Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

5 of 5 stars
Published 1985

A classic Canadian novel, Margaret Atwood spins a tale of a dystopian society where women are only valued as servants or as baby makers. A military coup changes things in America overnight and society in the now-named Gilead becomes male-oriented and locked down. The environment has become toxic and it has affected the fertility of both men and women. Women who have proven to be fertile are forced to become Handmaidens, forced to keep populating the country via a rather bizarre ceremony involving a husband and apparently barren or post-menopausal wife who would then raise the child if it’s viable. Other women are Marthas, women that are the cleaners, cooks, servants. EconoWives are somewhat outcasts, unable to bear children.

This is the story of Offred (Of Fred, Handmaidens are forced to give up their true names) who is a Handmaid, living in a home with a Commander “Fred” and his wife, “Serena Joy”. Offred narrates the story from some time in the future, hoping it will be passed on. We do not find out her real name though we do know she was married “before” and had a child before everything changed. The child was taken away from her and she assumes her husband was arrested. Maybe he’s dead. She survives. She hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the new dogma but keeps her head down and tries to stay alive in the hope that she just mind find her daughter some day.

The Commander seems to take a liking to her and offers her a bit of freedom behind closed doors, with a game of Scrabble, occasional illegal reading material, small luxuries like hand cream.  If Offred’s clandestine activities are discovered by the Commander’s wife, she could be killed. But Serena Joy has her own agenda that includes Offred and her potential fertility. Offred is treading a fine line and it could prove disastrous or it could lead her to freedom.

What was particularly interesting in the “Historical Notes” at the end which answers the question “If Offred narrated the story, how did it get published?” I won’t elaborate, due to spoilers.

Ms. Atwood wrote this book while living in a divided Berlin, three years before the Berlin wall came down and her observances of the restrictive society had some influence on the novel. The story is kind of creepy when you read about all the restrictions the government put on society and on women in particular. The coup and it’s creeping, insidious removal of rights and freedoms makes you look at the society today and makes you wonder that the prospect of it happening in our world might not actually be so unbelievable.

The book is being made into a 10 episode series this spring and I am rereading it in anticipation. It will be shown on Hulu in the U.S. and on Bravo in Canada, with Netflix picking it up after it’s finished.

Update on A Handmaid’s Tale

I mentioned in a past post that Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is being made into a 10 episode series by Hulu, a cable network in the U.S. There was no word at the time that any station in Canada would be airing it.

This week there is good news on that front. Bravo in Canada will air A Handmaid’s Tale starting April 30, four days after the debut on Hulu! I can watch it legally! Once the series is finished, it will also be uploaded to Crave TV. We have that, but I’m not waiting 10 weeks when I can see it on Bravo. I’m quite excited about this. I have started rereading the book in anticipation. (edited: Finished! Review here)

Elizabeth Moss from Mad Men is cast in the main part of Offred.

The story takes place in the future in a totalitarian society in the Republic of Gilead where a Christian Fundamentalist group has overtaken the U.S. and quickly moved to create a society where human rights are a thing of the past and women are subjugated even moreso. Because of the pollution and increased levels of STDs, fertility is adversely affected and to keep the population from dying out, women called handmaids are used to be the bearers of children. The story is told from Offred’s point of view where we get flashbacks of her life before her current situation including when she and her husband and daughter tried to escape to Canada.  Handmaids are subjected to the sexual act in the presence of the wife of the couple in a ritualistic manner, hoping they will get pregnant.

Offred is attached to a high ranking official who defies the law and becomes obsessed with her, allowing her privileges in secret. The official’s wife is also trying to manipulate Offred who hasn’t become pregnant yet. She’s setting up an alternative situation with the chauffeur to help get Offred pregnant and Offred’s subsequent relationship with the chauffeur could end up making or breaking her. Offred also discovers an underground resistance movement but by the end of the book, her future is uncertain.

Another Margaret Atwood book, Amazing Grace, is also being made for tv. CBC and Netflix are cooperating on this 6 hour mini series about a mid 19th century maid accused of murdering her employer. The book starts off after Grace has been in prison for 10 years though she continues to say she has no memory of committing the crime. The story is told by Grace to a doctor. Margaret Atwood is going to appear in the series in a cameo role. Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley wrote the script with Atwood also having a writing credit. CBC will air the series in Canada and Netflix will carry it globally. There doesn’t seem to be an air date yet though one place I read speculated end of 2017 or early 2018.

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

2017: 28
3.5 of 5 stars
Published October 1953

Fahrenheit 451 was published in the early 1950s during the early days of the Cold War and the McCarthy era where potential Communists were targeted. Bradbury took a look at the present and foresaw a future where society was oppressed and locked down. Even in the 1950s there were book burning threats and censorship which hasn’t really gone away, with books being banned from schools and libraries even today.

At the time, he thought the rise of mass media was minimizing interest in reading and today, that’s even more relevant when people spend so much time watching movies and television, streaming video, and communicating in short sentences, brief video clips and photos of their everyday lives.

This is the story, set in the future (post-1960, remember, it was written in the early 1950s) of Guy Montag. He lives with his wife. He burns books for a living because books are now illegal. Firemen of the future will not prevent fires since houses and buildings are fireproofed, instead, they start them, seeking out places where people have hidden illegal books. Guy’s wife is detached and absorbed into the world of media, blasted out from flat screened walls in the living rooms of their house. He meets a young neighbour whose interests are old fashioned and who is shunned by her fellow students. Oddly enough, she disappears and Montag later finds out she was hit by a car and killed. I’m not sure if it’s hinted that there was a sinister reason behind this or not.

The turning point for him is the day where a woman refuses to leave her home when the firemen are trying to burn the house filled with books. She lights the fire herself and commits suicide. That affects Montag deeply. We discover he is not happy and  has been curious about books, wondering if there might be something in them that could make a difference to his life. He has been pilfering them from the fires and hiding them. We then find out from his boss how books came to be illegal: People began to lose interest with the onset of various types of new media, and little by little, the attention span of the general public shortened, books became abridged more and more until they were next to irrelevant. The government cashed in on the apathy towards books and began burning them, leading to new laws making them illegal altogether.

He connects with a former university professor who attempts to help him but when he impulsively reveals his books to his wife and her friends, they report him. He has to burn his own house but things get out of control and he ends up a fugitive. There are people living “off the grid” that help him. People who still believe in books. The final message of the book is surrounded in the legend of the phoenix, a creature that is destroyed in flames and is reborn over and over. Perhaps mankind can learn from their mistakes rather than self destructing repeatedly. The destruction at the end of the book might lead to a new rising and a lesson learned the next time around. We can only hope.

While censorship doesn’t seem to be prevalent these days, I feel sometimes it’s just under the surface. There are still governments in the world that are oppressive and some that seem like they could go either way if left to their own devices. People are so involved in the online world, social media and the like. Books are still popular but not as much as they were. Travel bans, rules, restrictions are all becoming more and more common. Newspapers are selling less as people turn to television and the internet for headlines. What Bradbury saw from the perspective of the 1950s doesn’t seem all that different to what could happen now. The fears he had are still relevant. We may not turn into a society that burns books or kills people for thought crimes (1984), but if we’re not careful, things might not be so very different in another generation or three.