Book review – The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian story told by a handmaid, a woman forced into a sexual servitude/breeding program in a near-future totalitarian society.  In the Gilead women are defined to be a non-humans and treated as a slaves and/or breeding machines for “the good of the society”.

“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some. ”

The Commander “The Handmaid’s Tale”

The story-line describes her daily life and thoughts in the household of a high governmental official, the Commander. Story of the past is retold through a non-chronological flashbacks to show how she and the world got to the madness they are now. How a democratic society (similar to the USA we are familiar with) changes through an almost-logical steps from “normality” into a madness and a near-acceptance of it. The result is a totalitarian society where half of the population is considered a property and even for the rest human rights are a joke.

The Handmaid's Tale book review
Illustrator Noma Bar book cover for The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood’s writing is incredibly powerful. The picture she creates is a horror story, emphasized by the feeling that all of this could actually happen. Nothing we haven’t seen before of couldn’t get to again. In fact, you can end up of with a feeling of reading a diary from the past (or worse, memory of the future).

“As I have said elsewhere, there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.”

The Handmaid’s Tale

Side episode of a middle-aged shop lady telling that it’s about time that somebody would finally dealing the riff-raff that has been “ruing it for the rest of us.” brings in mind similar statements expressed around us almost daily, in one or an other variation. Of course, in the neat way that stories come together, we learn that when in a following days that same shop lady herself disappeared nobody else objected or questioned it either.

The Red Center is a place where women are “trained” by other women. To be broken, to make them obedient enough, while keeping an eye on them each moment so they wouldn’t take the last way out. In each and every totalitarian regime there have always been people among the oppressed helping to keep the others down.

“We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.”

Aunt Lydia in the Red Center

One thing that bothered me about writing is that the time frame sounds like it doesn’t add up. In her life before the regime change story teller managed to graduate from college, have different jobs, get married and raise a five year-old daughter. When the main story-line takes place the protagonist is 33 years old (for a story to work she would have to be in a fertile age). By that age she has also been in “the service” for more than few years and through “the training” in the Red Center that (though never exactly stated) sounds like and other year or two.

Even with the book written in the 80-s when people started family earlier, the math doesn’t seem to add up. This, however, is a small detail, probably intentional to emphasize how fast even extremely radical changes can be and didn’t stop me from considering the book to be brilliant read.

With a TV-series running The Handmaid’s Tale has become more popular than ever. Yet the book itself is must read, ageless classic for anyone who enjoys a good dystopian story.

A few quotes from The Handmaid’s Tale:

“But people will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot. ”

“They pick him up and heave him into the back of the van like a sack of mail. Then they are also inside and the doors are closed and the van moves on. It’s over, in seconds, and the traffic on the street resumes as if nothing has happened.
What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.”

“What’s dangerous in the hands of the multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are
Beyond reproach, I said.
He nodded gravely. Impossible to tell whether or not he meant it. ”

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
In Latin “Do not let the bastards grind you down”

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