THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood

handmaids-tale.jpgThis novel was published in 1985, and set in what would then have been the not-to-distant future, in the Republic of Gilead – a totalitarian regime set up by a bunch of fundies who managed to kill the President and all of Congress and make it look like Islamic fundies were responsible. Despite the fact that I have a really hard time believing that people like Fred Phelps or even Pat Robertson (who seems reasonable in comparison) would be capable of such a coup, the novel is an extremely accurate portrayal of the repressive and hypocritical morality of religious fundamentalists, especially when it comes to sex.

Not only has the United States been overthrown by fundies (who are purging not only Catholics but Baptists – the novel has its darkly funny moments), but the birthrate has also plummeted, for a variety of reasons, including severe environmental degradation (nuclear and toxic wastes everywhere, pollution, etc). This leads to the establishment of “Rachel and Leah Centers” where fertile but not exactly moral (but not really really immoral) woman are indoctrinated and then assigned to high-ranking officials with infertile wives (because, really, it’s always the woman’s fault, right?) to have babies for them – like Bilhah and Zilpah did for Rachel and Leah.

The novel is narrated (“reconstructed”) by one of the handmaids, given the name “Offred” – which is both a patronymic (“Of Fred”) and a pun (“off red”), as the handmaids are dressed totally in red. Before the shit hit the fan, she was married and had a daughter; their attempt to escape to Canada (where else?) failed, and Offred ended up a handmaid, her daughter was given to someone more worthy, and her husband’s fate is unknown.

There are, as are required in dystopian novels, a secretive and potentially omnipresent police organization, an underground resistance, double agents, an escape attempt – but these are secondary elements: the novel is primarily concerned with exploring the role and psychology of a woman living under an oppressive patriarchy, and it does this quite well. The epilogue (a transcription of an academic talk titled “Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale” and delivered in 2159) adds, well, problems of authentication – it draws the reader’s attention to the “reconstructed” nature of narratives that appear to be offering a running account of events, among other things.

Though I may not have made this novel sound interesting, it actually was; I finished it in two days because I couldn’t put it down. Certainly I would recommend reading a little of it before deciding that my taste in novels is not to be trusted.

[cross-posted]

[also: on Oryx and Crake]

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