The Handmaid’s Tale

Tyranny is the unrestrained exercise of power. It is oppressive rule. A despotic use of authority. Whenever any person or group of people enforce their worldview upon another person or group of people it is a tyrannical act. To say that my way of living is better than your way of living, so your way of living must satisfy mine, that is tyranny.

Thesaurus.com lists only one antonym to tyranny. Democracy. We all know the most common definition of democracy; government by the people. We the people decide our laws. We are the supreme power. But just as tyranny is more than government power, democracy is more than a governmental definition.

The third definition of democracy on dictionary.com says that democracy is a state of society. It is a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges. This is what I’m talking about here, and these ideas are what struck me as I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The premise of the book is a denial of democratic ideals. The advent of tyranny. A revolutionary coup in the United States begins the reign of a brutal, puritanical society, called Gilead. Under a new regime, powerful men are kings, called “Commanders.” Women and lesser men are placed in subservient roles to these commanders. Of course, to sell this idea there must be cooperation and, as is often the case, this cooperation is secured in the name of God. It is God’s will that women serve men. It is God’s will that they serve as vessels for procreation, servants for acquiring and preparing food. Women deserve no democratic rights. No voice. Remember what happened last time they were allowed to speak, as equals? Remember when, in the Garden, the first woman tempted and corrupted the first man?

Of course, as with any tyrannical deployment, the men are captives, too. There can only be so many commanders. They only get so many chances to procreate, and failure leads to loss of rank. There can only be one religion, one nation, one allegiance, and one gender preference. Any attempt to escape, to practice a forbidden belief, or to love within your gender gets you to the wall. Eventually. Only your lifeless corpse hangs from the wall after the State is done with you. After that, you are an example for all to see.

Shallow minds will think this book unbelievable. Impossible. Not here, they say. But we don’t have to travel too far back in time to see a day when America thought that women were subservient, lesser creatures, undeserving of democracy. Undeserving of a vote. Their bodies and wills belonged to their men. Escape from this status made her an outcast, at best. Sometimes it made them much, much worse. We still see it in some societies around the world today, and almost always in the name of God.

The book, told in the first person by one of the reproductive vessels of one of the commanders – by the powerfully human Offred – is indeed a tale of the oppressed. It is a reminder to me, to all of us, what can happen when we let the elements of tyranny prevail. When we deny democracy to our peers to make our own lives or statuses safer or better. When we think there is but one way, and it is ours.

We live in a climate today, of fear. Immigrants have come into our country and are stealing our jobs, some say. Homosexuality is rampant, others proclaim. Women are abusing their reproductive rights, we hear from others. That person’s pants are too low. Somebody knelt when I said stand.

Those are the voices of the tyrannical fringe. That is the denial of democracy. There is only one way, the voices say, and it is mine. If you do not follow my way, you will get the wall.

The Handmaid’s Tale is less a tale of resistance, and more a warning bell. This can happen. To you. To us. And all we have to do, to see that day, is allow the voice of intolerance to reign.

Gilead is only a heartbeat away.

*This is the second book in an ongoing series of posts about my 2018 Reading List. Most of the books on the list came from recommendations. Bojana recommended this book to me, and I’m thrilled that she did; I would not have noticed it otherwise. Thank you, my friend! 

29 comments on The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. I thought you were/are “Tom Being Tom” referring to the last paragraph.
    Anyway…I read this book in HS – it wasn’t assigned (I forget why or how I was prompted to read it – probably its popularity). It blows my mind when people believe – or more accurately, deny that we can’t go backwards

    1. So true, Karyn, so true. Freedom must ever be vigilant.

      I had never heard of this book before asking for recommendations from the blogging community, back in December, and this one was one of Bojana’s recommendations. I meant to mention that, at the bottom, but ran out of time. I will correct that now.

      Thank you for reading, and for your thoughts!

      1. there’s a renewed interested (since 1985 when it was originally published) in that particular title due to the ‘war on women’ – as you said, we must be vigilant.

      2. I honestly had no idea the book was written so many years ago. I downloaded a copy, saw the edition I was reading was released in 2010, and took it on faith it was a newer book. Not that it matters, the content is timeless! Thank you for the insight, Karyn!

  2. Atwood is a powerful writer. If you haven’t already read Oryx and Crake, then put it on your list (it’s the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy). Also very prophetic.

  3. I have chills. The first and only time I read this book was when I was 14; it was a gift from my mom. It is a book that has stayed in my consciousness, that changed the lens through which I look at the world, even at such a young age. I agree it is not fantasy. It is a story that gives us eyes into not only what can happen, but what is happening now in many parts of the world. I do think I need to read it with my own grown up eyes, and your post has made me want to do so. Thanks Tom!

    1. I had no idea this book was written that far back until Karyn pointed it out (my edition was from 2010). I consider it even more profound now!

      My sincere hope is that my reflection on these tomes, particularly the ones referred to me by peers, cause folks to pause, think, and consider giving them a read themselves. Or, in your case, another. Thank you for your kind words and insight into this book and about yourself!

  4. Wow. I don’t think I’ve read this book, but from the comments and Tom’s nicely written review, I’m going to have to read it. I added it to my GoodReads bookshelf. What other books are on your 2018 Reading List?

    1. I have a great assortment, mostly recommended by fellow bloggers right here on TBT! You can see the entire list here, http://www.tombeingtom.com/turn-the-page/, but at least one book has been discarded already. 😉

      Some of the highlights, however, include The Alienist, Cloud Atlas, To Kill A Mockingbird, The End of Faith, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called Tribe, recommended by https://dylan-andersen.com/.

      Gonna be a great year of reading!

