This book is one of my favourites and I had to reread it for my class and essay. I read it first a couple years ago while I was going through a major dystopia fling that started with the iconic 1984. So I read it alongside Huxley’s Brave New World, Zamyatin’s We (another book I had to reread for the same class), Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and maybe a couple others. I don’t like rereading books very often because it feels like I’m taking time away from new books that I haven’t yet explored but I did enjoy the very quick reread of this book in an afternoon and I just fell in love with it some more. What I found interesting however is hearing how vehemently some people hate this book. Perhaps it’s the genre of dystopia or that is focuses on women’s issues but a number of people said they absolutely did not like a single thing about this book.
I am a fan of dystopia yet it also terrifies me because I can see how these types of regimes would really not be that hard to implement. Atwood is clear in interviews and in the author’s note that other than the synthesis nothing in her book is entirely original. Absolutely every one of these policies or situations has been used at some point in history and that is what terrifies me. My mother would probably dislike this book because she sees it as unrealistic yet I think the power of this sort of books is their realism. You just have to look back to the United States after 9/11 to see a society that is willing to give up a number of their freedoms in exchange for the (false) feeling of being secure. People were willing to allow a police state to take over and for civil liberties to be suspended for an unknown amount of time because they were told it was for their own protection. How hard would it be to install a totalitarian regime in the wake of the suspension of civil liberties? The graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, explores the possibility of a nation’s own government causing the initial panic in order to create a complacent society that would gladly accept a protective overarching regime.
Atwood criticizes many of the right-wing American religious centred lobbies that are undoubtedly misogynistic. The pro-life ( more appropriately anti-choice) lobby is criticized in this novel because the forced birth type society is their ideals taken to the very extreme and they don’t like what they see. I think one of the most important secondary characters in the novel is Serena Joy. She was a religious evangelist who preached that the position of women was in the home and that the new feminist movements were actually anti-women, she hypocritically wasn’t confined to the home but she said that was a sacrifice she had to make to serve god and help people. But when her preached ideal society based on the morals she previously avowed came into being she was then relegated to the home and it is clear she is not happy with her new passive and powerless position.
Another important aspect of dystopias that cannot be dismissed is that this type of society is not completely unrealistic. Atwood’s writing of the novel was influenced by what she was hearing about monotheocracies in the Middle East, especially Iran. One of my goals in life is to write a dystopian novel but instead of a Christian basing, mine would have its foundations in the teachings of Islam though I have a hard time thinking about how one could write a fictional novel where the oppression of women is more extreme than what currently happening in the Middle East and parts of Africa. The only hope I’d have for it would be that if the oppression was relocated to a familiar setting of North America or Europe, some people might finally open their eyes to the true horridness of Shar’ia Law and its clear foundations in the Qu’ran and the Hadith.
Anyways, that’s enough of a ramble, if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s tale yet go and do it because it is fantastic. If you’re not frightened - you’re not paying attention.