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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Politics tends to distort more than it enhances, and nowhere is that more true than in literature. Novels and stories should be focused on character and plot, and everything else should flow from those springs. But when you decide to write a novel with a specific point in mind, you wind up massaging everything else to conform to your message. The Handmaid’s Tale suffers from a comparison to a more recent dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games Trilogy. In those novels, the reasons behind the dissolution of North America and the brutality of the Capitol’s governance were kept vague, allowing the reader’s attention to be wholly focused on Katniss and her struggles. I enjoyed The Hunger Games so much because I was invested in Katniss, and the only stumble the trilogy took was in Mockingjay, when politics started encroaching into the narrative. Margaret Atwood’s novel is told from the point-of-view of “Offred, or Of Fred” a handmaid in a near-future America where women’s rights have been stripped back basically to prehistoric levels. Declining birth rights and secular immorality have emboldened the fervent into establishing a new order, where women’s only prized commodity is the ability to give birth. This state has streamlined the process, essentially turning women of child-bearing age into sex-slaves for powerful men. Atwood is a fantastic writer, The Blind Assassin is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, but here the heavy-handed nature of her political arguments overwhelms the story of “Offred.” So many of the rules of Atwood’s futuristic society are designed just to reinforce her arguments for women’s rights, and not as a realistic vision of the chilling consequences of inequality. On the whole it is difficult to imagine any insurgent political movement actually embracing and promoting such implausible ideas. The Handmaid’s Tale will probably have a long life as a staple of Women’s Studies lit classes, and the issues it talks about are indeed important, and sort of shockingly relevant, given the recent outbreak of odd, unreasonable, and downright unscientific laws passed by state legislatures. But as a novel it leaves much to be desired. Atwood’s chief sin may be in punting at the ending. With her political points made, she neglected to service her readers.

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