Thursday, February 25, 2010

What I'm Reading Now-The Handmaid's Tale

Before I delve into this, I just want to thank everyone who stopped by to offer condolences on Buster's passing. I sincerely appreciate everyone's kind words of support. I know it's not always easy to find the right words, so I'm truly touched that so many people that I (mostly) don't even know took the time to find them. Of course, I appreciate those of you that I do know stopping by too! It's been a rough couple of weeks, but life does go on, so: On to the business of living.

The Handmaid's Tale (Critical Insights)The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood-This is a look at a dystopian society in which the caucasian population has plummeted and a new societal order has been implemented whereby women are all essentially relegated to those who can bear children and those who cannot.  The latter are sent to toxic cleanup sites or, if they are privileged enough, they are assigned a Handmaid, a woman of proven fertility who's job it is to bear children for these acceptable women of society who cannot.

While seemingly far-fetched, there are a lot of elements in this book that hit a little too close to home for my comfort.  I don't think we are more than a few short steps away from a world like this and it seems like we're getting closer all the time.

This is one of those books that I've heard a lot about and knew I had to read...someday.  So, I was excited when Heather J. said she was considering doing a read-a-long and asked if anyone would be interested.  Read-a-long buddies!  What good motivation!  Anna and I jumped on board, and came up with some questions for each other to answer.  Below are the questions I came up with and the answers that Heather and Anna provided.  You can visit Heather's and Anna's posts to see the questions they asked and the answers they received.  Heather had the good idea of separating these into "Spoiler" and "Non-spoiler" questions, so I have done the same.  I hope you enjoy this departure from my normal review format!

Q: What did you find most frightening or disturbing about the story?

Heather: This is an easy one. For me the creepiest part of the book is that I can understand how the society got to be the way it is, and in a twisted way it completely makes sense. *shudder*

Anna: Atwood makes the story sound plausible to a certain extent. We’ve seen evidence of how cruel humans can be to one another in the pursuit of "perfection" and how fear can be used to control (the Holocaust and the Third Reich come to mind). What is frightening is that society never learns. And as a mother, trying to put myself in Offred’s shoes, realizing her daughter is being raised by another family and likely will not remember her, was heartbreaking.

Q: The end Historical Notes give a sense that society is looking back on the Gilead era as a dark spot in history, much like we look back on the Salem witch trials or slavery. Did you find this hopeful-we will eventually work our way through all our dark times-or depressing-no matter how much we learn, we will always go through more dark times.  Or did you see it completely differently?

Anna: Honestly, I don’t think we’ve fully learned lessons from dark days past. As long as there are people hungry for power, the world will continue to move in and out of dark times. While on the surface, the historical note gives a sense of hope in that the days of Gilead are over, we are given so little information about what is going on at that moment, it’s hard to tell whether things really have changed for the better.

Heather: It was very hopeful for me. It reminded me that no matter how bad things are now, they can always get better down the road.  That is my outlook on life in general, and the epilogue really appealed to be because of that.

Dreamybee: I had to jump in on this one!  Although my outlook on life in general is similar to Heather's, I felt much the same as Anna on this point.  Offred puts it well:  "When power is scarce a little of it is tempting."  (p. 308)  It seems like no matter how good things get, they always come back to somebody feeling the need to oppress someone else.  How do we always end up here?

Q: Aunt Lydia tells the girls that there is more than one kind of freedom, "freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don't underrate it." (p.24) Do you agree?  Do you need the two to be in balance or is one more important than the other? Is one more dangerous or more freeing than the other?

Anna: Balance is key. Pre-Gilead, society may have seemed immoral to some, but there was still choice. After the new government took over, it was conform or die. Technically, people still had a choice – you could live or die – but where is the freedom in that? Life as you knew it was over either way.

Heather: This passage struck me as well, because I think that it is very true. “Freedom from” is just as important as “freedom to”, and we shouldn’t underrate it. But the opposite is true as well. For me, there needs to be a balance between the two.

*Spoiler question*

Q: We find out that the handmaid who was the previous Offred, the one who wrote the mysterious Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Don't let the bastards grind you down) in her closet, killed herself.  At various timess Offred has thought of this phrase as a prayer or on order.  Once she finds out what happened to the scribe, her reaction is, "Fat lot of good it did her."  (p.225).  Do you agree?  Did the previous Offred drive her point home or make it absurd by taking her own life?

Heather: I felt like this phrase was the previous Offred’s motto but that in the end it failed her.  However that is because I see suicide as a cop-out rather than as a legitimate choice.  When faced with the repercussions of her actions (not that she had any choice in the matter) she DID let them grind her down, in spirit at least; she gave up the will to live.

Anna: It’s hard to say whether someone is braver for enduring the hardship or letting her captives know that her life and its end is in her own hands. I guess whether or not she drove the point home depends on the reason for her suicide. Was she afraid of being punished, or was it an act of rebellion? Personally, I think there might have been more effective ways of standing up to the “bastards,” and death seems like an easy way out.

