The Handmaid’s Tale

I had planned to spend today planning lessons for next week, but I have just been out and bought a new car (still celebrating getting a teaching job) and so work has fallen to the wayside today…I can always plan tomorrow!  Besides I decided my time would be much better spent finishing The Handmaid’s Tale and updating my blog.

As part of my mini exploration of dystopian fiction I have already read and reviewed George Orwell’s 1984 and, having read The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago, I thought a return to it would be beneficial when it came to talking about, discussing and teaching the idea of dystopia to my Year 9s.  One of my best friends is a huge Margaret Atwood fan and recommended this to me, and all I can remember from my original reading is that I found it boring, and I couldn’t quite understand why my friend was raving so much.  Now I am far from being over the hill and at 24 I feel slightly hypocritical saying this, but I think age and maturity have helped me to connect with this book in a way that I couldn’t quite manage at 17.  This is an attitude I feel rings true with many books I have read…and I think it is safe to say it works in both directions; there are books I read at 17 that my 24-year-old self finds no appeal in.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in The Republic of Gilead; a republic that used to be known as America.  After a severe decline in population and a rise in ‘sinful’ behaviour the Government has taken drastic steps to bring order to society and to increase the population.  Women have one sole purpose – to breed!  Those who can’t are shipped off to the colonies or forced to work in the houses of Commanders as cooks and cleaners.  Unless you are rich, and then you have the ‘luxury’ of having a handmaid, who will hopefully have a child for you.

The novel is told from the perspective of Offred, a handmaid who can remember what life used to be like, before women were oppressed by the Government and forced to lead a particular type of life.  The narrative frequently flicks back to life before Offred became a handmaid, describing what her life was like and the freedoms she took for granted.  The contrast between Offred’s reality and her past adds a sense of poignancy to the story; it almost reminds of various sayings along the lines of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’ and different ones about grass being greener.  For me personally it is the fact that Offred can remember what life was like that makes the novel so haunting – at least if you are born into an oppressive regime you don’t really know any different, but being forced from a life of freedom to a life as essentially just a disposable baby making machine is horrific.  Atwood captures the fear and uncertainty that life as a handmaid has brought to Offred, making her question her every move and the motives, feelings and loyalties of those around her, especially when she begins to strike up a forbidden relationship with a man.  On the whole I enjoyed this novel much more on second reading

Interestingly when I asked my Year 9s to imagine and describe life in 2112, not one of them mentioned a dramatic difference in the roles of men and women.  We had the usual technological developments, CCTV cameras all over the place, a few living underwater and even the idea that the Grand National would be run on sea horses, but very little on the people who would be alive and how society would work.  I don’t have any feasible explanation as to why they focused on these things, but I find it slightly intriguing that they imagined a better and more exciting world, whereas the dystopian fiction we have been discussing paints a very different picture indeed.  Perhaps this is just proof that they haven’t listened to a word I have said over the past four weeks!

And now I move on to what to read next?!?  I have had my eye on Anthony Quinn’s Half the Human Race since I worked in a bookshop well over a year ago, so that is one possibility.  I could continue on my Carnegie Medal pursuit.  Or I could reread Wolf Hall.  I must admit the latter appeals to me the most at the moment, mainly because I just bought it this morning!  I ventured to my local library to see if they had a copy, having been greatly influenced by Charlotte Reads Classics and Dove Grey Reader and their posts on the sequel Bring Up the Bodies.  Alas I saw no copy on the bookshelves, so I moseyed away slightly downhearted.  However on the off chance I popped in to a charity shop, and what should I find for on sale for 99p? I like to think of it as fate!

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