The Handmaid’s Tale: Discussion Post

Before we dive into the discussion, we just need to get a few housekeeping notes out the way. As you all know, this is our first book, so there may be some things that’ll need tweaking or ironing out. This discussion’ll be a bit of a trial run – please bear with us, as we’re still learning how best to run this. The comments on this post are not moderated to facilitate smoother, faster discussion. If you see something problematic, please feel free to contact us directly through the twitter account or through comments on another post (even unmoderated, all comments get sent to Stilli’s inbox, so someone will see what you have to say!). Our commenting policy still applies (see here), and comments may be edited or removed without warning at our discretion.

This book contains various common triggers (particularly rape/sexual assault); please put yourself first and exercise good self-care when joining this discussion. If you need support, the safe space for this book can be found here.

And now, without further ado, let us present…

Poppy’s thoughts on The Handmaids Tale

Thanks for coming to read this! It’s my first book review in, oh, many many years, so please be a bit patient with me. This is more an emotional review than an intellectual one, I’m afraid, but I’m sure the discussion’s going to raise loads of great points, so I’ll just give you a few of my disjointed thoughts and let you all take it away!

I really enjoyed this book. It was moving, upsetting, distresssing, and disturbing, so it sounds a bit funny to say, but I did honestly like it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not really read anything that falls under science fiction before – this was my first introduction to the building of a dystopian future, and I found it fascinating. From the very first line I was absolutely desperate to know why society changed in that way, what made it become that, and (most crucial of all) how could anyone let it happen?

I know Margaret Atwood insists that this book isn’t science fiction, as all of the things in in the book have been done at some point in history; and of course, even without that statement we know that atrocities are performed all the time. It’s just… We talk about protest and direct action, and I think we’d all like to think that we’d stand up, we’d say no. I would, at least. When she told us about the day her card stopped working and she was fired, I expected protests, demonstrations, some kind of resistance… And then I thought about how strong our self-preservation instincit is, and how people do do terrible things to protect themselves, how they stay quiet to keep themselves and their families safe. Do you think you’d stand up and shout? Honestly?

I found it so powerful finding out how society had changed through flashbacks; it kept me reading, unable to put the book down because I was desperate to find out more. I did feel as though I missed a few things, though; most of the references are recognisable, but I bet I would’ve caught more if I were older and from North America.

I couldn’t quite grasp why the handmaidens weren’t more valued and respected. They’re the only fertile women, and society wanted and needed children – why were these fertile women not venerated? I thought it might be a desperate need to keep them under control. If the handmaids were respected, they would realise that in fact their bodies (and thus they) were vital to everything; they had the power, so they should be in control. Of course, all your power coming from your body is discussed – but only sexually.

I was disgusted, and found it breathtakingly hypocritical, that after everything the totalitarian regime had done, they still had places like where the Commander took Offred, where the women were dressed in the way that was illegal. As well as this being men limiting and controlling women in yet another way, this leads into the wider reality that those in power (almost?) always have one rule for themselves, and another for everyone else.

It did really shock me that Offred wanted to have sex with Nick – I instinctively thought that after her sexual experiences she wouldn’t be able to take any pleasure in it at all. Thinking more about it… Perhaps it made her feel human again, having sex with feelings and emotions, too? Or maybe it was a way to confirm that she could have control over her sexual encounters? I hope that’s not an offensive thing to say – I’m very fortunate in that I’ve never experienced any serious sexual assault, so it’s hard for me to imagine. When I actually stop and consider it, of course survivors of sexual violence may well (and often do) want to have sex again, I’m just… Expressing my initial, instinctive surprise, I guess? Perhaps it’s just the lack of experience here talking.

Regarding the (unnamed) daughter, I found I only really cared about her when she was mentioned; when she was off-screen I completely forgot that she even existed. I’ve had people on Twitter saying that they’ve seen this story differently since they’ve become mothers, so perhaps it’s a lack of experience again? I was almost indifferent to her; I felt as if she and Luke were unimportant characters whose only purpose were to flesh out her previous life and provide contrast between then and now. My only interest was in Offred and the characters in the current setting, truthfully. Why do you think the daughter was nameless? [Stilli’s note: there are some interesting comments on this subject on this blog.]

