Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Book Review: "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Anchor, 1998)

Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has experienced a relatively major resurgence in the last handful of years. First gaining new traction about the time of President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the book has since re-entered the public conversation because of the Hulu streaming television show and, more recently, the Supreme Court’s leaked preliminary ruling to strike down Roe v. Wade. Dark days call for dark books. While my wife read the book shortly following Trump’s election with a book discussion group, when the Supreme Court ruling was leaked, I pulled the book from our shelves to read it myself. I never had. I read it in two sittings, over the course of two evenings, and I’m of the opinion that everyone should read this book.

Atwood’s book, some have said on social media, isn’t prescient—though one could argue that it still is—it’s history. Though both positions are unfortunate and valid, it might depend on a reader’s point of view—and knowledge of history. Yes, the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693 persecuted women for a number of social causes, including factionalism, family rivalries, fraud, sexism, and socio-economic hardships. Yes, the United States government jailed tens of thousands of “promiscuous” women during World War I ostensibly to protect soldiers from prostitutes and sexually transmitted diseases. Yes, more than 60,000 people—mostly non-whites, and mostly women—were sterilized in a majority of the United States during the 20th century, well into the 1960s. And yes, the Tuskogee Syphilis Study led to the death of more than 100 untreated Black men between 1932 and 1972. Eugenics and race- and gender-based persecution is real, and more recent—still current—than we might have realized. And they could return. 

Atwood’s book is a stark, simply told story of a society in which all rights are removed for women. They cannot work. They cannot maintain their own bank accounts or credit cards. They can either work in forced labor camps, as prostitutes, as caregivers for men, or as handmaids—surrogate mothers—for the wealthy, well to do, and well positioned. Men are in charge. It’s a riveting read and well worth public attention. The most recent documented attempts to ban the book in American high schools—in 2020—failed, and the book was retained.

Not only is Atwood’s novel socially relevant and a serious warning for citizens not considering the body politic—it’s inspired me to learn more about body autonomy and integrity as human rights issues—it’s a very well written book. Largely considered a dystopian novel, I’d suggest it qualifies as social science fiction in which society, politics, and culture become the speculative technology under consideration. I view it on par with Ray Bradury’s Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Cautionary tales for times of societal unrest and upheaval.

The end piece, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” is offered as a fictional academic paper and presentation delivered at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies. The paper examines the discovery and legitimacy of the document, its potential authorship, and the impact of the Gilead regime. Along the lines of social science fiction, it also mentions the “top-secret Sons of Jacob Think Tanks, at which the philosophy and social structure of Gilead were hammered out.” Yes, the persecution of women was planned and socially engineered, with the Sons of Jacob in stark opposition to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which was entrusted to preserve and protect human knowledge in order to rise from the ashes of a collapsed society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is about the societal collapse in terms of the removal of citizens’ rights, and the first generation of women to experience it—the transition. To paraphrase the Aunts—female educators and wardens—that first generation will get used to it, and future generations of women won’t know any better because they won’t know the way things were before Gilead. That, I think, is the true horror of the book.

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