1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 171: A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margeret Atwood

Margeret Atwood’s A Hanmaid’s Tale is at once a wondrous piece of feminist literature and a problematic narrative.  I have been critical of it in the past, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the narrative voice which speaks in the present tense throughout the novel, but was, according to an appendix at the end of the narrative, recorded after the fact, which means the voice should have been speaking in the past tense.  There is also the social structure.  She describes a patriarchal, dystopian society where women’s rights are non-existent, which is no doubt believable as some societies today do not have women’s rights.  Atwood however has projected to society in the not-too-distant future, but the structure that is in place is one that would have taken generations to form.  A woman goes from her early twenties into her early thirties perhaps, but no more, and goes from a society where women have equal rights, and where divorce and abortion is common, to a society where each of these things is against the law.  And all of this was a result of sectarian civil war, which in and of itself is odd in that, in the novel, the wars took place between territories, yet there is no territorial map set up for sects of Christianity.  Indeed, there are different sects all over the place, so while the fact that a right-wing Christian group could obtain a political majority is possible, a territorial war based on sects is not pragmatic or possible by any means.  It is hard to put these things aside.  One is supposed to be able to suspend their disbelief, and I just can’t seem to do that during this novel.  For instance, in one scene a Handmaid, who the narrator saw in the morning, hung herself and later that day a replacement Handmaid was already in by noon.  There hardly seems like enough time to have addressed a hanging and ask for a replacement in the span of an hour.


But if you can get through the inconsistencies, the novel does have something to offer.  It is, as it proudly boasts, Orwellian, and as many have said, is a sort of feminist version of 1984.  But it is also dated.  Abortion remains an important issue within feminist literature, there is no doubt about that, but while abortion has its very vocal antagonists, it is, in western society at least, a battle that has been one.  Even in the context of the novel abortion seems to be something on the peripheral, though ownership over one’s body is very much at the center of this novel.  The novel also deals with censorship and other totalitarian themes, but even as important issues come up in the novel, they remain weighed down by the inconsistencies in the narrative.  It is a must read for anybody interested in feminist literature, or in dystopian literature for that matter, but it is not without its flaws.

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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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