Tuesday, 11 March 2003

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

Edition: Seal Books, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1147

It is not surprising that a high proportion of the science fiction novels which enjoy a high literary reputation outside the genre are dystopias. The fundamental reason for this regard is that the form enables the writer to make comments about their own time, more clearly and unambiguously than almost any other, by exaggerating certain trends to criticise the aspects of current society and culture. For this reason, they also tend to attract writers who have built up a reputation outside the genre, and it is a sad fact that mainstream literary recognition is still easier to receive if you are not perceived as a genre writer. The Handmaid's Tale follows in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, and is an attack on the growth of fundamentalist American Christianity, particularly on its treatment of women.

After a coup, rights are quiclky removed from American women - their bank accounts are frozen and their employers forced to sack them, for example. They are re-educated to fit into the limited range of occupations permitted to women in the new state of Gilead, such as Marthas (household servants). The narrator of The Handmaid's Tale takes on a role based on the Biblical story of Jacob's wives; when they failed to conceive, he fathered children by their handmaids. In a world in which the fertility of both sexes has dropped dramatically, it is the role for which young women who have demonstrated their ability to bear children are destined, rather to the chagrin of the Wives who have to house them.

It is 1984 with which The Handmaid's Tale has most in common; in both novels, a totalitarian regime has reduced life to a constant dreary drabness against which the narrator, who can remember what it was like beforehand, longs to rebel. Offred (whose original name has been taken away; her identity is just as 'property of Fred') is given the opportunity to do so by the imperfections of those around her, by their failure to live up to the rules. (This is partly a device for Atwood to reveal more about Gilead's culture than Offred's closely confined existence should allow.) Many details are close relatives of their Orwellian equivalents - the exhibition of former traitors, the cathartic ceremonies intended to bind people together - but many, of course, like Orwell's versions, have been derived from the activities of real totalitarian regimes. The major difference between Offred's world and that of 1984 is that Big Brother's regime is asexual (at least on the surface), with little differentiation being made between men and women, while in the world of The Handmaid's Tale the subordinate role of women is of fundamental importance to the way in which things work.

While The Handmaid's Tale is an impressive undertaking, it does not rise to the level of the other dystopias I have mentioned, 1984 and Brave New World being among the greatest works of twentieth century literature. Too much of the mechanism by which Atwood reveals Gilead to the reader is apparent, which is a sign of a writer inexperienced in the genre (compare the dystopias of John Brunner, for example). The novel is also spoilt by a very poor postscript, a little parody of a presentation at an academic conference. On the other hand, The Handmaid's Tale has many strengths. In particular, it conveys the drabness of the regime in Gilead quite excellently (and it is up with Solzhenitsyn and Orwell in this respect) and easily makes its feminist and anti-fundamentalist points. It is not an enjoyable read (and it's not meant to be), and its literary reputation is perhaps over inflated, but it is a successful Orwellian dystopia.

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