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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

Image result for elizabeth moss handmaid
Elizabeth Moss played "Offred" in the highly succesful television version of The Handmaid's Tale

Book Review
The Handmaids Tale (1985)
 by Margaret Atwood

   I wasn't hugely surprised when Hulu announced a Season 2 for their smash hit television version of The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  The book, of course, has no sequel, so presumably they'll be writing a new chapter.  I haven't finished the television series yet, but the idea that they would write a whole second season out of nothing doesn't offend me as I thought it might.  The book itself is more or less genre fiction, Margaret Atwood's literary pedigree.  What is unusual about The Handmaid's Tale is the anti-feminism which animates The Republic of Gilead, the authoritarian dictatorship which has replaced the United States of America in Atwood's alternate present of the book.

   The key, animating fact in Atwood's dystopia is a precipitous decline in the birth rate, brought about by a poorly understood intersection of chemicals and ungodliness.  This decline spurs a shadowy network of "think tanks" called the sons of Jacob, to come up with their new model society, which combines elements of New England Puritanism and Mormon pluralism with more far a field influences like Asian-style quietism and an economy that functions without money.

   Offred's gilded cage is contrasted both with her life before Gilead, where she married a divorced man (illegal under the new regime) and gave birth successfully to a child who was taken by the new regime; the other alternative is being dispatched to "The Colonies" (roughly the south and south east) where a series of nuclear explosions and chemical attacks have rendered large swaths of territory uninhabitable.   Offred isn't stoked about her role as a breeding object, but she isn't exactly leaping at the prospect of a nasty, brutish and short existence in the Colonies.

  There is no denying the visual power of the imagery- which is well take by the television version.  The book, I think, is clumsier, in a way, particularly in the way Atwood included a thirty page addendum written from the far future, presenting the book as an authentic historical manuscript.  I understand why you would do that in the context of dystopian fiction, but it seems like a genre move. 

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