Friday, May 04, 2007

Book: The Handmaid's Tale

If you believe that a literal interpretation of Biblical law should become the legal foundation of South Africa, the United States, or any other country, you should take time out to read The Handmaid’s Tale for a different perspective. Margaret Atwood, in this beautifully written but incredibly disturbing fictional novel, describes what could happen if religion gains too much power, and what society could become if women’s rights are not protected.

The story is set in the United States in the near future. A brutal attack has left all members of Congress dead and the country has collapsed into civil war. A section of the United States, governed by religious fundamentalists, becomes a totalitarian state called the Republic of Gilead. The Constitution is suspended; civil liberties and freedoms are dissolved; the death penalty is instituted for dissidents, homosexuals, and non-Christians; and women loose the right to work and earn money.

Radiation poisoning from the war has resulted in almost all women becoming infertile. Those few in Gilead who can still bear children are forced to become Handmaids, surrogate mothers for infertile couples. The book takes the form of a personal diary belonging to a Handmaid named Offred, who is commissioned to the house of a Gileadean commander, and whose sole purpose is to routinely copulate with him in order to bear a child for his infertile wife. Using this as the basis of the story allows Atwood to address the conservative, traditional and sometimes religious belief that the only purpose of a woman is to bear children. In Offred’s own words:

“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Pg136.


“What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies.” Pg 194.

Offred takes the reader through her many trials as she struggles to come to terms with her place in a suppressive and legalistic society. The story frequently flashes back to Offred’s memories of her life before the war, when she had her own job, money, a loving husband and a young daughter. This dualistic nature of the story provides the reader with a comparison between two societies: one where women have choice and the other where women have little or no choice at all.

This is a dystopian novel, and through it Atwood provides a warning of what could happen if religion becomes the ultimate law of the land, and if women are no longer free to make their own decisions, especially regarding sexuality and reproduction.


ChewTheCud said...

Hmmm. I watched the movie. Never realised there was a book. Will have to go take a look see ;)

Anonymous said...


Glad to see you finally read the book! :)


Cori said...

I don't think Atwood was criticizing a literal interpretation of the Bible as even the most literal translation would not take a person or community to what Atwood describes in this book. I think she is describing what would happen if some chauvenist, sexist ideologies were taken to their extreme. I think her interests are feminist rather than atheist-apologist. However, it is interesting to see how frighteningly the Bible can be ripped of all its meaning and context in order to fulfill certain horrific ideologies...

What was particularly interesting was how the very advocates of the system seemed to see the monster they had created for what it was.

krphk said...

I have to a larger extent agree with Cori.
'However, it is interesting to see how frighteningly the Bible can be ripped of all its meaning and context in order to fulfill certain horrific ideologies...'

I've just recently read the novel and am having to do a presentation and essay on it for my Master's class. In depth analysis of the text shows indeed that Ms Atwood has problems with Christianity, however, her misinterpretation of Christianity illustrated by her creation of Gilead only acts to misconstrue her readers that may suffer from a lack of knowledge as far biblical Christianity is concerned.

The book was interesting however I would go as far to say that that is what would happen if Christianity became law of the land, for many reasons. the most obvious being one of the ten commandments is do not commit adultery.

Anonymous said...

so many people want to judge the Bible without ever reading it in its entirety. Then, in schools literature is chosen that criticizes the Bible without any offsetting literature to give a balanced view.

As our older son says, its obvious that Christianity is true because it is the one thing that everyone rises up against.

The message of Christianity is love. God loved you enough to put on flesh and die for you. You don't have to accept Him but if you choose to accept Him into your life and live for live forever with Him.

The analogy of a playdough person telling its' maker what to do would be absurd. It is equally absurd for us to think that we can give God Almighty advice. How arrogant our society has become. Jesus, open our eyes and have mercy upon us. forgive us we pray.