My Weekend’s Booked: A Book Review of The Handmaid’s Tale

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“We lived, as usual by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

Imagine a dystopian America where a Judeo-Christian regime has recently toppled the United States government and fertile women have become vessels for white men’s babies. This is the setting of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was what Margaret Atwood describes as speculative fiction: the book provided commentary on the political and religious trends of the decade and drew inspiration from the Puritans, who with their arrival to America looked to institute a theocracy with no tolerance for any religious dissent.

Offred is the narrator of the plot and is a handmaid, living with the Commander and punished for having been a mistress and being married a divorced man before the advent of the Gilead regime. Offred has no rights in this society: gender roles are strictly delineated and enforced. The handmaids must all wear red habits and cover their heads,  and when they go out must always have a companion with them. Due to heavily polluted waters and air the human population is plummeting: babies (if they are conceived) often are born mutated and inviable. Abortion and prenatal testing are forbidden, and the blame for failure to reproduce is laid squarely on the woman’s shoulders. A handmaid’s worth is measured solely in her ability to provide children to the society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is considered by many to be a modern classic, and I can see why. The novel is timeless in that the same problems that inspired Atwood to write the book in the 1980’s are still prevalent today: gender equality, environmental degradation, reproductive rights, and the role of Church and State. From my Catholic viewpoint this book was a bitter pill to swallow, but it is a reminder to teach and live out the true faith: love, compassion, and forgiveness.

This book was a departure from Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy: it was darker and missed the banter and humor that flavored the other novels. However, the characters were well developed, and the plot refused to fit a particular stereotype. The book layout was something to get used to: the novel did not use quotation marks, and though that is not my favorite style it seemed to fit with the first person perspective.

If you’re looking for an intense read over the weekend, one that will make you rethink society and the uncertain future: The Handmaid’s Tale is for you. (I will be indulging in my favorite pastime of watching the recently released film adaptation on Hulu and remarking on/correcting all the departures from the book.)

Question of the Day:

Do you watch the film version after you read a book? I almost never watch a film without reading the book first!

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