We’ve been conditioned to expect happy endings – nearly all the media we consume has a ‘and they lived happily ever after’ type ending. So while I instinctively wanted an escape or a revolution, I didn’t truly think the story would end that way as I thought the book was trying to be more serious and ‘true’. I was relieved when the van came, both for myself and for Offred, because it provided closure – she escaped, I didn’t need to fret about her anymore. But there was also a part of my that was disappointed, because I felt it was too cliche to fit in with the rest of the story.

Overall, as I said, I really enjoyed this book. It was terrifying, because I could see the parallels with historical, and even some current, events, but that’s made me (even more) determined to stand up for women’s rights to decide what happens to our own bodies. I just hope that I can be brave enough.

What did you think?

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110 responses to “The Handmaid’s Tale: Discussion Post

  1. Alice’s thoughts (briefly):

    Something that Poppy mentioned that really interested me was this idea of passivity. Poppy said she expected protests, demonstrations, resistance. I think the theme of passivity runs really strongly through the book and its something that really made an impact on me. Indeed, when I wrote my first post for a blog I contribute to (called ‘notahandmaid’) I said that to my mind, the most important lesson from the Handmaid’s Tale is to not be passive and that this is the mistake made by the majority of the population in the Handmaid’s Tale. In the Kit Whitfield blog linked to by Stilli, above, it’s mentioned that the very first sentence mentions sleeping: ‘we slept what had once been the gymnasium’ – sleeping is passive.

    Even Moira, seen as so angry, seen as part of the resistance, doesn’t attack the Aunt when she has a choice. Why does Luke not resist when this happens to his wife? Why does he not ‘do’ anything? We are told that he is a ‘modern’ man.

    I think the book is about what can happen when we don’t stand up and fight for our rights and those of our loved ones…. As Poppy said, I like to think i would, but then there are all the excuses… I’m busy, it’s cold outside, I have to go to work, I’m fighting so hard on twitter… 🙂

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      I agree, I saw it as a warning, that we have to be aware of what’s happening & what could happen, that we must stand up and shout.
      I haven’t analysed literature for years so I have probably missed lots ot things and words that had significance, I hadn’t realised the meaning behind the first sentence saying ‘sleeping’.
      I found Offred very passive, but I suppose what other choice did she have? If you think you’re alone, no support, what good would resistance be? What good would it do for you to die when no one would ever know why? Though when she got the chance to be part of the resistance, with Ofglen, she didn’t take it, though I can understand how discovering there was a resistance at all could have been scary, and she would have needed time to think about, although she didn’t get the time as Ofglen was gone the next day.

      • That’s true… but what about everyone else? What about initially? Although I suppose in a way they did try to do something, they did try to run away. (And don’t worry, I didn’t pick up on the ‘sleeping’ bit myself, it was in a blog post I read!)

        • Poppy (@popbadger)

          Yes that’s true, they tried to escape.
          Because we weren’t told that much about the history we don’t know how all these new rules etc were implemented, ‘for their own protection’. We’ve heard that before. Governments use fear as a tool to control the poplulation, so if these things were slowly put into place (cctv, everything on the internet being recorded [x files music] *turns to look at camera in corner of room*) and you slowly get used to it, where do you draw the line, what’s the thing where you think, oh it’s too much now, if you’re being told it’s for protection. Then one day it’s suddenly gone from ‘oh it’s for our own good, temporary measures’ to ‘it’s too much, we have to get out’, eg on the day her card stops. When would we start to protest?

          • scary thought. The card thing really got to me as I could see so easily how it could happen. Especially with contact payments or whatever they’re called these days for sums under £10 – where you touch your card to somewhere and it takes the money. (As you can see I don’t really know how it works!) But that could and probably will increase until we have a cash-less society, giving more control to those in charge…. although for us it is maybe the banks rather than the government?

  2. And secondly (in a separate post you can reply separately if you wish):

    Since reading the book I’ve read many analyses which talk about Handmaid’s Tale as a critique of second wave feminism. With Gilead being the backlash to the ‘excessive feminism’ that went before. And that some of what the Aunts say fits with second wave feminism. I’m not sure about this but I thought it was a really interesting point.

    I did notice the lack of friendship (sisterhood!) between the women – indeed, most of them still seem to be enemies – the wives and aunts are the obvious example but then the Marthas judge the handmaids as well – and even amongst the handmaids there is jealousy when another gives birth. Is this a feature of societies like Gilead? Creating divisions amongst the oppressed is a key way of maintaining strength amongst the rulers. Just look at the Daily Mail peddling their anti-immigrant, anti-benefit, anti-disability propaganda!!!

