Saturday, June 03, 2017

Who Can Remember Pain?

The Handmaid's Tale 

The Handmaid's Tale

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”   ― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

I have enjoyed several of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years; especially Oryx and Crake, the first novel in her Maddam Trilogy. I had not read The Handmaid's Tale until our Thursday evening book group chose it for our most recent book discussion. This also gave me the opportunity to use my Kindle app which I rarely use since I prefer the feeling of holding a "real" book. I was not disappointed by this unusual dystopian postmodern tale of a future that one hopes we may avoid.

The title of this now classic novel echoes the component parts of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, this is suggestive of an almost allegoric aspect of the story but also a pervasive theme that is woven throughout the book; that is theocracy, a government in which there is no separation between state and religion. We see this in the names of the servants who are called “Marthas” and the local police as “Guardians of the Faith”; soldiers as “Angels”; and the “Commanders of the Faithful”. In addition Atwood's vocabulary incorporates religious terminology and biblical references. All the stores have biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, Milk and Honey. Even the automobiles have biblical names like Behemoth, Whirlwind, and Chariot. Using religious terminology to describe people, ranks, and businesses, masks political skulduggery in pious language. The reader is faced with an ever-present reminder that the founders of Gilead insist they act on the authority of the Bible itself. Politics and religion sleep in the same bed in Gilead, where the slogan “God is a National Resource” predominates.

In the society of The Handmaid's Tale, while even the powerful live very restricted lives, however the Handmaids are confined to their bedrooms except for sanctioned outings to grocery stores, childbearing Ceremonies, and executions; as a result they are worse off than most. Doubly trapped by their low social statuses and their fertile bodies, Handmaids barely get to do anything. Their bodies' fertility both enforces their confinement and paradoxically promises them a kind of freedom.
If Handmaids become pregnant by their Commanders (this is their sole purpose in this society) their reward is not being sent off to die. If they do get pregnant, they're confined to their bodies in a different way, forced to give birth to children they don't get to keep, fathered by men they don't love.

I found this a book that I appreciated for its literary values more than the content which was brutal at times. This is undoubtedly to be expected in a dystopian tale, but understanding the fact did not provide solace for the reader. The story is a tale of "witness" by a rebellious handmaid named Offred. Her rebellion begins with recording her story, but extends to other activities that eventual provide what little suspense there is in the tale. As with all first person narratives the reader must maintain some skepticism in recognition of the unreliability of the narrator. We never quite know what's true in The Handmaid's Tale; even when people state their names, they're lying. Throughout the book we're reminded that this is a story and that the narrator is altering some of the details. The narrator wishes she could change the events that happened to her through retelling them, or what she calls "reconstruction." Even the epilogue, with its "Historical Notes," reinforces the idea that this is a tale, a story, and that the manner of the telling is as important as what the narrator reveals through it.

This leads me to the only substantive criticism I have of the book in that I would have appreciated more information about some of the other characters, especially Offred's friend Moira who disappears from the story before it is concluded. We find Offred narrating "I can't remember the last time I saw her. It blends in with all the others; it was some trivial occasion. She must have dropped by; she did that, she breezed in and out of my house", but that was some time ago and it is only her memory of Moira that Offred captures.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but as some in our book group related Atwood's beautiful prose has an almost mesmerizing effect that helps you move past some of the more gruesome details of this dystopic tale. My conclusion is that this deserves to be considered a postmodern classic that adds luster to the standing of Margaret Atwood in my personal reading pantheon of authors.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great review James.

It has been a few years since I read this book. I found it to be brilliant. I do remember wanting to know more, thus I agree with your comments about the characters.

I was also really impressed by the original film. I have not seen the newer television adaption. I hear good things about it.

So far, I have been a little too "faint of heart" to watch it.

James said...


I have not seen the new television adaptation nor the original film. The book is certainly powerful and brutal at times. Perhaps I will attempt the film version someday.