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Maureen

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Anyone who would like to get hold of a copy of this book and join in the circle - there are quite a few copies available at

Green Metropolis

 

The Reading Circle choice for November is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood:

 

 

 

The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs...

 

Also available at Amazon - via the banner at the top right hand corner please!

:D

 

 

Some questions to consider:

1- Who was your favourite character and why?

2- Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest?

3- Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

4- Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with?

5- Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

 

(You do not have to answer all, or indeed, any, of these questions, they are meant only as points for you to perhaps mull over as you read, and provoke more discussion. Please feel free to ask and answer any questions that come up as you read.)

 

SOME ADDITIONAL DISCUSSION QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER ARE ATTACHED (NOTE: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS SO YOU MAY WANT TO READ THESE AFTER YOU HAVE FINISED THE BOOK)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR THE HANDMAID'S TALE.doc

Edited by Kell

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I read it back in July, it was a second reading for me, the first being more or less when it came out. I was far more pleased with it this time around.

Have you finished it yet?

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It's certainly worth looking for Chimera, it was my first Atwood, and I have a few more in the stack and look forward to them now. A poster on another forum has been after me for years to read her, I was rather resistant, but no more. :woohoo:

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Is anyone reading this book?

 

I will read it, if & when I get hold of a copy. :woohoo:

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Guest ii
Have you finished it yet?

 

I've read it several times, although it's been a while since the last time. I was mainly checking if anyone's reading it this time roud, so I'll know if it'll be worth it for me to reread it for the circle here. It was one of the books we had back in high school so my copy is full of notes and comments.

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I read it a while back but I remember I found some aspects of the plot profoundly disturbing, in particular the scene with the "particicution".

 

The subjugation of women in such a degrading way was, to me, horrific, but it also reminded me, in some ways, of how women are treated in some extreme Muslim countries - being the property of men and having to completely cover up in public. The handmaids basically have no rights at all - they don't even get to keep their own name but have to take the name of their master - they suffer a complete loss of identity and exist solely to produce children.

 

I also felt very sorry for the wives having to share their husbands in order to increase the population - the jealousy over their husbands sleeping with these other women, coupled with the fact that it reinforces their own lack of ability to bear children themselves is not compensated for in their limited rights as wives and I think they are all the more bigoted because of that jealousy.

 

The whole concept is, to me, quite terrifying, being a very independent woman myself!

 

I wonder why it is that Dystopian Future novels seem to focus mainly on sex and imposing rules upon people when it comes to personal relationships? As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, sex is seen here as something that should be under the strictest regulation, but in this novel, women are both exalted as bringers of life, and subjected to life as second-class citizens under the rule of

Edited by Kell

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I read it a while back but I remember I found some aspects of the plot profoundly disturbing, in particular the scene with the "particicution".

Yes, that was particularly awful, in mostly because it caused the Handmaids to take part in the 'execution'. The first time I read it though the scene that truly put me off was the consummation scene with Offred and her Commander and the wife.

....the relationship between Offered and her Commander seemed trite, whereas the so-called love affair between Offered and Nick was decidedly passionless, even in comparison.

The affair between Offred and Nick was only the scratching of an itch as far as I can see, not having read any of Atwood's other books, I wonder if she is not as adept at putting across a purely physical passion as for example the murders you mention.

 

I thought the Commander wanted to and tried to put a bit of personality into the "relationship" but just didn't know how to go about it exactly within the narrow parameters he was confined to. She was quite understandably trying to manipulate him for any bits of pseudo freedom she could.

I wonder why it is that Dystopian Future novels seem to focus mainly on sex and imposing rules upon people when it comes to personal relationships?

I think it must be because if you impose rules and regulations on the deepest part of a human you can control the other factors. There's more to it than that, this is only off the top of my head so to speak.

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Guest ii
I also felt very sorry for the wives having to share their husbands in order to increase the population - the jealousy over their husbands sleeping with these other women, coupled with the fact that it reinforces their own lack of ability to bear children themselves is not compensated for in their limited rights as wives and I think they are all the more bigoted because of that jealousy.

 

Well, I just have to quote my old English teacher here, because his comment pretty much summarised that (And yes, we were, and still are, convinced that he lost his teaching licence sometime in the 70's, as this wasn't the only quote-worthy comment of his! And as it's not exactly PG statement, I'll put it in spoilers.):

 

 

It's hard to talk about hanky-panky when they're screwing in front of his wife!

