Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read Handmaid's Tale for quite some time, but hadn't got around to it until this summer. I've always been a bit intimidated by it, to be honest, especially because of its premise of a 'Christian' fundamentalist state. As a Christian, I'm on more of the progressive wing, so, while I recognize the danger of fundamentalism, I do get tired of Christianity being equated with fundamentalism. So, I've tended to hesitate on this book and I think that was a mistake because the book is much more nuanced than that.

So, the premise, of course, is that, amid a vaguely identified environmental disaster or disasters, the US as we know it falls into a period of civil strife and a harshly theocratic, Republic of Gilead, emerges as the government. Among the developments with this regime is the complete reversal of feminist gains of the 60s and 70s as women are driven out of the workplace and the economy. Amid this, the majority of women become infertile, necessitating the virtual enslavement of the fertile women as Handmaids. Atwood's book charts the story of one of these 'handmaids' in the style of a oral tale, recorded presumably after her escape (as the afterword, set considerably in the future, tells).

The world of the Handmaids is, of course, one of surface strictness and deep, deep hypocrisy. The self-conscious piety of all members of society is a survival mechanism in a totalitarian state, of course, but the experiences of Offred highlight how even its leaders can't live with the roles they live. It makes sense, of course, in a dystopian world like this, but it is deftly captured by Attwood.

What strikes me as most interesting, given the reputation of this book as a critique of Christianity, is that the Christianity it portrays isn't the one I recognize. It has shades of the Aryan churches of Germany, but it focuses more on a more explicitly Old Testament political and social ideology. Grace, for instance, isn't really a strong voice in this religion. In fact, the mainline denominations are pretty relentlessly persecuted in this book and, indeed, some Christians, especially Quakers, are actively subverting it. The religion that Attwood presents is that of an extreme fringe of evangelicalism and just about anyone will recognize it as fundamentally dangerous.

This is really interesting to me because Handmaid's Tale has a reputation of being anti-Christian. In fact, over ten years ago, at my school, we had a parent object to the book being assigned as a text because of those overtones (I had been tempted to suggest Canticle for Leibowitz as a substitute, knowing the overtly Catholic tone of that book would be just as jarring!). Yet, I don't think Atwood is warning about Christianity in general, but just a form of Christianity which is legitimately dangerous.

So, this book is well worth reading. It does go slow and a bit diffusely, but it is well worth immersing oneself in this alternative world.

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