29 September 2010

Banned Books Week: The Handmaid's Tale

Scene: Lazy afternoon in our family room around my freshman year of high school.  I am sprawled all over the couch reading a book.  My mom walks in.
Mom:  Missy, I need you to...Missy?  Missy!  [I finally look up.]  What are you reading?
Me:  The Handmaid's Tale
Mom:  What's it about?
Me:  It's really crazy - an accident happens, and some women can't have children anymore, and so the government decides to force the women that can have children to have children for the women who can't.  The government thinks this is OK because of the part of the Bible where Rachel gives Jacob her handmaid so he can have kids.  That's just wrong.
Mom:  That's awful.  I need you to gather up your dirty laundry if you want it washed.
Me [whines]:  Now?

And that was that.*  It was also my introduction to Margaret Atwood.  I was in Biology one day and one of the seniors (who for whatever silly reason had not taken the science GER previously) had a copy of a book with a woman in a red robe and white headdress on the cover sitting on the lab desk.  I asked what it was - The Handmaid's Tale - and was then told that it "sucked" and was "really hard to read" and was for "English".  Bonus, guess that means I'll like it, so I borrowed my first Margaret Atwood novel from the school library and snarfed it down.

I loved it.  LOVED.  IT.  What utter crap, that some skeezy government officials can come along and kidnap you and force you to have sex with some guy that you don't even like just so he can have a kid and YOU CAN'T EVEN READ!!!!  THEY TOOK AWAY BOOKS!!!  I think I'd have tried to escape to Canada, too.  And, wait, all these guys can go to a brothel???  Arrrgghhh.  I bet you can guess that I was already into women's rights even if I didn't formally know that it was called "feminism".

The Handmaid's Tale was on a the reading list for one of my English classes later on (I can't remember if it was BritLit or APLit) and, even though I chose another book as my "official" assignment, I read Atwood's dystopic novel again.  By this time sexual harrassment, feminism, and abortion rights had come into play in my vocabulary and I understood how tenuous at times are the rights of a woman to her own body.  How a boy is "cool" for sleeping around but a girl is a "slut" for even thinking about having sex, how a girl who gets pregnant is extremely visible at school but the guy who got her that way can just slip into the background.  It all played into the fundamentalist atmosphere of the novel.

Although an extreme form, The Handmaid's Tale says "This is what happens when you take away a woman's right to govern her own body."  The book also comes down hard on totalitarianism/fundamental religion.  It's depressing as hell, too, because the reader is left wondering Offred's fate when the book ends - did she escape with Mayday or did the Eyes get rid of her?  Is she pregnant and is the baby OK?  How did the tapes survive?

Even though The Handmaid's Tale dropped from 37 to 88 on the ALA's challenge lists by decade, it still pushes buttons.  A recent challenge in Toronto objected to the language, sexual violence, and "anti-Christian" attitude.  When I talk about banned or challenged books, I usually talk about "truth" because a book portrays the "truth" of a situation.  In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, this is a dystopian novel, not a realistic novel or memoir, and instead of a "truth" it presents a "what-if" - Atwood uses the metaphor of a frog in boiling water to illustrate her point about gradual change.  One must be aware of gradual changes, how they can chip away at freedom.  Women need to be vigilant or agency over one's body can be compromised - be it from a government agency or otherwise.

*Not exactly what happened, but pretty darn close.


  1. Anonymous4:49 AM

    I'm not even going to comment on why this book was challenged, since all I can come up with on every book that gets challenged is "how silly, hoe is this even un-christian" etcetera.

    I have not read this book, but your post just made it move up a lot of my wishlist!

  2. @iris - I know! I hear about a book being challenged and I go "that's not what that book is about! Did they even read it?" I think Handmaid's Tale will be Margaret Atwood's classic, I think it's a better book than Blind Assassin (her Booker winner)

  3. I just read this for the first time. Loved it!!! I can't believe I missed it up until this point, but still, so good.

  4. She is a great author, I think this is, or is one of her best novels.i have greatly enjoyed oryx and crake, the year of the flood and cannot wait for maddadam to come out. This book is definitely one of her classics.