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Hmm I don’t think I can add much to this, I don’t know enough as I’d like to about the different waves (got lots of reading to do!) I don’t know what the aunts said that fits in with 2nd wave? Anyone know?
      Divide & conquer, that’s the way!
      Are women taught (I mean now, in our culture) to judge and envy each other? I think so, I don’t think it’s natural, and I see it as an extention of that. Instead of judging each other on image, they judge and envy each other on the only thing they can (as they have no image to envy), motherhood. And in that situation, where producing a healthy child is the main aim of their life, it would be so easy to envy the women who did it, and there was the pressure from the wife of the family, & the familys other staff as well.
      If they had been friends they might have been able to do something, so the rulers had to keep them enemies.
      Is that something we need to be aware of now? Like you say, that bloody paper & it’s propaganda, creating hatred against the people that need our support.

  3. it is a few years since i read the book ( i had to stop due to self care this time ) But as. a sci fi fan i too ended up wondering about the how. I suppose it is one of the reasons Attwood says this isn’t sci fi . classical sci fi is interested very much in the how perhaps her difference is she is interested in the why.

    • That’s a really good point. And do other dystopians novels have this problem about whether it’s sci-fi or not? For example, is 1984 considered Sci-fi? I don’t know. Just because I don’t think that, or Brave New World, goes into the ‘how’ and they are firmly seen as dystopian novels. Maybe a feature of dystopia to talk about ‘how’ rather than why?

      • I read bucket-loads of science fiction – I think for more people the difference is that true science fiction couldn’t feasibly happen, because our science simply can’t DO that yet (things like faster than light travel, for instance). Speculative fiction tends to be set in a more immediate future – or an alternate universe – where the laws and abilities of science are more or less what they are now.

      • Poppy (@popbadger)

        I would have definatly liked more explanation of the how, infact it’s got me keen on reading more sci-fi, dystopian, apocalyptic novels.
        I think that if we’d had more history, more explanation of the how, we might not have connected to the characters as much, it would have been more historically factual than emotional, perhaps become a dry sort of story, and I think the limited amount you get lets you think about it yourself, try and imagine what happened.

        • As you said at the beginning, Poppy, I loved the way we found out gradually what had happened. It introduced another element of suspense to the book, not just what would happen to her now, but how it had got to that point.

          Also reminded me slightly of Children of Men (of which I’ve only seen the film) which is also about a world with drastically reduced (in fact, I think, no) fertility.

    • It has been classified as Sci-fi in most cases because it’s considered “speculative” fiction that takes place in a distant future…though she doesn’t suggest HOW distant. And since there’s no really genre called speculative, and most (good) sci-fi is also speculative, it was classified that way. This is how it has been explained to me in the past

      She was angry because most believe sci-fi is a non-intellectual genre. She believed her work more literary or general fiction.

      • Hi Rene,

        Just a quick point – Atwood herself hasn’t said that she believes sci-fi to be a non-intellectual genre. In her own words it has been a ‘motive imputed to’ her by many, not least Ursula Le Guin but that isn’t her reason for not calling Handmaid’s Tale sci-fi.

        There are loads of interesting articles on it – this is an article written by Atwood – http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/10/12/margaret-atwood
        I admit I haven’t read all of it (will hopefully get round to it at some point!) but I found the beginning quite interesting.

  4. I’m not a parent, Poppy, but in the blog I’ve linked there’s some discussion on the daughter – and someone points out that they don’t refer to their son by his name when they’re talking about him between themselves, they just call him ‘he’. And it’s because they don’t NEED to use his name – he’s so uppermost in their minds that there is literally no one else that they could be referring to.

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Oh that’s something I hadn’t considered at all. Though if that was the case, would her daughter be ‘her’ and Luke be ‘he’, as Offred would know who she was thinking about? I think that because Margaret Atwood names Luke but not the daughter there must be a different reason? Maybe not. I considered that the daughter was not named because Offred would want to protect her, incase the tapes were ever found, although then why name Luke? Then I thought, well everyone was a pyseudonym, so why not give the daughter one too? So perhaps it’s why you said.

    • Sorry, late to the discussion, was finishing my tea! The last time I read it I didn’t have any children, this time I have one and one on the way and I found the descriptions of her daughter and how she was taken absolutely heart rending this time. I suspect she wasn’t using her daughter’s name to protect herself. A way of detaching herself? Maybe the loss of Luke was not so hard for her so she could use his name. Again, this could be the way I see the world post children. Of course I love my partner and losing him would be beyond words but not nearly as bad as losing my children. I hope that doesn’t make me sound too heartless.

