When I was a kid, I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on cable television. You know, the one with Natasha Richardson. I thought it was a cool movie. A bit on the strange side, but cool nonetheless.
Flash forward to a couple of Monday’s ago. I’m at our book club and we just finished reading the book. As we go around giving our likes and dislikes of it, I mention that I saw the movie as a kid. The responses were along the lines of GASP! SHOCK! YOUR MOTHER LET YOU WATCH THAT?! This startled me because I really don’t remember the movie being all that bad. There wasn’t any nudity, and the only real lasting image I kept from the movie was when a woman in red went medieval on a guy who supposedly killed a mother and her unborn child. I say ‘supposedly’, because this is in a movie where truth spoken by loudspeaker can never be trusted.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a woman named Offred. It isn’t her real name—that had been taken away from her along with her property, her identity, even her sex. Dressed in all red, she is now a ‘handmaid’ who can only go out in the presence of other handmaidens. She’s not allowed to read or write. She’s not allowed to have any thought of fun or pleasure. Her sole purpose is to produce a child for her Commander and his wife.
What’s scary is that before all this, Offred had a normal life. Granted, she was sleeping with a married man, but she had her own life and the freedom to live the way she wanted. Now, all that exists in painful flashback. It doesn’t matter how her world had gone from normal to this cultish state of existence. All Offred can do is keep her sanity intact as she deals with the mundane of doing nothing except wait for the Commander’s wife to call her to do her duty.
I’ve always been a huge Atwood fan. This book first introduced me to her work and it’s just as good as I remember. Atwood has a wonderful knack for detail, and it helps carry the book along where the main protagonist spends most of her time sitting and waiting. Conversely, I liked how we never get any infodumping on what happened to Offred. We are as baffled as she is as to why all this is happening and how she should deal with it. The flashbacks to the past are bittersweet as well as informative–we can feel Offred’s despair and longing to know what happened to her lover, her best friend, and her only daughter, who was taken from her.
When I was younger, I never saw the feminist angle on this. I’m catching it now: how they other women to keep the handmaidens in line. How she starts doing forbidding things with the Commander, like play Scrabble, but not because he pities her—he’s only using her to satisfy his own needs. This is evident when he sneaks her to Jezebels, sort of a black market nightclub where women are free to dress whatever they like and talk to men. Of course, it becomes apparent that it’s just another form of prison.
The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that Atwood doesn’t really make it clear that Offred’s a handmaiden because she’s been sleeping with another man’s wife. It’s not until we reach the end of the story, when there’s a "transcript" of an academic talk that discusses the finding of Offred’s story, and it’s there we learn that only those women who were deemed "unmorally fit" were the first wave of handmaidens. Apparently there were other women who were pretty much left alone. Other than those useful bits of information, I felt this transcript was tacked on and provided way too much back history into the story.
I found it interesting that our club read this right after reading "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow. Both deal with dystopian near futures that can easily come to pass if we allow it. While I wasn’t as scared as such a thing happening in the Handmaid’s Tale as I was with Little Brother, it does make you think about other places where this is as commonplace as sin. This gets 3-1/2 red dresses out of 5. And try to learn Latin—you’ll never know when you need to translate an obscure message you’re not supposed to read.