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June 2017: The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood)

posted Jul 7, 2017, 1:17 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino

Summertime reduced our numbers a bit, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.  On June 8th, five of us met at the home of Nancy Bucy in San Leandro to enjoy some delicious hummus and decadent mini-cupcakes and to discuss Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  The book is a dystopian tale of a future America ruled by a fundamentalist and puritanical religious sect.  Environmental degradation causes birth rates to plummet, prompting the ruling elite to enslave fertile woman to bear their children.   The novel centers on one of these enslaved “handmaidens.” Her real name is never revealed in the novel.  Instead, she is called “Offred,” indicating her relationship to “Fred,” the master of her household.   We follow Offred as she remembers her life before the regime took power, mourns the loss of her husband and daughter, and revisits the process of becoming a handmaiden.  In between these reminiscences, Offred navigates her strictly controlled life and tries to maintain her sanity in the face of both boring mundanity and spine-chilling horror.  

Nancy S. and Mary S. both read the novel when it came out in the mid-eighties and neither liked it much at the time.  They might have been turned off by the graphic descriptions of the rape of Offred during elaborate, quasi-religious, impregnation ceremonies or by Offred’s relative passivity compared to other character’s more active resistance.   On this second reading, however, both Nancy and Mary appreciated the novel more.   We all understood why it is popular once again and why it has been made into a new TV series.  In the novel, a tyrannical regime seizes control of the government as a necessary measure to fight “Islamic terrorists,”  it harkens back to an earlier time in American history where the nation had a values that must be regained, and it forcibly imposes a strict moral code supposedly based on “traditional” and “Biblical” values.   Given the current political climate, many people see Atwood’s dark vision as more realistic than ever.  In fact, as Ruth MacNaughton pointed out to me in an e-mail, women are beginning to dress as handmaidens during protests against the current administration and in defense of women’s reproductive rights.  (See


There were still things about the novel that we weren’t that keen on.  For example, there’s a final section set in the even more distant future that is written in an annoying, mock academic style that we weren’t sure was necessary.  Also, Offred’s character still seems unsympathetically passive at times, though it is clear that she has very few choices open to her.  Nonetheless, given the book’s added relevance, we had a greater tolerance for the novel’s graphic portrayal of the oppression of women, as it is provides a framework for discussing the ways women’s lives are controlled and manipulated in our own times that seems to resonate with so many people.  Perhaps, the book can also point out vulnerabilities that we may not have fully appreciated before.  For example, in the novel, the regime takes dramatic control of the lives of its female citizens by seizing their financial assets and transferring them to their closest male relative, a process made easier by the fact that most people’s wealth existed only virtually in a computer network.  Surely, this is even more true of us today than it was when the book came out in 1985.   No wonder the book seems to have aged so well.

-Karen B