Sometimes finishing something is difficult, sometimes its easy. There have been books on my BBC List that have taken torturous weeks and others that have taken a few days. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is one of those pleasant few-day-read types. Not so much because its a simple, pleasant, easy-to-read story but more because its difficult to put down.
Reminiscent of Brave New World or 1984 in its depiction of a futuristic society, its focus on the role of women in society and the role of religion in society reminds us that we’re one mere catastrophic terrorist act away from such a dreaded distopia.
The novel is a first person narrative of a woman known only as Offred. Her story bounces between her current situation as a “handmaid” to a top ranking government official and the time “before” when she was a wife and mother. Her society is a theocracy, a government set up and run by a religious sect. Although reminiscent of a Judeo-Christian religion in nature, this government also hunts down dissidents such as Baptists, Quakers and Catholics – so it certainly isn’t a Christian denomination that would be instantly recognizable today.
The novel grows out of the nuclear, religious, political and social fears of the mid-1980s. The Star Wars Project, the rise of the religious right, abortion, feminism, women in the work place, the AIDS epidemic – its all here. The basis of the created society is that due to the results of nuclear fallout from failed nuclear power plants and rampant STD epidemics of particular virulent strain, the human race is at risk of extinction.
Many women have become incapable of bearing children, and many men are sterile (shh! don’t tell them – its against the law). In order to repopulate, the government has created classes of women: Wives, Econowives, Marys, Aunts and Handmaids. How do I describe the handmaid’s role? I’ll refer you to Genesis 30:1-3, the Biblical basis for the creation of this class of women.
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
Wives of the highest social class who are too old to bear children or incapable of bearing children must rely upon the Handmaid to provide her family with children. Bizarre sexual rituals, supposedly utterly devoid of any passion, are practiced involving not only the husband and handmaid, but the wife as well. Handmaids are valued only for the ability to conceive, carry and birth a child that survives to adulthood.
This book left me convinced of an important moniker “in all things, moderation.” Although thought to be a Biblical statement from St. Paul, it actually is the basis of a work by Aristotle – the closest St. Paul ever gets is a reference to temperance in I Corinthians 9:25 – check out what Blue Letter Bible has to say about it.
But the message applies. Obviously, use of abortion to the point of human extinction is a bad idea. Unchecked STDs running rampant because of lack of healthy sexual practices is a bad idea. Feminism run wild to the point that there are no families or children is a bad idea.
A pendulum swing in the opposite direction, however, is just as bad. Bizarre social classes subjecting women to a dominated social class valued only for their ability to procreate is a terrible idea. Theocracy, bad idea. Instituting practices found in the Bible yet not condoned in the Bible (quite the opposite in fact), very bad idea.
I loved this book. I think the ending was the clincher. It was a great book, without the epilogue. But those final couple of pages were a work of sheer brilliance. My favorite – the final sentence: “Are there any questions?” I adore the unconventional summation of the novel.
This book is ideal for book clubs who like heated debates. I’ve even suggested to one of my book club’s members that we consider this one at some point in the future. No matter what your book club likes – women’s issues, religion, politics, history, social values – there is something meaty here to discuss. You can sink your teeth into this book.
Some books are like long, luxurious bubble baths, soothing, comfortable; they smell like lavender. This book is like a steak dinner, you have to chew it, savor it, indulge in its richness, work at it to enjoy it. You finish it feeling full and satiated. You won’t walk away with that happy-book feeling warming you down to your toes, but your head will be full. You’ll be thinking, and (especially if you’re a woman) the simple ability to read and think for yourself will leave you feeling alive.
Up next on the list, Love in the Time of Cholera.