The Handmaid’s Tale

I read The Handmaid’s Tale for a book club, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a great read – intense, but brilliant. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a woman living in a  (fictitious) religious, totalitarian state, both of how she came to be where she is, and her struggle for freedom.

There’s a lot to unpack in the story. A few things that I found particularly striking were the religious theme, the patriarchy, and the lateral surveillance.

The religious theme I found interesting, primarily because it wasn’t something I’d read in a dystopian fiction for a while. It was striking to me too, that a book published before I was born could still feel so topical.

The patriarchal element was part of what made this book remarkable. There is a particular passage where, after her bank account is frozen, her husband is commiserating with her, telling her that he’ll buy whatever she needs. And she has a sudden realisation, that for him, in some sense, this is an increase in the power that he has.

There’s much more in the novel, and it’s excellent, but that was one moment that leapt out at me. Another thing I found fascinating was the lateral surveillance; the regime depends on people, terrified into reporting on each other, providing a degree of enforcement that a central body could never hope to match. It’s a scary feeling; and in some ways this books feels better rendered than 1984, as it felt more oppressive reading. It was, actually, read quickly in a day or two (which I did), a dark experience.

Finally, I think it’s interesting to think about the narrative arc in the book. Having recently finished Robert McKee’s Story, one of the questions that I’ve been thinking about in relation to books is: What challenges are the characters struggling (internally or externally) to overcome? What are they winning or losing?

I think the main struggle in the narrative is a somewhat internal one, a struggle for freedom. It’s not expressed in many overt actions, except in one major one towards the end – in some senses the character is a passive one, largely acted upon in a physical sense (this is very much Atwood’s theme). But throughout we see through her eyes, understand the world through her voice. And the struggle is, essentially, for freedom, simplistic as it may sound. The simple things of struggling to find a friend, of gaining hope, of learning what’s happened to her loved ones, of expressing love, or gaining control in a situation – these are all struggles that are enormously significant, and we see them all play out.

It’s a brilliant read – I highly recommend it.

Oh, and I should mention – there was a movie. You can read a review here.

UPDATE: Following the book club, I’ve looked up a reference somebody mentioned. The full article by Margaret Atwood is here, but one of the salient points – apparently most of the social actions that occurred in The Handmaid’s Tale had ‘precedents’. Tragically, that seems entirely plausible to me.


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