      • You don’t sound heartless at all, it’s a completely different kind of relationship (obviously) – and it’s great to hear from a mum who also read it before she had children, thank you so much for joining us!

      • Not at all, that makes complete sense. Although it worries me slightly that I may read things in a different way once I have children!

      • Poppy (@popbadger)

        Hi! Glad you’re here 🙂
        That is a very good point & something that never occurred to me at all, that she was protecting herself, thank you for saying that.
        Maybe Luke still felt real, because she was still looking for him, whether it was just his body on the wall, but maybe she felt there was no hope of ever seeing her daughter again.
        You don’t sound heartless at all!

  5. I also found your reading of the ending very interesting, Poppy, because I read it in the exact opposite way – I immediately thought that she’d been caught and was being carted off. Maybe I’m just a pessimist?

    • Stilli I thought exactly the same!

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Oh no, I was expecting a happy ending (personally I was desperate for her to escape, so I could sort of relax about it!) so wasn’t suprised when the van came, but as I say I was disappointed as felt it too easy. And I should have realised this earlier – if she hadn’t escaped then she would have never been able to record her story. Of course Atwood could have still written the book, but for it to have been a personal account she had to escape.

      • The question of the tapes is an interesting one – I suppose I thought they might’ve been recorded in prison, to be honest, as some kind of interrogation. Or as part of a later escape, I suppose. Clearly I’m a massive downer!

        • Poppy (@popbadger)

          OH NO! I really never thought of that idea! I wouldn’t have thought of that, they are very personal tapes, a personal story, not an admission of guilt, more like a catharsis of getting the story out?
          I hadn’t wondered why they were tapes either rather than written, do you think you might forget how to write if you hadn’t done it for years?

          • Maybe, yeah? Or possibly be so programmed that you don’t even see it as an option?

          • I think it’s important that the tapes weren’t even in the right order, that Offred’s voice and her story has been put together by others (men, so far as we know) even once she’d escaped. Maybe that’s part of why it’s tapes – as it would be harder for writing to get out of order and have to be reconstructed?

            Also – technology. Tapes were probably (I think) quite new technology for popular use back when Atwood wrote Handmaid’s Tale – maybe she saw it as how things would be in the future?

          • Poppy (@popbadger)

            Yes maybe not even consider writing. Or maybe tapes the only material available.
            I do think the idea of tapes being the most modern technology available when it was written could have something to do with it too.
            Do you think these days we would record online? I don’t, because, like I said somewhere below, it’s all electronic, it sort of seems temporary, I think I’d write on paper, though of course that’s hardly indestructable, but it would feel more physical (think this ties in to how I feel about books vs kindle too!)

  6. It’s 7.30!! Book club officially open 🙂 Please feel free to join in as much or as little as you want – if you’re here just reading and don’t want to contribute, then why not reply to this post just to introduce yourself? (but if not, that’s fine too!)

  7. I don’t know… I think it’s probably a mixture of all those things as I must say, my initial thought was to do with identity and the fact that so many of the women don’t have their original names anymore. Like a stylist point from Atwood.

    And I agree with Poppy as to why does she name Luke? Especially if they are all pseudonyms anyway….

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Oh that’s interesting, daughter nameless as all women are? Hmmm.
      I don’t know, just I felt I couldn’t feel much for her, and maybe I could have felt more if she’d had a name.
      Maybe if I was a mother I would have responded differently.

      • I find that interesting / scary. Do we really change that much when we become mothers? The three of us can’t answer that at all! But does it affect the way we read books? I suppose it probably does, but I don’t like that idea!

        • I think it has affected the way I read books only because I have a new experience that I never fully imagined (if at all) before. But I suppose that applies to everything: how we read differently at different points in our lives?

          • Poppy (@popbadger)

            Yes, absolutely this, you see things differently at different points, just with more life experiences, having gone through more things, will definatly change your view or your take on something.

          • I suspect all our experiences through life affect how we view things, books included and becoming a mother is one of those all encompassing experiences that can’t help but affect you. It’s great in some ways but I could do without my focus being so much on things to do with motherhood where they crop up! Maybe it’s making me more narrow minded? Hope not!

      • Poppy, I can’t remember much about the novel but I think I felt similarly to you. I don’ t think the daughter was of much consequence to me as a reader. I will look out for this when I reread it. Also, I’m a mother now so that will be interesting.