 

 

But, that being said, you have a fair point there. The wives are denied a very considerable part of a relationship between a man and a woman, some would even say a part that would make them a family. So of course there's jealousy, even though the relationships between the men and the handmaids is not a romantic one.

 

As for the focus on sex and such in dystopian literature, I can only guess. But I'd suggest, that as those worlds are created on foundations of reason, love and passion are not approved of because they aren't by nature rational. You cannot make a rational decision to feel love or passion, or not to feel it. Sex, as an expression of passion, thus needs to be subjected to reason and logic and order in form of regulations and rules.

 

Like I said, I haven't read the book in a while, but we did deal with it very thoroughly, and like you said, Kell, it's an experience.

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It's certainly worth looking for Chimera, it was my first Atwood, and I have a few more in the stack and look forward to them now. A poster on another forum has been after me for years to read her, I was rather resistant, but no more. :woohoo:

 

I guess I'll just have to buy a french copy then, which will make it simpler to find. Is it a book which might suffer from the translation?

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Gosh, I just don't know, it's fairly simply written, I don't see why not, but maybe ii would be surer of that.

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Guest ii

Thank you for the vote of confidence, pontalba. I'm not really a very good judge when it comes to translations, but browsing through the Handmaid's Tale, I doubt it'll suffer too much.

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1. Who was your favourite character and why? ~

 

I really liked Moira. I liked the fact that Moira refused to back down and given that she eventually ends up working in a brothel, she still refuses to back down, Moira's way of thinking is she would rather be there than be a handmaid.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed/disliked more than the rest? ~

I enjoyed the start of the book because it tells you what has happened within the Republic of Gilead and why it was created, it was interesting reading. I disliked the part when Ofwarren gives birth to a baby (which the reader later finds out is in fact a 'Unbaby', I thought that part was cruel.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more? ~

This was the first book I read in this genre and I really enjoyed it. It did encourage me to read more because I later read 'Oryx and Crake' also by Margaret Atwood.

 

4. Were there any parts/ideas you struggled with ~

 

I struggled but identified with the idea of the 'Unwomen' because in Gilead it is about reproduction and a woman who cannot have children will not be much use to their ideas.

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience? ~

 

It was a scary experience but that was only because of the idea of the 'unwomen'and the fact that a country could fall so far into chaos, that handmaids are encouraged.

Edited by Weave

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I have to confess this is one of the most surreal books I’ve ever read. But it is so well written that I am keeping this gem forever. Margaret Atwood is now in my list of fave authors.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

1. Trace Moira's role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.

 

Moira was the rebel, the inevitable cork popper in any controlled/repressed situation. She symbolized hope and freedom, although she becomes a tired symbol towards the end. That disturbed me, as much as it disturbed Offred. When Moira became indifferent, it was like hope changing to apathy --- you really can’t win sometimes, no matter how hard you try.

 

2. How does the new republic of Gilead's social order often resemble a palimpsest?

I think a new society cannot rise from scratch. It must have its precedents. Although they tried to wipe out the old and bring in the new, the Gileadean republic had its foundations in the Old Testament, the stories and philosophies simply twisted to justify the subjugation of women and the “rightness” of a dominant patriarchal society. Also, it borrows heavily from extreme Moslem beliefs of male dominance and female inferiority. So, Gilead’s roots are an amalgam of both Hebrew and Moslem extremist theology. That’s the way it came across to me.

 

3. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?

 

In medieval Europe, it was sacrilege for the common man to read the Bible. In fact, it was also sacrilegious to translate the Book from Latin to the common tongue. This was how the Catholic Church controlled everyone before. Only the clergy were trained to read it and so it was only they who could interpret it in their own terms and for their own purposes.

This is much like the reason for the Bible’s exclusivity. The Bible justified Gilead’s existence. It was their weapon that led to the successful establishment of the order. But the Bible is a book that is open to a lot of interpretations and also contradictions. So, it can be Gilead’s downfall as well.

 

4. Was there a particular part you disliked more than the rest?

 

I agree with Kell and Pontalba ---the particution scene was particularly disturbing. The execution is so brutal and inhuman. If we were to imagine ourselves as the handmaids in Gilead, we would have to give free reign to our cruel and brutal selves, ripping someone apart and relishing his agonizing death. Wouldn’t this scar our souls? Make us indifferent to evil?

