Book Review: A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

by Richard @ Flexible Reality

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One of the first observations of note is when this book was first published, in 1986, at a time in Ameican culture markedly different than our own time. Atwood identified several strands in our civil society which have come into an unpleasant view within the past few years, which were only wisps in 1986. Most of the book is attuned to a woman’s place in a dystopian World with, as other reviewers have pointed out, very little effort put into an explanation or characterization of how a late 20th Century New England society could morph into Gilead. In Huxley’s Brave New World,  published in 1932, the reader was treated with a plausible transition scheme, whereas in the Handmaiden’s Tale it is perfunctory, taking up less than a paragraph in a 535 page novel.

There are some moments of carefully constructed observations and descriptions of set and setting; but a lot more space was devoted to casual, and repetitive descriptions. A reader is not treated to the accuracy of description one experiences with Updike, nor are the characters as tightly portrayed, or tactile. It would be difficult for an artist to paint a life-like image of any of the characters, something that Joyce Carol Oates makes incredibly easy.

Many of the more shock-producing scenes seem manufactured, without a sense they could have been naturally occurring or developed incidents. Plus there are a host of incongruous elements such as arming Guardians with machine guns, the fastidiousness of smoking a cigarette, the pervasiveness of spies and surveillance, computerized databases, and fetishes regarding killing and murder. The at-times haphazardous transitions from present time to “the time before” is also bothersome., as are the sentence fragments which are more like scribblings on a wall than a stream of consciousness or linked relationships between element fragments.

However, the book does have considerable value for both male and female readers for its portrayal of the “female condition” in relationships, with children, with love, and languid social powers. But all this is secondary to the acclaim Atwood has received for this book for its focus on conditions Americans have seen develop in Trumpworld. The lies, nastiness, cruelty, corrupted religiosity, contempt for others, and the acceptance of a manufactured reality seen in today’s society match the conditions seen in Gilead, but were not readily apparent in 1986. In short, it’s a tough read, and not something I feel comfortable recommending to other readers.

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