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Wednesday, October 22

The Handmaidís Tale

Iíve just finished re-reading The Handmaidís Tale by Margaret Atwood. I studied this novel for my English Literature A-Level (cough, A grade, cough) a few years ago, and itís been sat on my shelf ever since. I finally got round to picking it up again, and Iíve been reading it all this week, on the Tube to and from uni each day.

Firstly, I just want to say that it is still an amazing book to read. I must have read it at least 5 times over whilst I was studying it, and bits of it still enthral me with the language and subtle themes running throughout. Flowers are a constant theme, but you donít realise this until near the end when the narrator makes a point specifically about flowers. Thereís a whole host of other themes, but I donít want to list them here for fear of spoiling the novel for any virgin readers.

Saying that, there is a major aspect that Iíd like to pass comment on and explore, during which I will probably reveal a whole bundle of stuff about the plot and characters, so if you havenít read the novel, donít read on. Honestly, donít spoil it for yourself!

I remember reading at some point in the past 6 months another blog (, I believe), run by a young woman, where the author had recently read The Handmaidís Tale for the first time. She commented that the book was one of the most feminist and anti-male novels that she had ever read.

I beg wholeheartedly to differ.

I just canít see how this novel can be read as a feminist novel, empowering women and all of that crap. There doesnít seem to be any basis for this hypothesis. The women are treated terribly, whether it be as servants to the men, or as empty shells in which offspring are created and born from. Women are not allowed to work, to have money, to own property, to choose their husbands, to be educated, to be sexually liberated, or even to have friends. They are the lower of the two genders, by far.

Women are no longer whole. Their purposes are divided up within the households. Each man has one or 2 cooks / servant-types, a woman whoís sole purpose is to reproduce, and his ďwifeĒ who is in charge of the household, and is the overall image promoted for it. How can this be a strongly feminist viewpoint?

All of this was in response to the Womenís Lib movement of the 60s and 70s. Women were campaigning to be treated equally, and when this happened, the balance went too far in their favour, forcing the men to rebel and create this new society, in which the power is restored to themselves. As the Commander notes late on in the novel, the men felt as if they were worthless; they had no purpose any more, and even sex had lost its appeal, since it was everywhere: Pornomarts on every corner, ďliberatedĒ women making themselves readily available for sex at every opportunity, and the lack of excitement in the ďhuntĒ for women. Therefore, they rebelled, taking back the power, and reducing women to a lower status than they had before the entire saga.

Even the narratorís hero, Moira, is eventually reduced to serving the men in the regime which she hated so much. She is also forced to have sex with them, and to dress / act as they want her to. For even this feminist icon, with all the power and liberation she represents, to be reduced to this is something that even the most ardent feminist would be hard-pushed to claim was actually empowering to women.

Basically, what I am trying to put across is that whilst The Handmaidís Tale is many things, it is not a feminist book. The Historical Notes section at the end highlights the way in which most of the aspects of Gileadean society exist in todayís society, from the degradation of women in Moslem countries to the monotheocracy in Iran to the use of a secret organisation to force the public to obey the ruling power. All it needs is for these to come together in one culture for there to be a potential Gilead. A scary thought.


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