November 2010

The Withiel Book Circle’s October choice was this acclaimed and controversial novel, first published in 1986.  Atwood wrote the book in response to a Conservative revival in the West that was fuelled, in America, by a strong movement of religious conservatives, critical of what they perceived as the excesses of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

Imagining a reversal of the rights gained by women in the Twentieth Century, Atwood sets her book in Gilead, an invented United States of the future.  This is an authoritarian society controlled by radical Christian fundamentalists, and in which women’s freedoms are greatly restricted, their roles limited to breeding, domestic work, spying on each other and prostitution.  Activities prohibited to them include voting, reading and writing.  Once their purpose has been served, women are despatched to the ‘colonies’, their task to clear toxic waste and radiation spills.

The handmaid has been appointed by an elite but infertile couple to act as a surrogate mother and, through her story, we learn how Gilead came into being and the events leading to her separation from husband and child.  Some of us were disappointed by the greyness of the handmaid’s character; others thought it an accurate depiction of a subjugated personality.

Although views differed on the quality of writing, it was agreed that Atwood paints a vivid portrait of a life devoid of freedom of thought and action, prompting a discussion of how we would cope in such constrained circumstances.  However, in terms of reader response, this was one of the more divisive novels we’ve covered; a case of ‘love it or hate it’.  For some, The Handmaid’s Tale was a thought-provoking, visionary novel; others felt that it was far-fetched and too critical of the male of the species!

Atwood categorised ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as a work of social science fiction and many of us felt that it bears comparison with other visionary works, such as 1984 and Brave New World.  And, that in its exploration of gender politics, environmental disaster and the threats of religious fundamentalism, the novel’s themes are as relevant today as when they were written.

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