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The Idle Book Club 24: The Handmaid's Tale

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The Idle Book Club 24:

The Idle Book Club 24


The Handmaid's Tale
With Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale soon to reach a larger audience than ever thanks to a television adaptation, we decided to take on the novel for the Idle Book Club—Chris for the first time, and Sarah for the second. It's a masterful imagining of a modern dystopia, and it remains just as relevant as ever.

 

 

Grab the book on Amazon or get it free with an Audible trial.

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Ah this is great! I've had The Handmaid's Tale sitting on my shelf ready to read for a while now - will get a start this weekend.

 

I've previously read Atwood's The Blind Assassin and it was really good. It has a construction that's playful in a similar way to Wuthering Heights (stories told inside stories), and it's had a strange effect on me.. where I've really enjoyed some books in the past but then forgotten key elements or what went on, The Blind Assassin has managed to stick firmly in my mind, even though at the time it didn't exactly hit me head on. I think it was the melancholy of it; at the time it had an almost oppressive effect, but remembering back to it I'm entranced by that feeling, and am drawn to reading more of her.

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59 minutes ago, Jason Bakker said:

Ah this is great! I've had The Handmaid's Tale sitting on my shelf ready to read for a while now - will get a start this weekend.

 

I've previously read Atwood's The Blind Assassin and it was really good. It has a construction that's playful in a similar way to Wuthering Heights (stories told inside stories), and it's had a strange effect on me.. where I've really enjoyed some books in the past but then forgotten key elements or what went on, The Blind Assassin has managed to stick firmly in my mind, even though at the time it didn't exactly hit me head on. I think it was the melancholy of it; at the time it had an almost oppressive effect, but remembering back to it I'm entranced by that feeling, and am drawn to reading more of her.

 

Yes! The Blind Assassin is the only other Atwood book I've read and I had a very similar reaction to that book. It's like the power of her words have seeped into me and created an undefinable but very real change that even years later I cannot shake. I love that book. 

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This book is really good. Read in college (12 years ago 🙁)

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On 11/03/2017 at 2:40 AM, Argobot said:

 

That is a great read - Atwood is seriously classy.

 

I finished reading it today, here're my quick thoughts:

 

Spoiler

First off, I really enjoyed it. One of the things that I liked the most is how much she tries to capture the main character's internal state of thought, and the way that she thinks.  Elements that might come off as a bit too ornamental in another work, like the wordplay and exploration of imagined etymology that begins many of the chapters, felt entirely natural to the experience of this very intelligent person who has to have some way of keeping her mind occupied in this incredibly constrained situation.

 

Similar to my feelings about The Man in The High Castle, I was wary of this what-if scenario, and early on in the book, I was feeling a little bit like it could be seen as a kind of strawman representation of the kind of world that a highly religious, patriarchal person (like, say, certain men in high positions in in the US federal system) might desire. But I think what keeps it from crossing the line in that regard is that it's focused more on the main character's experience of the world, as opposed to the world itself - whenever I felt indignant while reading, it was centred around my empathy for the main character's incompatibility with her situation, which is something that will always exist in a world where there's a highly religious or stratified social order - there will be people who don't fit the mould that society requires of them.

 

I think also, a key point is that while there's maybe a little more of an element of "fun" in exploring this what-if scenario than TMiTHC (one moment jumped out at me as particularly over-indulgent in this regard: the paragraph about the "Pen Is Envy" slogan at the Red Center), like Dick Atwood is making very particular and sobering points with her what-if. And by tying it so heavily to the the personal experience of a cis woman, she avoids the trap of it being too abstract or academic, which is something that I did feel TMiTHC suffered from a bit.

 

The final chapter was... interesting. It dives deeply into a speculative fiction trope, but I think what makes it relevant is that through it Atwood is trying to, as directly and loudly as she can, state: "You know this book you read, which is fiction, a fantasy, some kind of horrifying vision of a world you can't imagine actually existing? Well here are all of the real societies throughout history that have done the exact things that are in this book - some of them less than a century ago, in countries where it would be as unthinkable to their citizens now as it is to you, in your country." I have a feeling that this is a big reason a lot of people have been referencing The Handmaid's Tale recently in regards to what's going on at the moment in the US. Maybe instead of a snarky response to speculation about the immediate future, we need to be a bit more imaginative, and allow the possibility of legitimately terrifying things happening if we don't get up and stand against it. Trump's entire existence is a terrible cliche, but that doesn't mean he isn't potentially a very real harbinger of this or any number of unthinkable situations coming to pass.

