Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

What is it with dystopias? They are, in essence, unpleasant, spooky, oftentimes want to make me run to the bathroom and throw up - yet, I cannot turn away and not look.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is a particularly creepy version of that type of a warning-story written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, published back in 1985.
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one option: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all 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.
That particular future is not too kind to women (nor men, as a matter of fact). They are mixed up in a weird kind of hierarchy, in the world where babies have become a luxury. We never learn the real name of the main character/narrator; instead she calls herself "Offred" - names that were given to women that were used as breeding machines; "Of Fred" - the woman that belonged to a man named Fred. Spooky much?
We are for breeding purposes: we aren't concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. (...) We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices. /p. 146/
Atwood allows her character to ponder about the past and the present; as she says herself, she "needs perspective" and that "all is reconstruction" (I assume for remaining sane in the conditions where one has zero free will). She does not give out the impression that the past was all good; there are plenty of times when Offred rambles on the imperfections of the life before the revolution.
Though at that time, men and women tried each other on, casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit. /p. 60-61/
That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. (...) You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. /p. 221/
And something especially spookily accurate if we think of the modern day:
We've given them more than we've taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don't you remember the singles bars, the indignity of high-school blind dates? The meat market. (...) Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery. /p. 231/
Spot on, Mrs Atwood.
But what good are all the justifications if people have beed separated from free will and prohibited to feel? I guess this is the criticism thrown on all the dystopias out there. People do right and people do wrong, as right and wrong are something that cannot be measured, but they do it based on their own decisions, and decisions are only possible if you are given the choice. Take away the choice, and there will be no humanity left anymore.
The ending of the book is left open. We never know what happened to Offred; did she escape, did she not. I personally like open endings and filling the holes with my own thoughts and ideas.
For me, Atwood is one of those writers who do not just tell a story but are also crafty with words. Although creepy and uncomfortable, this book is beautifully written.
A man is just a woman's strategy for making other women. /p. 130-131/
Brilliant! :)
And a good-book-meter in the left: the amount of paper-rubbish left between the pages after I finished :)
324 pages


  1. Not to take anything away from your experience, but it seems to me that two thoughts can be added, just to widen the view a bit and maybe appreciate the dilemma in more intricate and excruciating detail. :)

    Let me play devil's advocate here, because these points do not fully coincide with my opinions. They are just hints for further thoughts.

    Your statement "People do right and people do wrong, as right and wrong are something that cannot be measured ..." is a common theme in modern society. But allow me the question: Says who? The statement is repeated over and over, to be sure, but that does not make it true. I DO, as a matter of fact, believe that some things can be judged as right and other things can be judged as wrong. And I do not mean just subjectively as in "I think, this is wrong." There IS some objective essence and value in the righteousness of actions - if you accept an a priori scale against which your measurement is taken. I put forward Sam Harris' scale: the well-being of sentient creatures.
    I do NOT presume that such a measurement is anything other than complex to perform. It is certainly extraordinarily difficult to do in advance (to guide decisions, for example) but experience can help there. But it is very reasonable to measure decisions in the past.

    The second statement I want to add some thoughts to is "Take away the choice, and there will be no humanity left anymore." It is a nice idea that this might be the case, but again: Who is the authority for this statement and on what grounds?
    The freedom of decisions can lead to major unhappiness, because not only CAN you choose between alternatives, you actually HAVE TO choose between alternatives, which can be a major burden. That means that you have a chance of deciding wrongly. And the more alternatives you have, the more probable it becomes to NOT choose a good one. (For an easy example ask any economics guy: they should know that with a plethora of supply alternatives, the mediocre products win.) And the main crux is: Who is to blame for a bad choice? You! Individually, you! Compare that to the situation when you do NOT have a choice. Either you are satisfied with what you have to take (all is well) or you are not, but then again, you are not to blame and somehow you will adapt.

    The main theme of both points is "individuality" and I propose a read of Michelle Houellebecq's "Atomised" on that topic. I didn't like the novel very much but that can be ascribed to personal taste but it is dystopian, so you might like it as well.