        • I’d be really interested to hear if it did change your perspective 🙂

          • It did for me. First read in my teens-don’t recall being massively impacted by the daughter in relation to Offred. This time round I’m in my thirties with a 2 year old and the description of the separation left me distraught. I found it really, really hard to read and cried a lot. The bit where she’s thinking about her post bath; I just couldn’t imagine how horrific it would be to have your child taken. I think novels that we cab relate to are more affecting. This one has definitely become more so for me since becoming a mother.

      • An interesting real world fact here , (and Atwood did say everything in the book had happened to women,) In pre revolutionary China it was common in some classes for girls to not be named. They would simply be known as daughter1, daughter 2 and so on. This was because they were often not seen as part of the family but as women being brought up to marry their future husbands.

        The rich of course named their daughters…I can see a few parralells with THMT now i think of it.

        • Poppy (@popbadger)

          Gosh I didn’t know that, thank you for saying that.
          I think that’s terrible. It’s the idea of women as property, not existing on their own at all, just daughters, then wives, and possible then mothers. Never themselves.

    • I read for A level and re-read for this. At one point early on offred describes the smell of bread as treacherous-I think because It’s too evocative of the time before. I believe she doesn’t use her child’s name for the same reason-it’s too painful. She had already said she intends to survive and to do this she must compartmentalize and not call into recalling in detail.

      With regards to the book in total-I adored it, I found it hard to cope with at times but loved it. I also think that a key theme running through for me is desire. Offred is seriously sexually charged! She describes so many experiences of the heat, sweat, heaviness and she had a really good sexual relationship with Luke-he’s gone but she still has desire-but on her terms-when she’s in Jezebels she can’t bring herself to fake it.

      I found the underlying concepts of control and the military disturbing and the idea of the Japanese tourists fascinating and it spoke to our blind eye turning to oppression of women in cultures other than our own. Interestingly I wonder whether that “country” could exist now in our 24 hour news cycle. Sadly I really think it could.

      A brilliant novel and brilliant choice. Thank you for reminding me of it!! CB

      • Ah yes – great point about her being sexually charged. I didn’t really get that but can completely see it now you’ve pointed it out with the language she uses.

        Why do you think it’s too painful for her to say her daughter’s name, but not Luke’s? (is this something that becomes clear when you have children of your own?)

        And the idea of power….

        I read a review (by a woman, which surprised me) saying that Gilead is in fact a ‘woman’s world’ with an entirely domestic ethos. The reviewer pointed out the lack of control that the commander appears to have. It is often mentioned and alluded to, but we so rarely see a direct example of it (I think I disagree with this anyway). The commander is powerless within the household, and the women have all the power. Even Offred, through her sexuality, is powerful.

        I don’t agree with that at all but it’s an interesting alternative viewpoint!

        • I think she uses Luke’s name because I actually think she’s furious with him. He panicked, he gave them away. He didn’t get them out of the country the minute her cards stopped working or even before then. She talks to a fight they had before when she says he’s enjoying it…I don’t think it’s as hard for her to recall him. The idea that she wants his forgiveness too when having sex with Nick – she tells the story of how it happens a few times – re-writing how she felt. I think all cards are off the table-I believe she already knows in her heart thathe’s dead and so can talk more freely.

          One part I didn’t mention above was the analysis at the lecture. I forgot to say how livid this made me. The “understanding” and “forgiveness” of the culture and what Gilead were trying to achieve and how they should not be judged. It reminded me SO much of the post 2nd WW interviews of members of the SS, “it was life, we were expected to be that way, everyone did it, followung orders etc”. Atwood even describes her Commander in those terms…referring back to the general and his dog called Libeshen.

          • Oh that would explain it (about Luke).

            I also agree that I hated the analysis at the lecture. (Hated perhaps the wrong word but it did also make me angry). It was so dispiriting. You would have thought that post-Gilead it would be a different world, it would be better, perhaps (in the most optimistic of ways) a truly post-feminist society. But it just seemed to have gone back to how it was before with no lessons learnt.

          • I think you’re right about her anger with Luke. His passivity is almost part of the oppression she feels initially.

          • Poppy (@popbadger)

            That’s really interesting, I can see it now, she could well be mad at him, I’d be furious, I’d have to blame him, he gave it away and she was captured and their daughter was lost because of that.
            Do you think Margaret Atwood was suggesting that maybe some men wouldn’t be too disappointed if gender roles did move backwards a bit rather than forwards?

