(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
Margaret Atwood’s novel
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Novel first published and
got shortlisted for Booker Prize in 1985
Review first written on October 23, 2015
(5 / 5))
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant because, in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, the money of her own, and access to knowledge.
I liked Atwood’s prose – thought-dense and fast. An incredible review from Cecily can be found here. I will rather confine to discuss a few points:
One criticism that I saw in negative reviews is that the book is anti-men. I don’t think it is – though the founders of Atwood’s dystopian country are all men; but not all the men of the country – until the last chapter, you won’t even find any man who genuinely believes in the new order. There are men who benefit from the order and those who are serving it, but no man (whom Handmaid comes to know enough) really believes in it – not even commander Fred, who is having nausea for old times. The only person in Handmaid’s world who seems to be really believing in the new system is Aunt Lydia, a woman. In fact, I actually missed a male priest who like Lydia would preach the new Order. Come to think of it, even Lydia might only be acting her part – but I doubt it.
I’m clarifying it because it made me avoid the book for a lot of time. GR had suggested it after I read 1984 but I kept avoiding it since some reviews suggest that it was … okay, what is the anti-male equivalent of the word ‘misogynist’?
In the last chapter, you do find that the founder of the new order were men – but a few, upper-class men. But whichever way you see it, Atwood is not at all suggesting that there exists a conspiracy universal to all men to keep the women down (though I do remember getting an invitation to the meeting of one such secret society)
Instead, the villain here is collectivism, a wrong sort of collectivism which forces functions on individual rather than letting them choose. In Orwell’s 1984 it was political collectivism, here it is religious. Women did come off worse and so did the children – and that is the way with most existing socio-political systems from which Gilead borrowed.
This is how Lydia defend it:
“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”Margaret Atwood
It is the way of religious and political collectivists to presume (wrongly) and preach that two are somehow mutually exclusive. Freedom to earn as much as you want means you no longer get freedom from hunger. Freedom to chose your clothes means you no longer have freedom sexual violence and so on.
Not only that, they won’t let you chose between two freedom (the act in itself would be a ‘freedom to’) but rather force the ‘freedom from’ on you while excluding the other, the way we do with our children who we think are incapable of making intelligent choices.
All that is good but what I didn’t like was the way historians forgave the society on grounds of cultural relativism and all:
“Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture specific . Also Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.”Margaret Atwood
I want to think that she was being ironical. As Handmaid points out:
“How easy it is to invent humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation.”Margaret Atwood
While you can always be respecting the culture and doing other such relativist things as long as individuals are making choices that are affecting only themselves; whenever people starting choosing for others (as those founders did) the relativism becomes a terrible excuse. In the first place, an individual shouldn’t be allowed to deciding for others as far as possible, and where it can’t be helped (political leaders, parents, religious leaders, teachers etc) – the decision-makers shouldn’t be allowed any defenses on grounds like culture-relativism, ignorance, etc. They are supposed to know better. Governments and religions of all things can’t be allowed such defenses.
Last, whenever I question the position of women in Hinduism in the debate with my friends (believe me it happens too often); my opponents are almost always pointing to all the goddesses that Hindus worship. As Atwood points out that “Gilead was, although undoubtedly patriarchal in form, occasionally matriarchal in content.” and:
“To institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, atleast to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.”Margaret Atwood
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”Margaret Atwood
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”Margaret Atwood
“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
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.”Margaret Atwood
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”Margaret Atwood
“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.”Margaret Atwood
“Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.Margaret Atwood
And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.
There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.”
(The website has only very few of my reviews. Most of my reviews are on Goodreads. Find me there.)
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan