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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale (a group read)

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
audiobook: 11 hours

*** About the Book ***

In a world of declining birthrates, a new version of society is established in which women are strictly categorized. Those who are considered the most fertile become handmaids, a sort of concubine to powerful, married-but-childless men. This is the situation of the main character, known to the reader only as Offred, meaning "of, or belonging to, Fred". This is her story, or at least part of it.

*** Why I Read It ***

This book won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, and it was nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award. For those reasons, it counts toward the Mind Voyages Reading Challenge. It also counts toward the 1% Well Read Challenge, the Audio Book Challenge, and the Support Your Local Library Challenge.

*** My Thoughts ***

This is the first dystopian book I’ve read in a very long time. Other than 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD, it may be the only dystopian book I’ve ever read. This seems odd to me because I absolutely love dystopian movies, but I’m just not that interested in the books. I’m still not really into them after listening to THE HANDMAID’S TALE, although I did enjoy it. Dismal futures are just not a topic I want to read about all that often.

This book has been on my radar for a long time so I’m very glad that I read it. It was my introduction to Atwood’s work and I’m sure I’ll be reading more by her. I just can’t say that I loved it, or that I’d really want to read/listen to it again.

*** My Group Read ***

When I mentioned that I was going to listen to this book, two bloggers commented that they’d like to read along with me. After we read we decided to each come up with questions for the others to answer. I had a lot of fun doing this and already have plans for more group reads in the future.

Below are the questions I asked Dreamybee and Anna. My Q&A has some hints about what happens in the story but nothing that I'd call a spoiler, so feel free to read on without risk.

You can also visit Subliminal Intervention (Dreamybee) and Diary of an Eccentric (Anna) to see my answers to their questions as well - I do hope you'll drop by!

~ Q & A ~

Though at first it bothered me, in the end what made this book so appealing to me was that the main character, Offred, was “nothing special”. She wasn’t a heroine in any sense of the word, her life “before” wasn’t necessarily something to be proud of (she was dating a married man, even though he later married her). Her normalness is what really struck me; if this could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. Did this strike you in the same way? Or did this fact not impact you?

Dreamybee: I didn't actively consider this while I was reading it, but I think that's exactly what makes this story so effective. I never thought, Well, of course she found herself stuck in this situation, she was a _________(insert extreme stereotype of a woman here). She was just an everywoman, someone with an education, a job, and a family, living in a world with a shocking resemblance to our own when everything went so wrong so fast.

Anna: The fact that Atwood told the story from the point of view of an ordinary woman struck a chord with me as well. We never know Offred’s real name; she could be anyone. Like Offred, I’m a wife and a working mom, so when she begins to lose everything – her job, access to money, and her family – I couldn’t help but think about myself in her shoes.

Perhaps the creepiest part of the book for me was that, in a (twisted) way, the new system seemed to make sense. I could completely imagine the scenarios that would lead to a society’s acceptance of this system over a relatively short time. How did you feel about this? Could you empathize in any way with the designers of the new society, or at least understand where they were coming from? Did it make sense to you?

I understand exactly what you mean. While it seemed far-fetched and ludicrous on the surface, it was not unimaginable, possibly because we have seen similar changes in recent history. At the time of writing, Atwood was probably watching Iranian women lose their rights and freedoms. Today, Iraqi women are trying to recover from a similar loss of freedom. The only difference between Atwood's Gilead and our Iran and Iraq seems to be the reigning fanatical culture. Offred says that Islamist fundamentalists were *blamed* for the attack on the U.S. Immediately after the attack, numerous anti-feminist constraints were put into place, presumably by the attacking party. The conclusion that I came to was that the U.S. ran in the opposite direction, embracing Christianity (although the historical notes at the end mention the "Krishna and Kali elements in the State Religion of the Early Gilead Period", which would indicate a Hindu influence-this part still has me a little confused) and a society where women are respected, not diminished. At the same time, there is the fear of a declining population (women were resorting to extreme measures like artificial insemination, surrogacy, and fertility clinics). This fear along with the fanatical embrace of the "correct" religion resulted in a society where women are revered and sacred and protected, so much so that society can't risk them doing anything that would endanger themselves or their potential offspring. Here is where they are given Aunt Lydia's highly revered "freedom from"-freedom from decisions, freedom from temptation, freedom from religious ambiguity-at the cost of "freedom to"-freedom to think, freedom to choose, freedom to learn, freedom to condemn one's soul. So, while I couldn't exactly empathize with the designers of this society, I could definitely see how it got to where it was.