          • I think that’s *exactly* what Atwood’s suggesting Poppy – and I think it’s true. Let’s face it, if you were a white, straight dude, the 50’s were pretty great.

          • Poppy (@popbadger)

            RAGE.

        • Poppy (@popbadger)

          I totally disagree with that, it is so a mans world! He might not have any power in the home, but none of them do really, they only do what they’re told, fulfill their roles, in ways that have been set down, ways that he created (as we find out in the historical notes at the end, he was quite high up), so all the power is mens.
          Her sexuality is literally the only thing she has, the only thing she has any say over at all, so maybe it’s her most powerful thing, but it’s her only thing.

      • Poppy (@popbadger)

        Hello, thank you for your comment!
        That’s a good point about the compartmentalizing, perhaps her daughter is just too much of a painful memory.

        I adored the book too, I really did. The desire suprised me. As I said in the post at the beginning, I may be way off the mark here, & don’t want to offend, but I just never thought she would gladly experience or remember sex again. But it’s maybe a way of keeping ‘herself’ alive, that secret part of you.

        Gosh, the bit with the Japanese tourists, I couldn’t believe it! I guess I sort of thought that they wouldn’t let visitors in, they would want to keep the regime hidden, that if the outside world knew about it then they would stop it. But we don’t know how much the outside world actually knows, it can take a while to discover the hidden atrocities, and perhaps they kept the worse parts of the regime hidden. But surely they would want to keep the outside world away from the people inside, incase it gave them ideas? It was a big shock to me when I read that part.
        I do think that could happen. There is countries now that we don’t know much about what goes on inside. It’s scary really.

        • Poppy – I don’t think she sees what happens with the Commander as sex at all really. So because she is charged with desire, I think she’s desperate to have sex again – to have the intimacy, and excitement, and heat that normally comes with sex but is so completely absent from the situation with the Commander.

          • Totally. She wants to feel something. I’m fairly sure there is a bit in the book where she describes how strange it feels when she experiences physical contact as there is so little for her (apart from the ceremony with the commander which she seems to detach herself from).

          • Poppy (@popbadger)

            Very very good point. With the commander it’s something happening to her, she’s doing her monthly function. The sex with Nick has emotions and lust and intimacy, it has meaning for her.

  8. I read The Handmaid’s Tale as part of an undergraduate Gender and Literature module many years ago. I think it was the third Margaret Atwood novel that I’d read and I loved it. I can’t remember much about it and as I only found out about your blog today I can only really add that my rough lecture notes focussed on the novel as demonstrating how a pseudo-religion was used as a political tool to oppress women in a post-feminist world where patriarchy has been re-asserted. Reading your discussion has made me want to go and revisit this novel very much. Enjoy the rest of your discussion and I hope to contribute more in the future.

    • Thank you! I think the issues of religion in it are really interesting. I know so little about religion but I know Atwood herself sees it as a type of c17th Puritanism. She says that, in her opinion, nations only build radical forms of government on foundations that already exist, and she feels that the US society is based on c17 Puritan New England.

      I wonder what our UK society would be based on? What form our radical gov. would take? I have no idea…

      • 1984 might have an answer there.

      • Poppy (@popbadger)

        Yes, you have to have a basis somewhere, I don’t think it would ever work if the new ruling people tried to impose a totally different culture or religion (I don’t know, I guess for 1000’s of years that happened all over the world, invading armies bringing new cultures, and new kings [not often queens!] changing the religion if they fancied) on a society. I could well be way off the mark, the more I think about it the more I probably am, maybe anything could be imposed, if they use enough force.
        Anyway, I went off on a tangent, they sort of went back to old ‘values’, with strict gender roles, then took it much further, but I agree that nations build on already existing belief structures.

  9. Just wanted to add, I watched the film after reading the book and while it had its moments I wasn’t really that impressed. So much of the book is based around Offred’s internal dialogue and the tension, for me, came from the long periods of nothingness and boredom she had to endure offset by this incredible stress she showed in her thoughts. The film just lost that, she seemed very calm in comparison.

  10. Poppy- great notes by the way! It was interesting that you said you expected that fertile women would be venerated in a society with low birthrate. I suspect it revolves around the whole sex thing. Gilead is very puritanical with strong religious overtones and sex would probably have been seen as a dirty thing. So although the handmaids are pivotal to society, their function marks them out as something distasteful.