 

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I'm looking forward to revisiting the book through your discussion!

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I just finished the book and loved it. Margaret Atwood is such a genius writer. None of her characters feel flat or token.

 

I'll listen to this episode and probably have more to say

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I have to reread the book before I weigh in more but I'm glad you addressed race, b/c when I think of women who have gone through handmaid-like experiences, one of the first people who jumps to mind is Sally Hemings, particularly how she lived in a small bedroom within the main white household and how isolating that probably was. 

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I've read this book two or three times, though not recently. I like it a good deal. At least twice I had to read it for a university seminar; I vividly recall how, in one of those, everyone in the class seemed united on how implausible a lot of the straightforwardly dystopian elements seemed. But that was back in 2009 or 2010, in the early Obama years, when (at least from a British perspective) it seemed like the anti-feminist, anti-choice currents in American politics had permanently consigned themselves to a sort of historical cul-de-sac. All of that seems terribly naive now.

 

It made a lot more sense to us then when considered alongside the politics of the Reagan era. There's an interesting trope in all kinds of American media produced in the 1980s to look back to the 1950s, both for its style but also for a certain kind of moral certainty; and so we get Back to the Future, and a sort of post-punk pop culture that embraces post-war, mid-century aesthetics; but we also get the likes of Phyllis Schlafly harking back to strictly 'traditional' gender roles. The Handmaid's Tale is a pretty fierce critical look at that tendency.

 

No doubt it reads very differently today. I still have trouble with dystopian fiction in the 1984 vein that assumes total authoritarian competence from its controlling powers; but in that regard I think The Handmaid's Tale offers a more interesting vision than most. Even the figures of authority felt to me like interesting, fallible human beings, and the intimacy of Offred's narrative in particular I always found intensely affecting.

 

Yet there's other parts I still find hard to swallow. Where the world-building leaves grey areas, it's compelling, but where it pins stuff down I'm not always sure it works. The idea that women are no longer taught to read, for example; I've always found this less convincing than the idea that they might know how to read, but simply not want to read any more (a la Brave New World). Part of the problem is that the book's 'speculative fiction' approach is very specific, and doesn't really give much leeway for allegorical interpretations; either our times measure up, or they don't. But none of that really affects the quality of the book in my mind - I think its real potency exists as an account of a woman's life under an oppressive gender/class-based system, and for me at least the particulars of that system are something of a sideshow.

 

Oh, and who knows what the HBO adaptation will be like, but I was surprised to discover that they already made a movie of the book from a script by Harold Pinter (!). I wonder if it could possibly be as good as this poster suggests.

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I love this book. Atwood is one of my favourite authors. Her Oryx & Crake trilogy is also very, very good as is really almost all of her other work. The Blind Assassin especially is amazing.

 

I think as far as speculative fiction with impact goes, probably only Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed beats it for me in terms of being both plausible, human and thought-provoking (I would love for that book to come up on the 'cast one day btw).

 

One thing that Atwood has said about the book that didn't come up, I believe, is one of my favourite things about it: nothing that happens in the book hasn't happened/been done by people at some point in the past. Everything in here has really happened at some point, though obviously not in this combination.

 

Finally I agree that the appendix is infuriating and disempowering/objectifying towards the narrator. Men being glib and jokey about a real woman's real suffering doesn't unfortunately even require the distance in time that is present in this version of affairs.

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4 hours ago, osmosisch said:

One thing that Atwood has said about the book that didn't come up, I believe, is one of my favourite things about it: nothing that happens in the book hasn't happened/been done by people at some point in the past. Everything in here has really happened at some point, though obviously not in this combination.

 

There's a line in the epilogue about how Gilead just borrowed ideas from other fascist/theocratic regimes and that nothing in Gilead was new. I wondered if that was Atwood commenting on how most of the tropes in here book were also borrowed from other dystopian novels.

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My point was more that none of the events, techniques, etc. come from fiction, dystopian or otherwise. It's in the article you & Chris cited as it turns out: 

 

One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.

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