trip to New Mexico. C’est la vie.)  Atwood classifies her books as speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which is a major point of contention in my book club.  I was looking forward to debating this at the book club – one of our members is offended to no end by that – but I tend to agree with Atwood, if only because I think the intention of her books is to create a world the reader can imagine society creating.  In this case, I would say the telos (Greek for purpose, thank you liberal arts’ education) of the book determines its classification.  That being said, there are a lot of books that could be classified as either science or speculative fiction that are currently classified as science fiction.

The book itself is both fantastic and uncomfortable to read.  Atwood’s style isn’t about subtlety, that’s for sure.  When reading her work, one should be prepared to be made uncomfortable.  She draws a lot of connections between Offred’s treatment in the old society – our society, or at least our society in the 1980s – and the current regime that I didn’t catch the first time I read it.  The heavy-handed treatment of women under the government of Gilead were often a sharper, heavy-handed version of the treatment Offred received from men under Uncle Sam’s rule.

It is a feminist book, certainly, and, for this reading, I was fascinated by her treatment of sexual consent.  There were many grey areas within the book when it came to Offred’s sex life.  Most disturbing, actually, was Offred’s view of her consent.  Of note was Offred’s view of her own ability to consent; for instance, she is given the choice between becoming a Handmaiden, whose duties include having Biblically-approved sex with a specified couple – the Commander and his wife – or being sent out to the Colonies, a radioactive wasteland that shortens one’s life by decades.  However, upon making her decision, she feels she isn’t raped by the Commander because she “consented” to her situation. In another instance, her husband pushes her for sex she doesn’t want or enjoy, yet she doesn’t entertain the thought of verbalizing a refusal to his advances.  Throughout the book, Atwood captures our society’s more disturbing thoughts on gender roles and consent; namely, a woman has very little recourse for outright refusing sex and a man is always grateful to receive sex.   

Mind you, Atwood focuses on other aspects of feminism, conservatism, and the destruction of personal liberties by a totalitarianism regime. Both the men and women are stifled by and suffer from the domineering government.  I just found the issue of consent to be the most thought-provoking this read.

Overall, it’s, of course, a fantastic book.  Be warned, though, Atwood is deliberately hard to read. Her books are written with the intent of exposing the worst of our shared societal notions.  I wouldn’t pick this up for light reading, though her writing style certainly lends to that; rather it’s a book for when I want something meaningful and provocative couched in a world of make-believe.  Everyone, at some point in their lives, should read at least one Margaret Atwood novel.  (Even though I absolutely despise her views on science!)

If you’re looking for a book that challenges your notion of society or examines the need for feminism in a fiction format which requires a suspension of belief, than this is the book for you.  If your ideal sci-fi or speculative fiction is pure escapism material or if you want something that examines the general human condition rather than a very pointed critique of our society, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.

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