    • That’s what I thought as well. And general fear of sex, despite acknowledging it as necessary. We have that attitude in the UK still I think, despite proliferation of sexualisation and pornography, we’re still scared of it.

      (By ‘we’ I don’t mean us!)

      • I don’t think it’d take much for the general view of women who are fertile to swing to how it is in the book if birth rates were that low. I suspect such a situation would be perfect for more fundamentalist religious groups to gain more political power, especially in the states.

        • Poppy (@popbadger)

          Scary. I just don’t see how the view wouldn’t swing towards these women being important, I can’t understand it.
          I agree, I can see definatly see how that would be a situation where fundmentalist groups could take power. Though I think if this happened in reality, it’d be much messier, with violence & fighting over the women. This might be weird but in the story it was quite, … tidy? People stayed in their places. One handmaiden to each deserving couple. I guess it must have taken them a while to get to that state.

          • I saw it that they were important – so important they had to be controlled.

            And it did happen so quickly as she is still a young woman of childbearing age. Can’t have been any more than 15 years, more like within 10. I wonder how they enforced it amongst the men so there was no infighting.

          • Poppy (@popbadger)

            Yes, precious commodity, must be kept safe, controlled.
            I guess men kept under control by punishment, the bodies on the wall showed that?

    • On that note, I scribbled something down about how as well as being (essentially) sexual slaves, the handmaids in particular are treated as children. The bits in the school especially, I had to keep reminding myself that Offred was an adult, because it read like a boarding school for girls, almost. A very, very weird attitude where the only sexual beings are also childlike.

      I’ve also got a note about Econowives – everyone seems to feel sorry for them, but as far as I can make out they’re the closest thing to moden-day wives that exist in Gilead. So in a sense, the more powerful you are the more oppressed you are? Or is it that powerful men get to be more oppressive?

      • The econowives didn’t register v much with me – is the thing about them that they can’t have children but live in ‘normal’ relationships?

        Perhaps its not surprising that for mothers, the book really centers around the loss of Offred’s child because the more I think about, the more its obvious how important motherhood is to the book!

        • I’m not actually sure. They wear striped skirts – blue, red, and green – implying that they fill all three roles – so wouldn’t that mean they CAN have children?

          • Wikipedia says yes 🙂

            How strange. So for them life has changed very little, only in the fact that now, no matter who they were before, they are viewed as at the bottom of the pile. That’s v interesting and not something I’d even thought of.

        • I got the feeling the econowives where glorified house keepers. They couldn’t have children but they were wives to husbands who weren’t important enough to warrant a handmaid. Their function was martha and wife combined. And they seemed to look down on the handmaids as much as everyone else did, maybe due to jealousy, maybe due to the fact that they found the handmaid’s function as dirty?

      • Poppy (@popbadger)

        Yes it unsettled me how they were treated like that, I kept imagining them as teens at school before remembering.
        I guess children are powerless, like the handmaids.
        I forgot about the Econowives, they were barely mentioned, though thinking about it now I would have liked to know more about their lives. If they were fertile why were they not given to higher ranking men? Because in the first wave of women that were ‘re-assigned’ (I’m not sure how to word it) only single women, divorced women, or women on their second marriage were taken to be handmaidens, so the women that were with their first husband were allowed to stay?
        I think everyone had to be trained to look down on the handmaids, again coming back to the fact that the power was in fertile womens hands (wombs infact!) and they could not be allowed to realise it. So other women had to keep them in their place too.

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Thank you, I had lots of help with them from Stilli, she is a much better writer than me!
      Yes I see that now, sex being seen as something dirty is a familiar tale so since they were so religious of course it would be. But I do think it was to do with power as well, they couldn’t be allowed to realise they were needed, though even if they did, what could they do, even if they said ‘no’ it wouldn’t make much difference by the time they were in that situation.

  11. Can I just say, I’m loving this! Boyfriend is putting wee girl to bed while I chat to you lot on here and the baby is kicking the computer around. Probably shouldn’t have it balanced on my bump….

  12. Poppy (@popbadger)

    As a response to Alice’s post saying –
    ‘The card thing really got to me as I could see so easily how it could happen. Especially with contact payments or whatever they’re called these days for sums under £10 – where you touch your card to somewhere and it takes the money. (As you can see I don’t really know how it works!) But that could and probably will increase until we have a cash-less society, giving more control to those in charge…. although for us it is maybe the banks rather than the government?’

