The Reread Project: The Handmaid’s Tale

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post. The only other entry in this series so far is To Kill A Mockingbird. This is also a bonus entry for #ReadSciFi month.

The edition I read as a teenager versus the edition I read this time round.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood (1985)

I first read this novel in 2003, when I was sixteen. It wasn’t a set text, but I did read it from the school library. As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt that I ‘ought’ to read it and like it, and this may explain some of my hostile reaction. I didn’t dislike Atwood per se at this age: my first book by her had been Alias Grace, which I’d loved (though I liked it less when I re-read it a few years later). But I really didn’t like The Handmaid’s TaleAs I wrote in my review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, when I was a teenager I considered feminism to be outdated. While I may have been more responsive to other feminist dystopias, I remember feeling that Atwood’s vision of a world of handmaids seemed especially contrived and implausible. I felt that I lived in a world where sexual freedom was only becoming more and more widespread; Atwood’s world was supposedly set in the future, but seemed to belong to the past.

***

When I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt like I’d been basically right about it when I was a teenager. In contrast, re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale has been a sobering experience. It’s really good. While these thoughts may bring nothing new to the table for those of you who’ve been reading and discussing the novel for decades, I thought I’d try and say something about why my opinion has changed so drastically.

As a teenager, I was introduced to The Handmaid’s Tale as an Important Feminist Text, having never been told very much about feminism, and I interpreted its story according to what I understood of feminism at the time. Offred was a feminist heroine rebelling against an evil regime – I’m not sure the word patriarchal was familiar to me. In this regime, men were all bad and women were all oppressed, and this reflected the future that Atwood thought we were all heading towards. I believed this was incredibly unlikely. However, I don’t think I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale so much solely because I didn’t see myself as a feminist; I think my misinterpretation of the story Atwood is trying to tell also played into it.

The first thing that struck me about the narrative that we receive in The Handmaid’s Tale on my re-read is how deliberately partial it is – both fragmented, and biased. Offred is, or at least was, a middle-class white woman from a certain kind of liberal background. She’s rather impatient with the radical feminism of her second-wave feminist mother. While she notionally stands for sexual freedom, she isn’t as open-minded as we might expect when her best friend Moira comes out as a lesbian: ‘There was a time when we didn’t hug, after she’d told me about being gay; but then she said I didn’t turn her on, reassuring me, and we’d gone back to it.’ Offred has precious little to tell us about the fate of people of colour in her world; we only learn in the Historical Notes, which detail a conference held by a number of professors hailing from previously colonised countries like India that ‘racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.’

 But once we realise that Offred isn’t an icon, but an ordinary person, and her narrative is intentionally limited, The Handmaid’s Tale opens up. Atwood juxtaposes a number of different understandings of feminism and maternalism, rather than focusing on how the dystopian society of Gilead is Bad and the previous world order was Good. In many ways, the book is a deliberate reckoning with the legacy of second-wave feminism, and with the cracks that were opening up in the movement in the 1980s. Offred, before the coup, takes much of her previous freedom for granted and is somewhat dismissive of her mother’s activism, but also accepts that there were restrictions on life before: that women couldn’t walk freely in the streets alone and were constantly confronted with pornographic depictions of their own bodies. As Atwood herself has commented, Gilead deliberately co-opts some of the tenets of the second-wave feminist movement: for example, in its antipathy to rape and its glorification of women’s ability to bear children. Offred’s relationship to this earlier brand of feminism is poignantly reflected in her realisation of what has happened to her own mother: ‘I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins… I can’t quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energey, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.’

Sex was an important part of Offred’s life before the coup, but is now reduced to ritualistic intercourse with the Commander once a month. When the Commander suggests that this society is better for women, and asks Offred ‘What did we overlook?’, her answer, like the answers of many fictional victims of dystopian societies, is ‘Love… Falling in love’. In her own head, she continues: ‘It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space’. When Offred does embark on a sexual relationship with Nick, she isn’t driven by romantic passion but by a desire to break out of the role she has to play all day every day. Nevertheless, this becomes addictive: ‘I no longer want to leave, escape… I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.’ In The Handmaid’s Tale, love is not positioned tidily as salvation from dystopia but as another way in which women’s wants can both be expressed and co-opted. Atwood’s description of what women get out of reading women’s magazines, which preach the gospel of love, can’t really be bettered: ‘They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities… They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.’

 The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, isn’t a simplistically feminist book but a reckoning with a specific kind of feminist philosophy; and Atwood never lets on what she really thinks. While Gilead may contain some superficially tempting features, the real temptation, underneath the surface, is the world-view of Offred’s mother, which has been both destroyed by Gilead and vindicated in the most disturbing of ways. The novel doesn’t tell us what we should think about sex in a patriarchy, about the narrative of romantic love, or how we walk the line between protection and restriction; but it poses all these questions so well. Because of this, it seems essential to me that it is an unfinished text, and I worry about what The Testaments has done to the parameters that Atwood originally established here, even though I’m now keen to read it. For me, Go Set A Watchman helped to redeem some of the problems in To Kill A Mockingbird, but I doubt that will be the case with this particular sequel.

A personal note: The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in Britain in 1986, the year I was born. I first read it when I was sixteen, the same age as one of the narrators of The Testaments. And now, like Offred, I’m thirty-three. I wonder, if I re-read this novel when I’m twice as old once more, whether it will be a different book again.

