Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale
I’ve been wanting to read The Handmaid’s Tale for quite some time; it took me far too long to get around to it. There’s a part of me that wishes I had forced myself to read it sooner, but I don’t know if I would have felt the same way about as I do now.
I highly doubt 16-year-old me would have been able to appreciate it, even though that’s when most people read it. I like that I was able to read it on my own terms (which seems like a clever metaphor for the whole book, bodily autonomy, choice, etc., but that’s all I’ve got).
My younger sister, Keely, read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school and HATED it. She told me a bit about it after she finished — particularly the first Ceremony scene — which, while definitely as cringy as she described it, was equally powerful and important to the novel. I think the deeper meaning of that scene is often lost on younger readers, I know it would have been for me.
Unlike my sister, I really loved this book. Even though it puts my exact fears into words (realistic, terrifying words), it’s a really beautifully written book. Margaret Atwood expertly describes an all-too-real post-apocalyptic United States and the resulting gender dynamics.
However, it feels WAY too timely, despite being written over 30 years ago. The Berlin Wall was still up when Atwood wroteThe Handmaid’s Tale, for fuck’s sake. A lot has changed since then, but at the same time, a lot has remained the same. The rise of a Gileadean-esque empire feels like it could happen now just as easily as it could have in 1986 (the year the novel was published).
The only thing that really dates the novel (and it’s subtle) is the use of outdated naming conventions for technology, like Compubank or Compuphone. Not that iPhone is that much more interesting, but at least it doesn’t have the word computer (or at least a part of it) in its name.
The Handmaid’s Tale taps into existing gender dynamics, that in the modern world, much like the world of the novel, are threatening to explode to epic and damaging proportions. Ideas such as female modesty, motherhood, sexuality, desire, and feminism are all discussed in its pages.
The concept of The Handmaid’s Tale is one that resonates with many modern men and women and voices a real concern that many, myself included, feel, especially the societal pressure (force?) for women to settle down and have children. But it would be silly to assume this is the only book that’s managed to stay relatable years after it was written, because it’s not.
There are tons of books — The Lord of the Rings, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice,To Kill a Mockingbird, and Romeo and Juliet, just to name a few — that have transcended the eras that they were written in. They don’t necessarily focus on contemporary events (or even real ones), but are relatable in other ways to many audiences other than the one when the book was first released. The Handmaid’s Tale is but one example. Relationships between men and women, no matter how extreme, are universal and worth discussing and analyzing.
This is a novel I think everyone should read; one that will make people more sympathetic to the struggles of others, and cautious as we head into the future. Because no one — not even men — benefit from a society like the one in The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel represents a symbol (an oppressed woman) and an extreme future that can be both incredibly depressing, but equally inspiring in the modern fight for gender equality.
My parting words are this: don’t let the bastards grind you down and read this book before you aren’t allowed to anymore. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.