Feminist Fridays: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I find I’m always interested in feminist perspectives, whether it’s in regards to literature, pop culture, or current events. Feminist Fridays is going to be my forum for discussing these issues, and may come in the form of book (or other media) reviews, link roundups, or my rambling thoughts essays. If you’d like to make a habit of discussing feminist issues on Fridays, join in and leave me a link. If you’d like to contribute a guest post for Feminist Fridays, I’d be happy to chat with you about that was well, so contact me!

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For World Book Night, which is next Tuesday, April 23,  I’m giving away The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, so I decided to re-read it. This near-future dystopia is narrated by Offred, a handmaid in The Republic of Gilead. In this world, the Christian far-right has taken over North America and society is highly regulated and controlled. All women have limited rights—they aren’t allowed to read, work, hold property, or handle money. If they don’t fit into their proscribed role, they are deemed “umwomen” and ousted from the republic, forced to the outside world where they labor in a radioactive wasteland.

Handmaids are a class of women who serve in a reproductive capacity. They are nothing more than wombs. Sex for pleasure is an offense against the state. It’s only sanctioned during creepy ceremonial copulation.

But of course they said this new arrangement is to protect women. They are “honored” and “blessed” to be confined.

The strength of this book, and the reason it continues to resonate with readers decades later, is the complex and contradictory world-building. Atwood was inspired to write The Handmaid’s Tale by anti-pornography feminists who got in bed with right-wing conservatives to promote their agenda, and the society envisioned seems eerily and frighteningly possible.

“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”

Atwood’s writing is exquisite as well. Offred is very broken, almost paralyzed. The tension and conflict is very psychological and can be overwhelming at times. But the description is so lush, every metaphor so striking, it’s worth the effort.

“I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.”

Some readers might be frustrated by the ambiguous ending, but I loved it. Offred’s story is just one of many. It’s the one that survived.

“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

I’m excited to give this book to readers because of the impact it had on me when I first read it. It makes readers think. While it can be read as feminist, it presents a complex picture of gender, rights, sex, and society.

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Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? What are your thoughts? If you could give away one book, which would you choose? If you’re wandering around downtown Lawrence next Tuesday night, you might just get your own copy of The Handmaid’s Tale!

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12 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. I just read The Handmaid’s Tale about two years ago now – it’s such a great novel! I think it definitely deserves to be seen as a landmark work of dystopian literature. I almost wish that I had read it for a class – I think I would have gotten even more out of it. But oh well. Still definitely enjoyed reading it.

  2. I have never read The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s one of those books I’ve picked up over and over at the bookstore, but never actually decided to get. Your review along with all the comments has convinced me that I’ve got to check this one out. Thanks!

  3. I love that you’re getting the opportunity to give out The Handmaid’s Tale for World Book Night! I adore this book, and it would certainly go on a list of the books that impacted my life the most when I read them. It started my love affair with Margaret Atwood, and with this type of literature in general.

  4. The first (and so far only) time that I read Handmaid’s Tale was in the late summer of 2008, maybe a month before Sarah Palin was introduced as the Republican VP. It was eerie and terrifying how much she immediately reminded me of Selena Joy.

    I agree with Sarah M. that one of the most incredible things about the book is that it remains relevant and prescient through today. I’d like to re-read it, since I’m a more vehement (and, I hope, aware) feminist now than I was five years ago. I imagine there’ll be a lot that I didn’t pick up on my first time through.

  5. Hey, congrats on the above nomination! I agree!

    I read the Handmaid’s Tale back in my university days. It was my second Atwood book after reading The Journals of Susanna Moodie, so I was surprised to suddenly find myself immersed in this fantastic piece of speculative fiction. Later, while reading Alias Grace, I kept thinking about her amazing versatility and wondering why we writers worry so much about sticking to one genre, as opposed to writing what moves us.

    She is such an inspiration. Thanks for this great post, Molly!

    Maggie

  6. Hi Molly,

    Rachel and I are nominating you for a Liebster Award. It is a kind of bloggers circle award for awesome blogs. You can find out more at our blog, http://www.writeinseattle.wordpress.com

    I really like the post you did on the emergence of new fiction vs. young adult fiction. I also read the Handmaid’s tale a long time ago but certain images have stayed with me. I often loan out Diana Gabaldon’s book, “Outlander,” for a good read and strong female characters.

    -Janis

    1. Thanks!

      Dude, I totally appreciate the award, but I don’t usually do those posts. I have a list of awesome blogs on my sidebar.

      I’m glad you like the NA post — it’s something I continue to think about.

      OMG I loved Outlander too — I’ve only read the first three books in the series but it’s one I want to continue.

  7. Both my BA and MA are in Women’s Studies (my focus was on history/lit), so I read The Handmaid’s tale several times as an academic requirement (lots of interesting discussions with this book) and reread it a couple years ago. What strikes me most about it is how relevant it continues to be. And, I agree that it really distinguishes itself because it’s quite layered in depicting gender, sex and social constructs.

    (I have no idea what one book I would give people–those sorts of intense decisions are too much for me to handle.)

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