Book 272: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's TaleI can’t believe it’s been over five years since I last read this incredible novel. But thinking about it as I write this I’m not too surprised. I last read this while working on a paper for my MA and that paper didn’t go well, because I apparently didn’t “understand how to apply gender theory” and I was given the opportunity to completely re-write the paper.

I was incredibly pissed at the insult, because that’s how I took it, and I spent a lot of time rewriting the paper in such a way as to insult my professors and the program. In no uncertain terms I stated that gender theory does not preempt every other theory and that scholars needed to be incredibly careful of over-stepping their bounds. I did eventually receive a passing grade and they invited back to pursue a PhD (I declined), but it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Thankfully, there was plenty of time between that last re-read and this re-read and I once again discovered why Margaret Atwood is a (the?) master of speculative fiction. It didn’t hurt that this re-read took place in Boston/Cambridge, the geographical setting of the novel, even though in the novel it is the Republic of Gilead. If you’ve not read the novel and plan to, don’t read past this point as there are a few spoilers and definitely spoilers in the quotes.

There is so much I could talk about and rather than try to write about everything I’m going to pick three quotes and talk briefly about them. The first,

“You’ll have to forgive me. I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it. Like a White Russian drinking tea in Paris, marooned in the twentieth century. I wander back, try to regain those distant pathways; I become too maudlin, lose myself. Weep. Weeping is what it is, not crying. I sit in this chair and ooze like a sponge.” (294-5),

is incredibly important and happens about one hundred pages from the end of the novel. At this point the reader can make an educated guess about Offred (of Fred, handmaid’s are given the name of the Commander they serve)’s fate and Atwood finally reveals that this is a presumed first hand reflective-account of Offred’s story and shows her mastery of the speculative fiction genre.

Most authors when they add an epilogue or extra chapter ruin their novels, but Atwood’s brought this novel to an entirely different level! The final chapter is a “transcript” of an academic conference studying the Republic of Gilead. This one chapter could easily be argued to ruin The Handmaid’s Tale and it’s incredibly harsh, yet necessary warnings of where sexism and misogyny could easily lead—and it remains harrowing almost 30 years later; but it doesn’t for me. This extra chapter created a future-depth easily foreseeable in the same way we study ancient cultures and societies.

The second quote,

“I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.” (86),

I highlight because of its importance to feminism and gender theory. Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble (Wikipedia link) in the late 1980s where she wrote about the iconic/iconoclastic theory of gender perfomativity, around the same time Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale. Seriously, if someone would have read this one single quote to me when I first studied Butler’s Gender Trouble things would have clicked SO much faster. I won’t go into what gender performativity is, but suffice to say Atwood nails one of the, if not the most, crucial aspects of it with that line.

In Atwood’s novel traditional female gender roles are split into three types of women: Wives, Marthas and Handmaids. There are more women out there, bu these are the primary and they’re denoted by the color of their garments (blue, green and red, respectively) and their roles are incredibly striated. Wives are just that public wives and if they can reproduce they do, Marthas are servants in essence, providing cleaning and cooking, and Handmaids are solely for reproduction. There are also econowives who wear stripes and provide multiple functions. In breaking down many of the gendered functions of women Atwood highlighted the performativity aspect in a way that made it easier to understand and to apply.

I cheated on the third quote and it is actually two quotes,

“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.” (41); and

“I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” (134),

and I chose them because of that paper I wrote in 2008. I spent a lot of time learning about binaries dealing with gender and even though that way of thinking slowly dissipated the more I thought and the more I read and wrote, the more I realized binaries exist in everything. They’re not always black or white, male or female or top or bottom, but they do exist and one of the most prevalent and one that I wanted to look into more were the ideas of dystopias and utopias. This is even MORE important with the plethora of young adult dystopia flooding the book market these days.

What I found most interesting in comparing The Handmaid’s Tale and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy is that dystopia/utopia authors invariably set their books up as binaries between the two. You cannot have a dystopia without a utopia and vice versa, there will always be the beauty (or horror) of the past and there will always be the potential for a beautiful or horrible future, but the point is authors have to compare their worlds to another time or place to create the sense of (or physical) dystopia/utopia and this fascinates me. It clearly fascinates millions of people!

Recommendation: Read it. Seriously, even if you just read it as a story and don’t give a hoot about feminism, literature or speculative fiction, I think everyone can find something in this novel that they would like. Although it’s not as much a science fiction novel as I’d place Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx & CrakeThe Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), it is just as terrifying in its “this seriously could happen if given the right series of events and timing” setting/story. I especially enjoyed the cheeky nod to Geoffrey Chaucer, after all my recent reading, in the epilogue.

This isn’t the last you’ll hear of The Handmaid’s Tale so keep an ear out 😀

Opening Line: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Closing Line: “Are there any questions?” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from The Handmaid’s Tale
“I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” (10)

“The cigarettes must have come from the black market, I thought, and this gave me hope. Even now that there is no real money anymore, there’s still a black market. There’s always a black market, there’s always something that can be exchanged.” (18)

“They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then.” (33)

“I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.” (39)

“As for you, she’d say to me, you’re just a backlash. Flash in the pan. History will absolve me. But she wouldn’t say things like that until after the third drink. You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t know what you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?” (156)

“Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever. Others have thought such things in bad times before this, and they were always right, they did get out one way or another, and it didn’t last forever. Although for them it may have lasted all the forever they had.” (171)

“There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.” (196)

“Though I remembered now. What was in them [magazines] was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation ,pain overcome and transcended endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.” (201)

“The machines talk as they print out the prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over. Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again. There are no people inside the building: the machines run by themselves. You can’t hear the voices from outside; only a murmur, a hum, like a devout crowd, on its knees. Each machine has an eye painted in gold on the side, flanked by two small golden wings.” (217)

“I said there was more than one way of living with your head in the sand and that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away, I said. You couldn’t just ignore them.: (222)

“You were a wanted child, God knows, she would say at other moments, lingering over the photo albums in which she had me framed; these albums were thick with babies, but my replicas thinned out as I grew older, as if the population of my duplicates had been hit by some plague. She would say this a little regretfully, as though I hadn’t turned out entirely as she’d expected. No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well. but despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another, we did as well as most.”(235)

“It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him…I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me…We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his. Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.” (236)

“We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.” (283-4)

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26 thoughts on “Book 272: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

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  5. I love Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourites. Thanks for writing about it! Another favourite is Alias Grace, which is completely different. Have you read that one?

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  6. Amazing, amazing read. I think it’s definitely one to reread every few years or so as well. I’ve read it 3 times, and prob will read it every so often in years to come. Atwood is a genius, and one thing she does is create dystopian societies that are realistic in many ways. Her books take social issues, like women’s rights, fertility, and freedom of religion, and just explode with amazingness while still teaching us about the perils of groupthink, extremism, etc. She’s just amazing.

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  7. I’ve only read a couple of her short stories, so I skipped the post as you suggested to avoid spoilers. I really need to get around to this. I feel like a bad Canadian for not having read her.

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  12. I’m happy to see that the second quote reminded you the theory of gender performativity. I’m writing my master thesis on gender performativity theory and one of the books I’m studying is “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It was a pleasure to read your article. Thanks!

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    • Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. This book is an excellent example of it and I remember using it in a couple of papers because of it’s extreme division of gender rolls and creating sub-gender rolls. Good Luck with your thesis!

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