Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Women’s issues are inescapable in Morocco.

A moderate Islamic society, Morocco isn’t so severe as some places in the world; it is no Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Mauritania. But nonetheless, a Westerner cannot walk here without feeling it, without seeing it, without experiencing it every day.

And as a man, of course, I do not experience the worst of things. My sister, my traveling partner for this jaunt, wrote a good blog post about her thoughts on the gender gap, here.

Speaking on this subject as a man is a difficult needle to thread. So I won’t try. Not yet, anyways. But I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been in my thoughts, a lot.

Instead of writing on this subject, I’ve distracted myself by reading on this subject.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. Recently, The Handmaid’s Tale has reached a new audience, through the Emmy Award-winning Hulu series. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I knew the basic premise of the book. What better place to read about a dystopian patriarchy than in Morocco?

 

The Handmaid’s Tale, for those who have no knowledge of either the book or the TV series, is set in a dystopian near-future. American society, beset by some nameless plague and endless war, has become some perverted, ultra-Christian patriarchy. Women in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale are stripped of all agency — no longer able to work or own property, they are reduced to classical roles: wife, cleaner, concubine.

Our narrator, Offred, falls into the last category. She is a ‘handmaid,’ a red-robed mistress. She lives a relatively simple life in this new world: her only purpose is to be impregnated. She is nothing more than breeding stock, another perk for a man of high status.

Offred is old enough to remember a time before the dystopia — a time much like ours, when men and women lived together as relative equals. Her recollection of the moment all women lost their jobs and their bank accounts is tinged with terror: now she will have to become reliant on her boyfriend. Reliant on a man. She loves her boyfriend, recalls him fondly throughout the novel, but nonetheless. Despite all the other traumas inherent in Offred’s life: this is the one that stings the most.

**

When you are on the road, you are recommended many things. Books, hostels, countries, documentaries.

And when you linger in one place for a long time, as I am apt to do, you have time to investigate these recommendations.

This is how I came upon “The Swedish Theory of Love.”

The Swedish Theory of Love is a 2015 documentary film criticizing the Swedish social model. The film isn’t perfect — it wanders, and loses focus at some undefined point in the middle. But you don’t have to watch it for long to find the part that stuck with me — it’s right at the beginning.

In 1972, Swedish politicians wrote “The Family of the Future: A Socialist Family Policy,”  a manifesto explaining their mission of creating for every Swede a life of total independence — independence from reliance on others. The social ties Swedes formed going forward — so said the manifesto — would be created entirely through desire. If you didn’t want to be tied to your husband, you didn’t need to. You wanted to be a single parent? Go ahead. If you didn’t like your aging mother (or she didn’t like you), you wouldn’t have to take care of each other. The Swedish government would do that for you.

(You can see the full documentary here, if you are interested)

What these three things — The Handmaid’s Tale, gender dynamics in Morocco, and the Swedish social model — have in common is agency. They offer different takes on personal agency.

As an American, personal agency (freedom) is a value so deeply ingrained in me, it is almost at my core. As Americans, we are taught this is the most important thing; not only for a person, but for a society.

At the same time, American society restricts personal agency at many turns.

“America is a free country where you can’t do anything,” an Austrian man once said to me, deep in the Himalaya.

To travel is to find your core beliefs challenged.

I have been to many places in the past two years. I have seen many societies, many takes on personal agency and communal identity. None strike me as beyond reproach. But at the heart of all these varied approaches, there lies a basic truth: a society — any society — is created by individuals trying to create a better world.

This is how the powerful men in The Handmaid’s Tale justify their shaping of the world. Better for all always means worse for some, Atwood writes.

**

Part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so scary is just how possible it all seems.

The world of Offred seems possible in the U.S.A

It seems especially possible in an America where radical factions are on the rise. In an America where Donald Trump beats Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

It seems even more possible from Morocco, a society where women are visibly sidelined, and often costumed in just the same way as the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale.

This is a gross simplification, of course. Moroccan women have varied opinions — and the colorful hijabs that punctuate the street scenes are as much fashion statement as symbol of oppression.

But the winged, red-robed Handmaids that roam Atwood’s world sure seem similar to the black-clad women in full-body niqabs, which you see occasionally here in northern Morocco, but more frequently elsewhere. The women characters in the book seem similar, with their whispered secrets and sufferings of small abuses at the hands of privileged men, to the American women I see papering my Facebook with “Me Too.”

They have their own world, a world men either care not to see, or simply choose to ignore. The social media campaign a cry, a billboard, a photo shoved in your face: LOOK! Look at the way your world impacts mine. I do not have the agency you do.

The many small ways freedom is stripped from the individual.

 

America, land of Freedom.

Morocco, powered by the family tradition.

Sweden, a super-state to level the personal playing field.

The Handmaid’s Tale, an exaggerated play to make you consider these things.

So you could say. It is a good dystopia. It hits close to home, wherever home is.

***

You can buy The Handmaid’s Tale on Amazon for $13.

Season 1 of the TV series is free to stream for Hulu Plus members, here.

This post contains affiliate links. Affiliate links help support this blog.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  1. Interesting, Daniel. Keep reading and observing and when you are safely home again you will have more to write! We are having a deluge of women here narrating their sexist experiences in a more camouflaged American film industry,
    Meanwhile travel well and stay safe.
    Love, Granny Kathy

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