      1. TRIBE was great (part of my bookclub!) but…I’m trying to remember more…I think the criticism in club was that Sebastian should either have focused more (because he drifts sort of all over) OR made it a bigger/longer read. If I remember correctly is felt unfinished. But…the takeaway was the foundation that we all do better individually and collectively if we are part of/included/invested in a tribe/community. He also did a great job of explaining how service individuals feel awkward back home – no one can (supposedly) relate. It was an awesome group read and discussion.

      2. Nice! Thank you for your feedback on it! I’m only 20 pages in at this point, and it’s fascinating. I jumped it up the list when I realized (a) I couldn’t tackle another fiction book after two in a row, and (b) this tribe of ours is growing, right here in the blogosphere!

        Thought it’d be fun to get some perspective on that! 😇

  5. Tom, you have written this book review so beautifully, it can stand on its own as a warning of the perils of letting go of democratic ideals. People on the far right and left of the spectrum like to condemn democracy by citing its current problems in the US and in other democratic countries: electing popular/charismatic leaders instead of capable ones, massive wealth inequality, “fake” news, etc.. But these problems are not all stemming from Democracy itself but from a lack of effort towards Democratic ideals. Democracy by its nature will always be a work in progress and will change as the people change, but to abandon its ideals especially in upholding equal rights and human dignity is an incredibly tragic, misguided decision and a perfect opportunity for tyrants/ tyrannical regimes to step in and take over.

    “Any attempt to escape, to practice a forbidden belief, or to love within your gender gets you to the wall. Eventually.” What you have written here gave me chills. You have captured that hanging, ever-present danger–an inevitability in authoritarian regimes/groups/mindsets. Any variance from that rigid “absolute” standard means rejection, total elimination. This how brutal tyranny is.

    Let’s keep being ourselves, different and unafraid to be who we are.

    1. Yes, yes, yes!

      “…electing popular/charismatic leaders instead of capable ones, massive wealth inequality, “fake” news, etc.. But these problems are not all stemming from Democracy itself but from a lack of effort towards Democratic ideals.”

      I am, quite simply, overjoyed to find people who actually understand this. Maybe it is just the isolated, bumpkin community in which I live, but I keep running into that “wall” of misconception. Everywhere I turn, folks keep wanting to condemn other folks for destroying “our” lifestyles because the “other” seek their own democratically ideal life. We should be adhering to the ideals of democracy – of freedom, of justice, of equality – not condemning the same!

      At times I think it is ignorance that traps us; other times selfishness. Whatever it is, we need to overcome it. We all deserve better. Not just “us.” Not just “them.” All.

      Thank you for reading, for understanding, and for an amazing response, MP! You took what I said, and made it better!

      1. Tom, you are an inspiration! I have just reblogged one of your earlier posts that struck me profoundly (I sent you a message via Twitter): Imperfect Information.
        My way of saying thank you!

  6. Tom, you could start making serious money by writing reviews. Loved this.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said this was not a futuristic novel but rather a cautionary tale, scary as hell, I’d say.
    A tyranny indeed, controlling women by fetishizing motherhood, and approving of (not to say admiring) femininity, but alas defining it in terms of service to men and children.
    And what are Gilead’s most powerful weapons? Paranoia and division (read: violence).

    I esp. liked the flashbacks, don’t you agree? So powerful.

    All in all, it’s a work of impeccable world-building, if you ask me.

    I’m thrilled that you liked it too and once again, thank you for the wonderful analysis (and the nudge). Told you you were too subversive for the Reader. I thought you actually finished the 7 dwarfs. Tell me you’re writing it, tell me, tell me…

    P.S. Check again your link to ‘2018 Reading List.’ It’s not showing what it’s supposed to.

    1. Thank you, Bojana. 😊 That you think that, about me, means the world to me. I hoped I would do this one justice. It was a fine read; an important lesson.

      Paranoia and division are the greatest tools of the tyrant, and we see the politicians of today play on those fears, stoke that divisiveness. If they can keep us against each other, they can have all they want from us. This book is an example of the extreme endgame of that ploy. We must educate ourselves to the possible outcomes.

      The flashbacks were poignant. Normal life. We all live normal lives, and perhaps take them for granted. I try not to. I try to understand that my every day is precious. Offred understood that in retrospect. Moira seemed to understand that in real time. A survivor, that one.

      Weird that I don’t show in the Reader. ✊

      I have done work on the 7 dwarfs, but I’m stuck. I can’t reconcile our 7 with their 7, yet. It isn’t forgotten, it hasn’t been shelved, I just need more time. 😉

      The link should lead to a page that has all of my reviews and mentions of the 2018 Reading List on it. What is showing?

      1. I know but it’s showing the page with your review. As for the Reader, good that you don’t show. It means you’re doing the right thing.
        As for paranoia and division, you’ll have a real-time story from me soon, how the politicians used them for their own benefit, which will make this novel even more precious. A poignant reminder, indeed.

  7. So i’ve reached the end…which is actually a new beginning. Tom, I have loved the journey that was following the path you made through the tall grass of our world. At last I came upon your campsite and will now be able to take the rest of it by your side.

    What a wonderfully awakening experience it has been. And to quote one of the masters…

    “Not all those who wander are lost.” bb

    1. What a fantastic tribute to TBT that you wound your way through the entire journey. Extremely happy to have you by my side! Now, let’s get to changing the world, shall we? Welcome, Mr Wulf, to the future!

  8. Thanks to Blogging with Bojana for pointing me to this review after reading my review of the same book. Any response I might have to Tom’s perspective should probably start with my own thoughts on the same novel.

    1. Glad you came by, James! I just finished your (much more detailed) analysis of the same book, and was quite impressed! Though we don’t necessarily share the same philosophical bent on all things, I can imagine quite fascinating discussions on the nature of things with you. Thanks for taking the time to be a part of the conversation!

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