Anna: Some of the events that transpire seem plausible, and that made the book scary in a way. I can understand why some people would want to take a stand against things they believe are immoral and want to change things for the better, but I can’t understand the ways in which they enacted change. As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself how crazy these people were to believe these things – and how sad because I’m sure if these events were to transpire for real, these people would exist.

The epilogue provided a framework for the novel. Although it didn’t answer all my questions, it did provide a resolution to the story that I appreciated. And the fact that it was set in Nunavut, with the native population hosting the conference, was a bonus for me. What is your opinion of the epilogue? Did it add to the story or detract from it? Would you have preferred the story to end with it?

I was glad for the epilogue. When the story ended, I was like, "What!? That's it??" Then I realized that the "Historical Notes" were part of the story. I definitely appreciated this additional background information. The Nunavut part of it didn't really strike me during the reading, but that does add an interesting bit to the story.

Anna: I though the historical note at the end was interesting and answered some of the questions I had while I was reading, but it left many questions about how Gilead came to be unanswered. The actual ending to Offred’s story was unsatisfying to me. I wanted more closure, to know what happened for sure. I think I would have been disappointed if the historical note/epilogue hadn't been included.

I had a lot of fun reading this along with Dreamybee and Anna. Thanks ladies!


Hannah Stoneham said...

Thanks for sharing this, it is very interesting. I read the Handmaid's Tale for an A Level dissertation and before our class started it, our teacher said "this book will change your lives girls". I think that was true - it did change the way we thought, but that was partly based on the fact that we were only 17 at the time, so had only partly formed ideas about religion and society and femininity. Certainly, I think that the book is a huge achivement and very full of suspense etc. I have never seen the film and would quite like to give it a try one day. Thanks, Hannah

Dreamybee said...

Thanks for initiating the read-a-long. I had fun doing this, and I find that I think more about what I'm reading when I know I'm going to have to discuss it with others who have read it.

Serena said...

Interesting book for a read-a-long. Thanks for sharing your review and the answers to your questions from Anna and dreamybee!

Dave said...

The descriptions of this book have seemed to warn me away, and after reading your thoughts I'm still hesitant. Not too long ago, I re-read Fahrenheit 451 -- you might like that one more.

Alyce said...

I find that when I read dystopian fiction I end up being unsatisfied with endings because I'm looking for a concrete wrap-it-all-up-for me ending, and they usually don't end that way. On the other hand, I've found that my favorite dystopian fiction books (like The Giver by Lois Lowry) do have an open ending, so I think really it's just a matter how it fits with the whole book.

I haven't read The Handmaid yet, but it's on my shelf and I promised myself I would get to it this year.

I just finished reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (another dystopian book) and loved the book while I was reading it, but in hindsight I'm not sure how much I like it. Usually I have the opposite happen (with a book growing on me after time).

Heather J. said...

Hannah - I've heard the same thing from others who read it around that age; it seems to have a huge impact on still-developing minds.

Dreamybee - I had fun with our discussion too! And I agree, I think harder about a book when I know I have to discuss it.

Serena - Glad you enjoyed it!

Dave - Yeah, I'm not sure I'd recommend it wholeheartedly ... I AM glad I read it though. I haven't read 451 yet; I can't seem to get past the first few pages of that one.

Alyce - I wonder if it is the same thing for me (about the endings I mean). But I also haven't read many dystopian books so I can't say for sure...

Rebecca Reid said...

I wasn't crazy about this book. I too was impressed with how realistic it really could be. But not one I want to reread!

Heather J. said...

Rebecca - My sentiments exactly.

Anna said...

I had a great time with this group read, which was my first.

I don't know what it is about dark, creepy stories, but I enjoy them, even when they leave me feeling a bit depressed.

Diary of an Eccentric

Heather J. said...

Anna - You are welcome to keep your dark creepy stories! LOL But I'm glad you joined us - this was fun. :)

christa @ mental foodie said...

This is already on my TBR as I read such good reviews about it. I haven't read a whole lot of dystopian books but recently read 3 and was surprised I enjoyed the genre. I liked The Unit and The Adoration of Jenna Fox (YA). You can see the 3 reviews here

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