Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

One of my first exposures to dystopian fiction (after Orwell, of course) was the incomparable Margaret Atwood.  While not all of her writings fall into the genre, it’s been my experience that some of her best works describe some form of a society gone wrong.  To me, the Atwood’s flagship novel in this genre has always been The Handmaid’s Tale.  I read it first while in my mid-teens, and again just this weekend; needless to say, I still think it’s one of the most creative and best-told stories I’ve ever read in my life.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a hard book to review in some ways.  There are two reasons for this; the first is that the whole of the history and functioning of the dystopian society is never quite revealed (and what is told is told in pieces that are laid out before the reader like a trail of bread crumbs); the second is the ending cannot, for any reason, be revealed until you reach it.  I’m of the opinion that ruining the ending of this book is probably the worst thing a book fan could ever do.

So, a quick (and unrevealing) word on the plot.  We meet the main character about 3 years into a fundamentalist Christian take-over of the American government.  Society has become centered on the Christian Bible, and a totalitarian state; gender-rolls have become highly ‘traditionalized’; and procreation is of the utmost importance to the society.  The reader is given some insights into how the totalitarian take-over occurred; they see the occasional interaction between men and woman in this new gender-dynamic; but the main story is centered around this obsession with procreation and what impact it has on women.  

It is hard to describe any of the novel’s characters as engaging; as with many dystopian fictions, I find I’m always more interested in getting an over-view of the society and how it all went wrong.  To me, in a dystopian fiction, if the society is engaging, it carries the same weight as a personal attachment that I usually look for in a story’s characters.  Atwood’s creation of a time and place that is at once shockingly familiar and upsettingly different has this sense of engagement for me.  I would have liked even more information on the society, but the “Historical Note” at the very end of the book does fill in some holes (which, I’ll admit, the 16-year-old me didn’t read the first time I read the novel; I guess it never occurred to me that it would be someway related to the story).

The reason that I chose to re-read this book is because it appears on my EW Classic Closing Lines reading challenge.  I’ll give you the line here, but it will mean nothing to you unless you’ve got the context for it:

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

I cried the first time I read that line – within the context of the book’s climax and ending, it is incredibly haunting.  But the line itself isn’t as powerful as some of the others on EW’s list (just think of A Tale of Two Cities!).  I think The Handmaid’s Tale made it onto this list because the ending is one of the best and most impactful endings in modern western literature.

So, final verdict?  No surprise here – go out and read this book.  The world Atwood created in engaging and dynamic and, as it should be with a dystopian fiction, incredibly believable.  It’s hard for me to tell you too much about the book without ruining it, and I never want to do that for any book, let alone one as great as this.  The Handmaid’s Tale is truly one of Atwood’s greatest books, and it deserves a place in everyone’s personal literary tradition.  

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