Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Sheesh! I started this book the way I start many during the school year – because one of my kids is reading it and needs help.

I have to be honest with you… I have studiously avoided reading this book for the past 20 some odd years. This was the book the teacher I was observing in college was teaching and what I heard of it then turned me off completely. So, just know, that going in, I was not reading this because I wanted to, only because I love my kids enough to read it.

This is your typical dystopian novel; if there is such a thing. There are so many of the regular tropes: personal freedoms stripped away a little at a time; denial of education and forms of expression; class stratification; the rules are enforced differently for various members; personal loss; and, some particularly horrible aspect of this dystopian world which makes it stand out from all the others.

The importance of Language is a theme I find running through so many aspects of my own life. What one confesses over themselves manifests – the lack of language limits opportunities – those who rule language make the rules – language is information and power. This novel is no different in that aspect. Language, whether the power to use it or the denial of its use, is at the crux of everything that happens.

Slow and steadily changing discourse changes the prevailing mood before the changeover. It is language that extends or denies privilege – life. The absence of language is, as in so many authoritarian societies throughout history, oppresses the people and prevents many from rising up. Stolen moments of conversation provide a sense of hope. The very act of narrating the story gives our protagonist the strength and will to survive and rebel.

At varying times throughout the book I found myself harkening back to some other novel or memoir- Night by Elie Wiesel, “Life returned to normal.” Or Orwell’s 1984 – Goldstein & the inner and outer circles and Huxley’s Brave New World. Even Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and his use of television for indoctrination reminded me of the televised salvagings.

The most jarring aspect of the book is it’s sexual or anti-sexual nature. It is a world made cold because of a lack of human connection – another common dystopian idea.

Peppered throughout is the idea that it is, “Truly amazing, what people can get used to as long as there are a few compensations.”(271)

Ahhh and that is where it intersects with our present reality. How much of our personal freedoms have we willingly given up? How much we get used to? Do things, as Wiesel says, ever “Return to normal” or do we simply become accustomed to expecting less and less.

Nagging in the back of my mind is always the question of whether I would leave before it was too late or, like the protagonist, lose the opportunity because of my complacency.

In all, it is a good book – compelling enough to keep me reading and interested to know its conclusion. I would recommend it, but I would not read it again. I found that, for the most part, I could anticipate a lot of what was to come, but there were some distinct intricacies which made it interesting.

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