The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Handmaid's Tale / 0-385-49081-X
This dystopia masterpiece, set in a modern world that rings eerily familiar years after the publication date, describes the daily life and desperation of a woman caught up in a social struggle that she cannot influence.
A state of emergency has been declared, the national borders have clamped closed, and martial law rules a country that had previously been open, democratic, and free. Who is the enemy? That isn't always clear. A religious group, perhaps, or terrorists, but maybe the government is lying about the war, who they are fighting, and how it is going. Like the narrator, a prisoner in the country she once loved, we only she what she is allowed to see. In this time of despair, terror, and lower fertility caused by toxic chemicals in the water and air, the majority of citizens are willing to give up their rights in exchange for a fleeting feeling of security and protection.
When the state of emergency is declared, a fundamentalist Christian-based sect of the government takes over, using Biblical passages wildly out of context to justify denying basic rights of citizenship to women. Women are no longer allowed to work, hold property, carry money, or read and write. The men - husbands, fathers, and brothers - are given the women's former belongings and are charged with their safety. The new "work" for women is bearing children, or (for older, infertile, upper-class women) being submissive wives. Divorce is retroactively criminalized, and women in second-marriages are rounded up as criminals and put to work as private sex slaves and baby-incubators, making heirs for the privileged and politically connected. This is the story of one of these women. She tells of her loss of freedom, her sorrow at her husband's death, the pain at having her daughter torn away from her, and the slow mental decay as she sleepwalks through her new life - the endless waiting for nightfall, the humiliation of her "work" in trying to conceive a child.
The story is a work of art, and a masterpiece. The pacing is slow, leisurely, and even. We are gently and carefully walked through the life of a handmaid, we see the horrors and pain, and - like our heroine - we are numbed by it. Shocked, saddened, and pained, yes, but mostly numbed. We see the signs outside the grocery stores with simple pictures only, because reading is illegal for women. We see the slow crawl of days, stripped of freedom, monitored even while she is bathing, lest she attempt suicide. We see the other women, the ones who have accepted their fate and have come to adore their captors and the ones who have rebelled, fought back, and lost their lives dying trying to reclaim what was once there own.
Even the epilogue, which Atwood has attached without a word of explanation, is a dash of sharp irony. Against all hope, the diary which we have been reading, written by this abused woman, has been found by later historians. These wise and 'modern' men are entranced by the diary, but not because they care about the horrors this woman has lived through. No, they are not here to 'judge' history, they only want to read her innermost thoughts, open her up, place her in history, date her and sign her and then delegate her to a nice shelf somewhere to quietly rot. Even in death, our lost lady has no name, no identity, no worth in herself, not because she is unimportant, but because the people who have power over her cannot appreciate her worth. Their priorities are wrong, and they can only consume others, without contributing anything worthwhile to society.
~ Ana Mardoll
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