    Thanks for the nice review. :)

  2. Oh boy :) Thank you for your thoughts, dear Hagen :)

    Okay, let's see.

    You see, when I write a post in my blog, most of it is my own thoughts (maybe I should have made respective disclaimer first? :) ) Most of the time I don't have philosophers or scientists backing me up.

    What I meant by "right or wrong" comment was

    1) to show that right or wrong is a matter of perspective. In some cultures, having more than one wife is "right", in some it's "wrong". These are social agreements. I mean we can also go back to the roots and start from defining the meaning of "right" and "wrong" but that would get a bit complex...;

    2) to show that "right" and "wrong" are also matter of perspective on individual level. Mainly this has to do with one's personal sense of moral and ethics. This varies. In that sense, what I see as "right" is attempting (!) to act and live in the way that does not harm other people (and animals too, of course). "Doing the right thing". I think this is kind of a value meter that everyone can understand and relate to, in general. Now that leads to

    3) highlighting the fact that it is not always possible to act and live in the way that no-one gets harmed. That means that "people do right and people do wrong" - it means it is not possible to be perfect (be "right" all the time). Sometimes, even if you know it is wrong, you have to make that decision. Sometimes wrong decisions are made unknowingly; the realisation comes later - this does not mean that we have to judge people based on those decisions. Errare humanum est.

    td;lr - I think it is important to strive towards doing the "right" thing in sense of not harming others in the process, emphasise is on "attempt" - mistakes are human.


    1. 1) and 2) OK, but that was exactly, what I was referring to: These statements are just TAKEN to be true. You say that "right" and "wrong" are a matter of cultural and social agreements. That much is true, but again, only by social agreement, because "right" and "wrong" are taken to be relative to the social and cultural setting.

      This view betrays the fact that actions have material consequences for individuals - any consequences for society are purely emergent from the individual consequences. And these material consequences can be measured on an individual basis (not to say that this is easy or even technologically feasible, yet) and you can measure (at least in retrospect) if an action was RIGHT or WRONG. Not "right" or "wrong" by convention but RIGHT and WRONG by effect.

      Whether having more than one wife is RIGHT or WRONG purely depends on the material effects this constellation has on the directly and indirectly involved individuals. Never mind the society in which they happen to live and its wicked agreements.

      3) No objection here. In fact, this explains your sentence "people do right and people do wrong" quite beautifully.


  3. Ok let's tackle the other problem. This is something I truly, wholeheartedly believe in. I am well aware that multitude of choices can also be problematic; however, I would *never* exchange it with lack of choices. If freedom of decisions leads person to major unhappiness, he/she has to get familiarised with the term "responsibility". Yes, if you make the bad choice, it is you to be blamed. But it is *your* choice. Lack of choices can also lead to bad choices, and even worse in that case - these are choices made *for* you *by* someone else. I find this thought unbearable. I'd rather have 10 options to choose from with high likeliness to make the wrong one than just one to take and be happy about it. And, it is also important to notice that what seems "bad" or "wrong" choice at first might turn out to be useful later. Maybe even long time later, like 20 years. You might understand that your "bad" decision was actually a "good" one. It's to do with accepting your decisions and actions as they are. Valuing each one as experience that helps you grow. Multitude of options does not mean that you are standing in front of them and forced to make a choice. If you don't know whether it is better to use oil or margarine to cook eggs, you do not have to make random decision - you also have a choice to go and Google and base your decision on that (talking on primary level here but can be dragged out to the bigger things in life).

    Also, I think in this case - if faced with what you say "the more alternatives you have, the more probable it becomes to NOT choose a good one" - anyone having lived in a totalitarian society or being closely related to it will probably have the reflex to throw up. To me it can be summed up in real life situations back then - when you graduated from, say, university, you did not have a choice to get a workplace. It was decided for you where you will work, how much you get paid, etc. There are also people who want to get these times back because they find it convenient not to think for themselves and have decisions made by them. To have that illusionary sense of not having responsibility over your actions. I think it's dangerous, and I think it's wrong.

    I have had some Michel Houellebecq's stuff in my TBR for a while, thank you for that recommendation!


Leave a comment if you feel like it - it warms my little bookish heart. :)