 

21 thoughts on “The Reread Project: The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. I am so relieved that you liked this book so much better the second time around. The more I read it, the more I love it. Now I’m on to The Testaments, and confess to feeling a little nervous. But curiosity of it overrides any misgivings I might have by far!
    I loved hearing about your two different experiences with the book!

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  2. Like you, I love to reread and reconsider books I’ve read previously (especially when my first readings were in my teens and twenties, before I had some of the experiences which changed my outlook in key ways). What you’ve noticed this time around would make this book such a different reading experience; I think a lot of times, as we’ve been caught up with reading, we have confused a writer’s outlook on the world with a character’s positioning in the narrative. But it makes such a difference to know that Offred can only see what Offed can see. And with her perspective limited for so many reasons (as our own perspectives are, too, maybe in different ways), how can we not look at ourselves, too, and wonder what we are not seeing. I’m about to rewatch the series (to date, at least) and then plan to read The Testaments in the next week or so.

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    • Absolutely! I also think I just didn’t have the knowledge of earlier feminist thought in my teens, and that’s really affected my reading this time. I haven’t seen the TV series but I’m hoping to read The Testaments very soon.

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  3. “I first read it when I was sixteen, the same age as one of the narrators of The Testaments. And now, like Offred, I’m thirty-three. I wonder, if I re-read this novel when I’m twice as old once more, whether it will be a different book again.”

    This comment intrigues me because I went through something similar with a tree grows in brooklyn. It was a childhood favourite with multiple readings over the years and then a long gap. Listening to recently at me current age was fascinating when taking me age into account. Review below if yer interested. No pressure though.
    x The Captain

    https://thecaptainsquartersblog.wordpress.com/2018/09/28/second-reflections-a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-betty-smith/

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    • Totally reasonable question! I wrote more about this in my post on The Power, but I think the answer’s pretty simple: as a teenage girl, I just didn’t want to believe that I was growing up in a world that seemed so weighted against me. To make this belief work, I bought into a ‘not like other girls’ narrative, and decided that I wasn’t going to buy into female stereotypes and this would somehow exempt me. Going to an all-girls school was also a partial shield (though obviously, like all girls, I’d experienced sexism from a very young age – but I only saw that later in life). I also didn’t really know much about feminism, so my impression of it was wrong.

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      • Ah! I didn’t realize you went to an all-girl’s school. When I was teaching at an all-women’s college, it was very easy to forget that women are often put down because the whole institution is designed to lift them up. It’s interesting that your “not like other girls” narrative sounds so much like “the cool girl” in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Such a smart analysis of how women change to survive men. Have you read it?

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        • All girls schools, especially all girls comprehensives like mine (public schools in US) are very unfashionable in Britain now, but I think there were a lot of benefits.

          I loved Gone Girl and the ‘Cool Girl’ concept! I think ‘not like other girls’ has a slightly different meaning for me – IIRC Cool Girls are all about getting on better with men than women and being sexually available. I didn’t see myself like that, I actually thought the other girls spent too much time trying to get along with boys. I was more interested in rejecting feminine stereotypes like being nurturing, illogical and consensus-driven. I mistakenly thought that I could somehow opt out of being judged by these norms if I rejected femininity 🙁

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          • Interesting. You were a complicated teen, Laura. I just always wanted to have good hair and the biggest pants I could possibly find, lol. What can I say, it was the time of Korn and Limp Bizkit, and big pants were a thing. Now, the fact that I wanted to dress like iconic men also says something about what I valued at that time. I can honestly say I didn’t even think about feminism in high school.

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  4. Fascinating. I always love reading pieces about re-reading as it’s something I do a fair bit, perhaps more than some, and I’m always interested in how our views on the same text change as we age. I certainly thought more about what my role in the world of Gilead would be now, which is not something I really considered first time around. I read it first aged 18 in a feminist context and understanding something of the patriarchy and the second wave, although not having the direct lived experience of patriarchy I have at 47, and it made a strong impression on me, in a positive way (although it does turn out I had it a bit mixed up with Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve” which I read the same week for my Women and Literature in the 20th Century course at university. That’s a book I will never re-read, having tried and found it way too strong for me a few months ago, by the way!). I hope you do read The Testaments: it gave me just what I wanted, I have to say.

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    • Really interesting to hear how your views on Handmaid have changed as well as you’ve got older. I’m definitely going to read Testaments; the delay is only because I’m too cheap to buy it in hardback/full Kindle price 🙂

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  6. As someone who hated The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it at age… 18 or 19(? somewhere around there) this was fascinating to read! It also seems like we had really similar journeys with feminism – I grew up in a very liberal rural community, and having experienced very minimal misogyny first-hand, I also considered feminism to be outdated; in the sense that I believed in equality between men and women, but I also believed that society had mostly already achieved that. It feels almost shameful to admit that it took me moving to Italy at age 20 and living in an even more systemically sexist country than the US to receive a harsh wakeup call about all of this. Anyway, I’m not sure if I’ll reread The Handmaid’s Tale, because I feel like I’ll either continue to hate it, or I won’t hate it and it will give me too much anxiety, but it was very interesting to hear your perspective, it has given me much to think about.

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    • Yep, that’s basically what I believed about feminism when I was 18 (alongside my all-girls school, I also lived in an all-female household most of the time because my dad worked away, and I didn’t get out much because of living in a rural area!). I’m not exactly sure what changed my mind – possibly reading feminist history and theory at university.

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