The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Every so often, a sci-fi scenario finds its
way into the serious fiction shelves. The
Handmaid’s Tale is one of those works.
So even if the name of the author is
Atwood, don’t expect to find it next to
Asmiov on the bookstore racks. You will
have better luck looking adjacent to Jane
Why are most of the high lit sci-fi novels
based on dystopian future societies? If
you look at 1984 by Orwell or The Road
by Cormac McCarthy or Brave New
World by Aldous Huxley, they all build
their emotional force by painting the future in dark, foreboding
tones. The Handmaid’s Tale is much the same, and it is not out of
place when considered alongside these classics of the genre. And
not just for the gloomy totalitarian nature of the world it depicts.
Atwood is a forceful, nuanced writer, and mostly avoids the clichés
and banalities associated with fiction of this sort.
Her novel presents a Taliban-type society in which a centralized
theocracy controls all aspects of day-to-day life, and is especially
oppressive in the restrictions it imposes on women. Imagine the
type of political and social structure most anathema to subscribers
to Cosmopolitan or viewers of the E cable network and you will have
some idea of what Atwood is conceiving. In other words, this is a
world in which old issues of Vogue magazine are contraband,
makeup is strictly prohibited, high fashion non-existent and sex
limited to the needs of procreation. . . . Well, maybe not completely.
There are still some kinks in the process, and the world’s oldest
profession has adapted to the new world order.
What ushered in this new era? Atwood is sketchy on the details, but
in a prescient passage she mentions that the ruling powers used the
fear of Islamic extremists as justification for its own theocratic
extremism – a fairly interesting detail from a book published in
Atwood is adroit in structuring her narrative, using flashbacks and
shifts in chronology, and mixing first and third-person accounts, in
constructing her tale. Her writing takes on an ascetic tone that is
well suited to the subject matter, but she adds just the right dose of
metaphor and poetry, while never getting too flashy in a story that
requires a certain amount of starkness in order to set the right
mood. A surprising epilogue adds a satirical element that contrasts
effectively with the main thrust of the narrative.
As with Orwell, the political angle her is obvious at every turn in this
novel. But this book never collapses into mere polemic. And
Atwood’s characters often surprise you, rising above the cartoonish
good-guy versus bad-guy structures of so many dystopian novels.
This is no Atlas Shrugged. Hence, in a book focused on the
oppression of women, Atwood takes time to offer some insightful
details on how the patriarchal structure controls the men in society
as well. Even the most successful participants in the system are
forced into hypocrisy and subterfuge.
All in all, this is a first class novel which has held up with the passing
years, and has well earned its status as a modern-day classic. When
Atwood wrote this book, many would have seen class differences as
the main driver of future global conflicts, and may even have
envisioned a day when theology no longer figured much in current
events. But the oldest belief systems have proven to be the most
persistent and deadly. By focusing instead on theocratic impulses
and religion as a channeling force for tyranny, this author has
created a work that is still highly relevant today.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews The
Handmaid's Tale by Margaret
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985