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18 June 2005

The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood

From the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County catalog record: "In a startling departure from her previous novels, respected Canadian poet and novelist Atwood presents here a fable of the near future. In the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, far-right ideals have been carried to extremes in the monotheocratic government. The resulting society is a feminist's nightmare. Women are strictly controlled, unable to have jobs or money, and are assigned to various classes: the housekeeping Marthas; and the reproductive Handmaids who turn their offspring over to the 'morally fit' Wives. The tale is told by Offred, a Handmaid who recalls the past and tells how her society came to be."

This book took a while to fully engage my interest, and I did not even form a rough opinion of it until more than half-way through reading. In part, I was daunted by its status as a "classic" - reading it implied work. I could not enjoy the novel without some parallel contemplation of the attention it has garnered, its historical context, and how it has both aged and remained vital in the 20 years since its publication. In the end, I needn't have put it off so long - the read was compelling and quickly dispatched in a few days.

The peculiar specialty of this book is that it offers a vision of the future in the vein of other sci-fi distopias such as Orwell's 1984, Huxley's A Brave New World, and most significantly, Jack London's The Iron Heel. Authors who survey the future landscape are harshly judged by readers who have the scorecard of history available to them, ready to make comparisons and award points for accuracy.

So here I go: While we do not live in a society as extreme as Gilead, it is looking more familiar all the time. If I had been asked to read this novel in high school during Clinton's first term, it would have seemed terribly out of date and pessimistic merely seven years after its first appearance. Predictions of a severe feminist backlash, an exaggeration of the AIDS crises, the rise of a fundamentalist Christian right - none of these strains of things yet to come were at the forefront of everyday thinking in 1992. Fast forward thirteen years and these are pressing, immediate issues. I find this a very startling example of how a novel's relevance can be so very altered by the context in which it is read. My favorite romance novels never alter!

What I found most compelling was Offred's continuous mental battle. She kept reminding herself that, only three years before, she wore bathing suits in public. She had a job. She had a daughter. So thorough were the architects of this new society that even a college-educated woman with myriad freedoms and pleasures to lose found herself being seduced by her new reality. After a time, everything becomes ordinary. She had to fight the lassitude of her position, the waiting, the monotony, the degredation, the moments of gripping fear that kept everyone in check, the urge for something more, something past - all of this without going numb or insane.

But she is not a hero. She is not the Huxley protagonists who make their escape, nor is she left a brain-dead proponent of Big Brother. She knows there is an Underground, and the ambiguous ending suggests she may have even benefited from its protection, but she cannot compromise her safety or the little piece of happiness she has found in her objectionable life in order to help its progress. She is, frankly, a very real assessment of a normal person, held fast by fear and apathy, yet propelled forward by hope and the sheer momentum of living. This, I believe, is Atwood's most significant achievement, even as the present influences any assessment of the accuracy of her futuristic vision.

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