Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale

1985, 1987 Fawcett Crest edition
Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.50
Fallen apart but taped together paperback

This story seems to be set around "now," since the sort-of-nameless heroine is 33, and her feminist mother had her at 37.  Also, all the changes in society-- from a right-wing coup to nuclear disasters-- seem to have happened in the later 1980s.  And there are some other clues.  But mostly it's set in a dystopic near-future that Atwood hopes won't happen.  Like Native Tongue, it's a feminist product of the mid-Reagan era, but in a more complex way, since Atwood criticizes the Andrea Dworkin wing of feminism, particularly its uneasy alliance with conservative Christians on the subject of pornography.  Also, Atwood's relationship with "femininity" is as ambiguous as Brownmiller's.  Her heroine is drawn to it, in a world that has banished make-up and frills, but she sees how shabby it can be when the powerful men break the rules and have their whores and mistresses dress as Playboy bunnies and similar.

Actually, the protagonist does have a name, but she never reveals it to us.  She is called "Offred," because the Handmaid's (sort of concubines, but only for child-bearing) are called "Of [name of man assigned to]."  Her name can be read as not only "Of Fred," but also as "Off Red" (red is the color the Handmaids wear), or maybe even "Off Read."  Atwood's wordplay in the book encourages alternate interpretations. 

Why do I like this book less than Edible and Oracle?  Well, it's partly that it's bleaker.  I like the whimsy of those early Atwood novels.  I also think that they're stronger feminist statements because they're set in the (admittedly exaggerated) real world.  Despite the cliffhanger, I'm not all that interested in what happens to Offred, although I'd love to pay a visit to Marian and Joan, even if things haven't worked out for them.  I don't entirely think that Atwood has lost her touch for humour or characterisation, since there's some good stuff in, for instance, Cat's Eye, coming up in 1988.  And I can see why this got the prizes and attention.  But I doubt I'll be replacing this copy any time soon.

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