December 2003

Michael Schaub

hundred books

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The first time The Handmaid's Tale entered my consciousness, I was 14, bored, and watching HBO. You might have forgotten, mercifully, the 1990 film adaptation of Margaret Atwood's book. Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway were in it, and it was directed by Volker Schlondorff (that's right, the Volker Schlondorff). Anyway, I don't remember much about the movie anymore other than it being exceedingly boring, which could, I guess, reflect more upon the 14-year-old me than on Herr Schlondorff's directorial abilities.

I guess this experience always caused me to regard The Handmaid's Tale with something of a jaundiced eye, even though I'd read Atwood's Cat's Eye and, somewhat to my surprise, enjoyed it. Still, I don't like dystopian novels in general, having had Nineteen Eighty-four (which I never really liked to begin with) thrust at me one too many times in school. Of the committed Atwood fans I know, none has much good to say about The Handmaid's Tale, even though it remains her best-known work, and required reading for a number of high schools (which, of course, is never a certain measure of literary greatness; look at Sister Carrie). Nevertheless, the book has inspired raves from readers and critics alike, and it's not the high school reading lists that are keeping it in print.

So I was disappointed in The Handmaid's Tale, not because it isn't good -- it is, kind of -- but because I didn't have a strong reaction to it at all. Like many novels and stories by Atwood, it's well-executed in a very practiced kind of way. Atwood crafts sentences with a place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place mentality, and it's the kind of clean, occasionally sterile prose that enchants some readers and causes others to roll their eyes. I reacted both ways to it at times. It seems a little churlish to call a writer out for being too exacting, but it's the kind of teacher's-pet prose that can be off-putting in large doses.

The particular dystopia in The Handmaid's Tale is a Fascist, quasi-Christian police state in which women are enslaved -- and OK, it's pretty scary. The novel ticks with a sense of urgency, no doubt because Atwood chose to set the novel in a future version of the United States -- in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be exact. It's an odd choice, particularly if she was hoping for an it-could-happen-here reaction (and it seems pretty clear that she was). There aren't too many cities in the States more liberal and feminist than Cambridge, so the prospect of progressive dissidents being hanged in Harvard Square is more unbelievable than it is unsettling. The geography and history of the Republic of Gilead (as the new country is dubbed) is unclear -- deliberately so, it seems, which is a little annoying. Some of the characters try to escape to freedom in Canada, a shout-out for her country that Atwood probably couldn't resist. (To be fair, this does bring to mind would-be American soldiers escaping military conscription in the States by fleeing to Canada during the Vietnam War. And also to be fair, Canada's willingness to accept the Americans with open arms was, morally speaking, pretty heroic.)

Honestly, there's plenty to discuss in this book. You could start with the debate over whether the novel is anything more than an extended pro-choice metaphor, an interpretation given to it by its admirers and detractors alike. Right-wingers, predictably, accuse the book of being anti-man, which it's assuredly not -- if anything, Atwood errs on the side of excessive sensitivity, though there are indeed unsympathetic male characters. I have no idea when that started to constitute misandry. Maybe sometime during the Reagan administration, when this book was written, which explains a lot. This might not be Atwood's finest moment, and it's fairly safe to say it's not one of the best 100 books of last century. But as a relic of Reagan's North America, it's actually a fairly invaluable book. U.S. residents would be well-advised to remember that in November of next year.