I was prompted to read The Handmaid’s Tale after watching the recent TV adaptation that has just become available in Australia via SBS. I hadn’t actually even heard of the novel before this year. It was never on my reading list while at high school and seeing as it was first published in 1985, when I was only eight years old, The Handmaid’s Tale and I seem to have been ships in the night.
I do enjoy a good dystopian though, as depressing as they usually are, it’s the only type of science fiction I ever dabble in. Existing comments and reviews on The Handmaid’s Tale have a certain consistency, mainly along the lines of ‘disturbing but all too much within the realm of possible’. Well, that is what dystopian fiction does. It takes an aspect of our existing society and blows it up, magnifies it and warps it into the current way of life. In effect, all dystopian fiction presents life ‘within the realm of possible’. Some may argue that certain cultures already perpetuate themes found within The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps. But we are making this judgement from the outside looking in, so I feel it best to not make sweeping statements like that myself.
What I will say, is that it was most definitely disturbing. The entire notion of wives submitting to the practice of keeping a handmaid, engaging in the ‘ceremony’, and that farce of giving birth, the entire pretence of being in labour along with your handmaid. Utterly bizzare and indeed disturbing. Even more so as many of the ‘wives’ would have been quite accomplished and educated women not all that long ago. Pushes the realms of believability a bit too far for me. Although, on the topic of the wives, whom I had much sympathy for, Atwood did present a subtle power show that rang true for me. The wives were lesser than their husbands and all other men in existence but higher up on the totem pole than all other females of course. They were both the suppressed and the suppressors, always an interesting line to walk and one that I found equally interesting to contemplate.
That women seemed to be the blame for all that is wrong with society and planet earth was not all that much of a surprise but again, it sometimes suspended the realms of belief for me. Suppressing women, stripping them of everything and keeping them in their place within the home subsequently leading to a lowering of carbon emissions? Hhmm…okay, if you say so. In some ways this type of story does very little other than to highlight entrenched misogyny in a desperately depressing way. The abrupt ending to the novel seems almost like a cop out, laying all that is terrible out to air yet not really being bothered to clean the mess up. A happy ending was never going to eventuate, but still, with only a hint of rebellion, a whisper of uprising; I think it ended a bit too soon.
I liked the cover of the Vintage edition I have. The handmaids all lined up with blank circles in place of faces. Very apt, for they are no longer people, just breeding stock. They don’t need faces anymore because they don’t exist as separate individuals. It’s my favourite out of all the covers.
I expect this novel was quite the mover and shaker back in 1985. It probably seemed like fairly extreme science fiction back then, but the dystopian sub-genre has really taken a hold in the last several years, so now, to me anyway, it just comes across as another dystopian read, one of the better ones, but not necessarily the best I’ve ever read. I far preferred the TV show, I felt it offered more in terms of character and story depth, the alternate perspectives explored thoroughly with each side and voice getting its time to develop. The show was more modern, more gripping, more shocking, and more empathetic. The show was also more hopeful, because whenever there is mass suppression, we seek rebellion, and this was portrayed more thoroughly within the adaptation.
Personally, I’d recommend the book and the TV show hand in hand. Don’t do one without the other, but if you’re time poor, then pick the TV show. It’s more contemporary and more complete. It’s also visually stunning within many scenes and has an excellent use of music throughout with some fabulous tracks re-done to a different tune, with quite superb performances by all of the actors. Overall, the ending to the show contains what I felt was missing from the novel. That flicker of hope combined with the ignition of the flame of rebellion. I liked what Offred thinks towards the end:
‘If they didn’t want us to be an army, they shouldn’t have put us into a uniform.’
*this quote is from the TV show, not the novel*
I feel in some ways the show captured the essence of what Atwood was aiming for better than Atwood did herself within the novel. Or maybe I’m just reaching for what I want out of it. Either way, both the show and the novel compliment each other well, and I expect both will be discussed for a good while over and over again in the immediate future. Dystopian fiction is not always quite so timeless, so well done to Margaret Atwood for coming up with a concept so imaginative.
About The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.
Brilliantly conceived and executed, this powerful evocation of twenty-first-century America gives full rein to Margaret Atwood’s devastating irony, wit and astute perception.
The full series (10 episodes, 50 minutes each) of The Handmaid’s Tale is currently available to stream via SBS On Demand.