Lifetime Reading List: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Since I began increasing my social media activity two years ago (namely, on Twitter), one of the books I’ve seen most often debated, discussed, praised, and criticized is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’d been hesitant to read The Handmaid’s Tale because I like to read for pleasure, not to get angry, and rage seemed to be a reaction of many individuals I follow whose opinions I share.

After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, though, I just want to celebrate. This is the type of book we’ve needed for far too long. It’s a book that should (and does) start a discussion inspired by a very important question: How far is too far?

Much like the book from the past two weeks’ posts, The Hunger Games (analysis here; review here), The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic society where the government, known as Gilead, rules every aspect of each citizen’s life. If you haven’t read it, here’s a simple example: sex is meant for procreation, nothing more.

After talking to my friend, Valerie Storm, I realized that the book The Handmaid’s Tale varies greatly from the television production; so, in this analysis as well as next week’s review, I ask that you keep that in mind.

Anyway, back to sex only for the purpose of babies.

As many of you know, I’m married. I have two children. And I cannot imagine only being able to get my freak on for the purpose of having another munchkin, let alone sex with my husband being discouraged and having a surrogate (both of the gestational and sexual sense) to fulfill that part of my marriage. Perhaps worse still, I cannot imagine being the woman who is the surrogate (Handmaid) who is forced to copulate with another woman’s husband, conceive a biological child, carry that child, and then be forced to give the baby to the woman who has treated me not so well for the past nine-plus months.

This is the world under the Republic of Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale definitely brings some topics to the table, particularly regarding reproductive rights as well as the way a woman may choose to express her sexuality, either in daily dress or intimate attire.

I know where I stand on these issues; you know where you stand. There’s a good chance we disagree, at least marginally.

In Atwood’s own words, though, I think we’ll find we have the same opinion. As Atwood says in the introduction:

In the real world today, some religious groups are leading movements for the protection of vulnerable groups, including women.

So the book is not “anti-religion.” It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (p. xviii)

I am a believer in Christ, and I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Without getting on a soapbox here, the Gospel is full of examples of Jesus Christ saying “come as you are.” Nowhere, though, does He say you have to believe by a certain age or point in your life, except prior to death; if you don’t, the consequences are eternal, but even then, each person has the choice to follow Him or not. The walk of faith is not forced by God Himself. One of the biggest complaints I have about modern Christian society is the forcing of faith on those who are not yet ready to walk with Christ. A faith cannot be a person’s own if it is forced in the name of propriety, or “what the family is doing,” or “tradition.” If God Himself doesn’t force His way on us, then who are humans to do so to their peers?

Thus, I greatly appreciate the message of The Handmaid’s Tale as it demonstrates what “too far” looks like when one group forces its beliefs and customs on a nation. Incapable of finding another way out, many Handmaids commit suicide or desperate crimes, only to find another way to death for their trespasses.

This is the danger of forcing beliefs on people who aren’t ready – they resist.

Of course, in the Republic of Gilead, I cannot imagine ever endorsing their practices. The nation is controlled by zealots who are mad with power. Moreover, Gilead is anything but a free nation, and I will die on the hill of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s been about a month since I finished The Handmaid’s Tale and started writing this analysis, so my memory is a bit foggy. But from what I call recall, Gilead represses freedom of intimacy, both of sex and emotion, which is best illustrated in Offred’s relationship with Fred (he no longer is able to enjoy sex with his wife and craves any form of feminine contact, even playing a board game). Gilead forces each person to dress a certain way, so that at a glance everyone knows who everyone else “is” and where they belong. (But as I wrote in my post “Judging a Book by its Cover,” you know how I feel about appearances as indicators.)

I do not want to live in a Gilead. I may want Christ to rule my life, but I do not want to force my beliefs on my country, the same way I wouldn’t want someone else to force theirs to do the same.

There is so much more to be said about the topics The Handmaid’s Tale brings to the reader’s attention, but if I keep going, I’ll probably write a post as long as Atwood’s book! Instead, I’ll just say that I enthusiastically agree that The Handmaid’s Tale is 100% a must-read book. I’ll post my review next week!

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