A Cautionary Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Environmental contamination has decreased fertility. The fallout from this has spawned a strangely violent cult of morality. Viable ovaries are in high demand; therefore, men with influence are given exclusive access to breeding females who are not wives but handmaids. The handmaids are forced to wear chaste red dresses and white headpieces with modesty wings. They live sheltered lives in the homes of the Commanders with no access to entertainment or diversion except the monthly ritual of being held fast by the Commander’s wife while he attempts to impregnate her. Any violation of the strict code of conduct is dealt with in brutal and often lethal ways.

A Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. I read it then and recently reread it as required reading for the La Verne Writers’ Group. I have to say that I enjoyed it more in 1986. Not that it isn’t a great book, but this time through it, I found some parts going on a little excessively. Some scenes seemed repetitious. An element of the plot is a backlash against feminism, which was a more current theme in the eighties. Curiously, during this second reading, I was struck by how much Attwood’s apocalyptic world looked like a sharia zone. I had completely missed it before. Apparently, it wasn’t lost on Ms. Attwood, because she said: “They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.” Another element that lessened my enjoyment is that as I’ve aged as a reader, and perhaps a writer, I view metaphors with an increasingly jaundiced eye, and Margaret Attwood is nothing if not the queen of metaphors. The edition that I most recently read had an amusing sort of epilogue. It was a scholarly analysis of A Handmaid’s Tale from the viewpoint of academics in the distant future after having discovered it hidden on audio cassettes.

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