*End Spoiler Question*

Heather listened to this as an audio book, and this was a re-read for Anna, so I can't wait to visit their blogs and see what they thought!  If you would like to add anything or if you have any thoughts on the questions above, please leave a comment.

Here are some other reviews for you to check out:
Ann at Books on the Nightstand revisited this old favorite of hers. Review starts around 13:15 of the podcast.
Jeanne at Necromancy Never Pays talks about it an interview with Anna!
Thomas at My Porch read this on a recent vacation.

I know there are other reviews out there...I just can't ever find them.  So, if you've reviewed this book, leave me a comment, and I'll add a link to your review.


Serena said...

Great exchange! Liked the review and the questions you raised.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Interesting to hear your thoughts on Handmaid's Tale. I love Atwood and recently re-read this book. My review is here:

Dreamybee said...

Serena-Thanks. I enjoyed working with Heather and Anna on this.

Thomas-I've added your link. I've had a rough time getting into Atwood, but I did like this one.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Although I can't say I loved this book, I did enjoy discussing it with you and Anna, and I AM glad I read it.

Wendy said...

I have always loved utopia/dystopia books. When I was teaching middle school English, i actually taught a unit called Utopia. I think a few of the kids read this book on their own after reading Animal Farm, The Giver, etc. I really liked The Handmaid's Tale, i think I saw the movie as well. It's a book I would consider reading again. I've just finished Born to Run - it was incredibly interesting. I highly recommend it! Would love to know what you think.

Care said...

I was blown away by The Handmaid's Tale. I hope to read more Atwood but so far, only The Blind Assassin which I enjoyed as well.

Also, here's a terrific book blog search:

Dreamybee said...

Heather J-I felt the same way; I didn't LOVE it, but I'm glad I read it and it was nice to have somebody else in it with me.

Wendy-Is there any actual utopia fiction? It seems like all the *ideas* of utopia always turn out to be dystopia for the majority of the population, i.e. Animal Farm.

I have Born to Run on my TBR list. I'll let you know what I think when I read it.

Care-The Blind Assassin is the only other Atwood that I've read also. I've started a few others but never finished them.

Thanks for the Fyrefly link. I mostly try to stick to reviews from within my Google Reader only because if I do a general search for something like "reviews of The Handmaid's Tale," I know I will find a bazillion reviews and then I have to decide which ones to include and, even worse, which ones not to include. Also, I know I will end up adding more blogs to my Google Reader that way! For something like this, though, where I was only able to find a couple of reviews, Fyrefly would be a good resource. I will try to ease my way into it! ;)

Jeanne said...

One thing non-academics sometimes miss about the Historical Notes is that the future society is being satirized. The point at which you're supposed to get an inkling about this is when the oh-so-pompous Prof Piexoto says we must try to understand Offred's culture. As a reader who's just been through the hell that Offred's life became you should be standing up and shouting "hell no, Piexoto!"
The ending--in which you're not sure what happened to Offred--and the Historical Notes are both aimed at making you work to ensure that a society like Gilead can never take over your country.

Although there's at least one disheartening interview with Atwood in which she regrets how many of the things she wrote about in THT have come true in post 9/11 America.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Hope you are all okay in HI. We watched with anticipation the Tsunami yesterday, but fortunately it was not as bad as what was feared.

Christine B. said...

I enjoyed the book, not to say it left me in a joyous mood when I finished. It was one of several books of this type that I read in a row and left me feeling like (oh dear...) a man-hater.

Didn't they make a movie of this book?

Christine in Alaska

Dreamybee said...

Jeanne-I definitely pinged on that comment by the Professor. It struck me as an obligatory politically correct disclaimer. On the one hand, I understand the need from an academic standpoint to examine the known facts and not make judgments based on what we don't know; on the other I see that as a giant cop-out. There's a fine line between tolerance for another culture, especially one that we don't understand or relate to, and ignoring human rights violations in deference to another's "culture".

I can understand Atwood's regret-I was really struck by how current her writing seemed.

Diane-Thanks for your concern. We are all fine, but it was a stressful day on Saturday. We pretty much spent the day on a low-level adrenaline buzz, waiting to run to higher ground if needed. I'm glad we had the time to prepare, and I'm actually quite proud of Hawaii-sometimes our little state pulls it together quite well!

Christine-It's very easy to walk away from something like this feeling like a man hater, but when you consider the Aunts and the commanders' wives, you know that there had to have been a certain number of women who were complacent in this society becoming what it did. In fact, Offred mentions remembering seeing Serena Joy on TV:

"Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn't do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all....She doesn't make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn't seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she's been taken at her word....her face is sinking in upon itself, and I think of those towns built on underground rivers, where houses and whole streets disappear overnight, into sudden quagmires, or coal towns collapsing into the mines beneath them. Something like this must have happened to her, once she saw the true shape of things to come." (pp. 45-46)

Anna said...

I was surprised how much this book affected me, even if you are to think of it as pure entertainment. It gives you a lot to think about and discuss.

This was my first group read, and you and Heather made it fun. :)

Diary of an Eccentric