Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

For my last book club meeting, we read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It turned out to be a gripping page-turner which I finished in one day.

For this post, I would like to talk a bit about the feminism portrayed in the story. Although this is the first Atwood novel that I've read, I've always known her to be a feminist writer. Hence it was a surprise to me to feel a discomforting stirring while reading the book - I think I expected to read a 'traditionally' feminist text but instead found a story that paints a complex view of feminism, and at several points, critiquing the movement and its ideas.

The novel was written in the '80s but I found the ideas explored forward-thinking for its time; in fact I think the only part of the book that was telling of its age or era it was set in was the portrayal of the second wave of feminism. This was shown through Offred's mother who took part in demonstrations that campaigned for abortion rights, the banning of pornography and other issues aligned with the second wave of feminism. Even though Atwood seemed to champion that the movement was necessary and not to take these rights for granted (like Offred did before the formation of Gilread), she also cautioned against extremism in the movement - for example, feminists who sided with the religious right against pornography might end up doing more harm than good to the movement.

Then there was the bleak depiction of a seemingly women-centric society in which women were supposed to support each other in times of birth, sickness and disturbingly, conception. The women lived almost in isolation from men and were inducted into their roles by other women - the 'Aunts'. Yet Atwood seemed to suggest that such a women-centric society would not work, as women were not naturally supportive of each others' roles.

Another idea put forward by Atwood was that when women and men are segregated to playing certain roles in society, it is not just the women who suffer. This could be seen in the case of the Colonel who wanted the casual company of Offred to play Scrabble but had to do it secretly as friendships between women and men were forbidden.

In addition, the novel brought up other themes relating to women, such as sexual violence and power, reproductive rights as well as the deprivation of language as a form of control over women.

The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling and powerful story of what might go wrong when a society becomes too complacent and allows a totalitarian government full of religious zealots to take over and abuse its power. What is scariest about this tale is that it could happen.

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