The Handmaid’s Tale [book review]

Following a newspaper article where this book was referred, along Brave New World and 1984, as an essential novel for this time of trumpism, I read this 1986 book by Margaret Atwood of a dystopian America where Christian fundamentalists have taken over a region around Harvard and imposed a dictatorial society, plagued by pollution-induced sterility, inter-state wars, and the omnipresence of a fascist state. The central and brilliant idea of the novel is that the bodies of fertile women are no longer theirs to conceive babies [with the obvious and immediate question rising as to when they actually were…] and that the State allocate them to men from the ruling class, their babies been “adopted” by these men’s family once they are born. With a deadly dose of religious blather to justify this enslavement of bodies (and in most cases minds). Ten years ago, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a detailed commentary on the book that perfectly exposes its strength, using the almost mundane journal of one nameless handmaiden to describe the absolute horror of the Gilead Republic.

Since this book has become a classic, often in high school reading curricula (albeit almost as often challenged by conservative parents and organisations), I wonder why I did not read it earlier. Reading it today is however very much appropriate to stress the point that such extremes could essentially happen anywhere, anytime, not necessarily far from here or from now. And to also see the book as a warning parabola about the omnipresent threats on women and reproductive rights. Although the tale is set in the current era, the connection with the (first?) Puritan Massachusetts state through the (red) costume of the Handmaiden [acknowledged by Atwood] and the rigid control of the community over the individuals reminded me of Hawthorne’ Scarlet Letter, a beautiful book that keeps its relevance in present days.

In conjunction with the novel been adapted as a TV Series starting next month, Margaret Atwood wrote in the NYT a post-Trump analysis of the themes and prospects in The Handmaid’s Tale that is certainly worth reading. (I have no opinion about the TV Series, just hoping it keeps this feeling that such things could be just around the corner.)

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