 

5. Was this the first book you've read in this genre/by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

 

Yes, this is my first foray into Margaret Atwood’s work and definitely my first surreal novel. I would definitely read more of her as long as she delivers the same top-calibre writing---very poetic, elegant, even while being jarring or snide. I find her very unique.

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I've just picked this up. Heard it mentioned in lots of places by lots of people who seem to read interesting stuff. The blurb on the back makes it look nicely interestingly political (in a cold-warry kind of context). Looking forward to contributing once I've read it.

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So far I've just read 100 odd pages so I won't read the comments by others, but so far it's a fascinating book. Mostly it's astonishing that it was written in 1985, before we'd really heard of the Taleban or much of Islamic extremism. It seems almost prescient. Playing with the idea of Christian fundamentalism taking over the US, with the idea of the subjugation of women in the Islamic style, and with the way that those in power completely abuse that power.

 

It feels very modern and political, but it doesn't appear to have dated like much of the dystopian political commentary from the cold war.

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That's very true, Andy - it doesn't seem to have dated much, if at all, which is unusual for dystopian novels - perhaps because it doesn't deal with technology at all it remains timeless.

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I think the technology is only part of it, Kell.

 

What seems odd is that it was written in the Cold War, yet is almost unique in dystopian books I've read written in that time in that it doesn't seem to be informed by the Cold War. The collapse of civilisation is brought about largely through ecological disaster, rather than nuclear armageddon. And the society it imagines is not a completely broken society, but it's also not one that's directed by a soviet style authoritarian state.

 

What makes it seem current is that it seems to look at religious rather than political oligarchy and therefore it just seems to avoid the datedness of so much fiction that was exploring the contrasts between Russia and America.

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Interestingly, thinking about it, of other dystopian novels 1984 still stands up remarkably well 60 years on, and I think that's partly because it tends to not be about the technology and isn't really an SF book as such; and also because although it's talking of fear of a totalitarian state, the totalitarian state it was looking at wasn't so much a Stalinist one. It was more informed by that than Handmaid's Tale seems to be, which is unsurprising given Orwell's interests. But it survives, like this, by being slightly apart from that current.

 

The comparisons with Islam and the US religious right, though, are what really makes this book seem so current and relevant. It feels like a commentary on life in 2008, not life in 1985.

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Hmm. Finished it now, and the coda at the end, the historical notes, suddenly do present Gilead as being very Soviet in outlook, and actually date the novel more than the preceding stuff does. I'm also not sure they're necessary. It feels like a pointless addendum that a commisioning editor has asked for just to give a more coherent ending to the book.

 

Anyway, it's fascinating stuff, because of the way it addresses how men take power roles and feel a need to do that, yet once they are in the power role they, even more, feel a need to subvert. The suggestion that nobody is ever happy with a comfortable status quo. Even those at the very top.

 

The use of the handmaids reminds me, oddly, of Dr Strangelove's plans in Kubrick's film.

 

One thing that's interesting is to wonder how much of what offred is told (all those patronymics sound so much like names of regulating agencies in the UK, which would be a lovely irony and additional level of interest, had the book been written knowing about these things) about nuclear and ecological failings is actually true, and how much is deliberate horror story to try and terrify the population into acting as the state wants. The question of how much is propoganda and how much is real.

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So what does everyone think of the feminist agenda in the book?

 

Superficially it's very obviously feminist, talking about how men take positions of power and dominate women given half the chance, about how the "establishment" hated feminism and lesbianism, and the feminists in the end became the great freedom fighters.

 

And yet, there's also a slight anti-feminist side to the descriptions by the Gilead state, of how feminism and licentiousness between them had destroyed the fertility of the planet and eventually was going to completely cripple western civilisation unless something was done.

 

Do you reckon there's a deliberate ambiguity? Am I reading too much into the second interpretation? Is the second interpretation just some propoganda presented by the Gilead state but a description of reality?

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This is one of the few books I have on my shelf, so I will try to read it and join in as I've already read the first part before, but had to go back to studying before I could finish it. I really love what I have read so far.

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Do you reckon there's a deliberate ambiguity?

 

Quite possibly. Perhaps in the end it shows that men and women need each other to have a balanced civilization, fair to both sexes and a huge imbalance simply won't work.

 

The close also was almost amusing too I thought. The other countries didn't seem to think too much of what was going on over the pond and seemed to minimize the plight of the women. It's been many months since I read it and the details are blurring, but wasn't it a quite a while after the fact all this was brought out? I recall thinking they treated it as a blip in history that wasn't very interesting to them.

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