    That’s really scary :/
    I do worry about technology, I know just from working in retail (small, rubbish example but shows how dependant we are) that if the tills go down there’s nothing you can do, you can’t run the shop with cash and a calculator because everything has to be recorded electronically. So what would happen if the tills crashed on a bigger scale? It gives them so much control, because the money in your bank account doesn’t exist, it isn’t yours, not until you hold the cash in your hand.
    I’m scaring myself!

    • It happened recently with RBS that their systems went down and it wasn’t registering how much money people had in their account. So some people couldn’t withdraw anything, others who had direct debits set up went overdrawn and triggered overdraft charges etc.

      Perhaps a dystopia now could focus on the shady aspects of our society – so a world in which the banks are in complete, open control.. nameless, faceless organisations. Actually that’s quite like 1984. Oh Orwell…. still so relevant

    • We put a lot of control of our lives into the hands of others. It would definitely be so easy for women to have all their freedoms suddenly removed.

  13. Poppy (@popbadger)

    What did anyone think of Moira?
    I think there had to be a strong female friend character in the story, to show that there was some protest. I was rooting for her, and I was really glad when Offred discovered her at the club (oh the club, I was furious), but sad when I realised how unhappy she was.
    There was hardly a choice for her, between that club, or the labour camps, I think I know what I’d choose, I think.

    • Yes, Moira was really interesting. Some protest but again, like we were saying earlier, it wasn’t enough. She didn’t attack an aunt when she could have done, she had no real choice and so had to go to the club. Was she part of the organised resistance? I don’t actually know…. Also interesting that she was one of the very few characters that we had a name for, that existed ‘then’ and ‘now’

      • Poppy (@popbadger)

        I don’t think I could properly attack someone, I don’t know, maybe in that situation it’d be different, but her primary motive was escape not revenge, and the quicked she escaped the better.
        I think she represents the resistance, and she represents strong female bonds, which are severly lacking.
        Also, I think that it’s important she’s a lesbian because that is rejecting the primary value of Gilead, procreation.
        I think it must have been hard for Offred to see Moira again at the club and discover her so demoralised. Shows how that sort of regime can break everyone.

        • Ah yes, completely agree about the strong female bonds and the fact that’s she a lesbian.
          I also agree with Rene below that Moira is portrayed as a classic young feminist from ‘before’ (although I also saw her as a rebel and protestor). I think the feminism from before wasn’t enough – it was strong and out there, hence the backlash, but it was just a protest movement rather than making any change. A lot of noise but no fundamental changes to society. I think Atwood might be criticising that about feminism itself?

          It is clear that she sees Gilead as a backlash to what went before (in my opinion).

    • I actually saw Moira, not as a rebel or protester, but as the classic young feminist in “the before time”. I think Atwood might have wanted to show us, the readers, that this tale is not one of pure fiction but comes out of what has already happened and is a potential logical conclusion to our current system.

  14. Poppy (@popbadger)

    That club enraged me! How could they? So pure and strict and AWFUL on the outside, then to do that. Offred seemed more disorientated by it than angry. How could they justify it!? I’ve tried to think of examples of that sort of thing in history, does anyone know any?
    Oh, and Moira was wearing a playboy bunny outfit, and said how could anyone find these attractive, that made me smile.

    • Oh surely all the time – trying to think of an exact example from history but brain is relatively blank at the moment. One thing I can think of is during the French Revolution – portraying this hatred of the aristocracy but those in charge of the French Revolution were living just like the aristocracy used to.

      It’s the whole wife / whore dichotomy that has defined so much of how people see women throughout history – either Mary the virgin, Mary the mother, or (I forget what the prostititute’s name is – is she another Mary?)

      And in Gilead it is just a much stricter, more obvious line than it has been previously.

  15. Right I really have to bow out now (although I’ve been thinking that for a while and I keep having more to say / comments I want to respond to!)

    I’ll be back tomorrow if anyone wants to post comments later on 🙂 and I’m sure I’ll have more to say then as well!

    It’s been a lovely few hours so thank you so much 🙂

  16. I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop for now, lovelies, as my brain’s feeling a bit mushy.

    But we won’t be closing the comments, so feel free to post whatever, whenever! We’ll be checking in =]

  17. Poppy (@popbadger)

    OK I think we are winding down now, thank you everyone for joining in, I’ve really enjoyed it, hope you have too.
    The fembc team will be discussing between how we feel it went, is there anything you’d like us to consider?
    I wonder about having the discussion spread over a few nights, so others can make it on different days, and also because there is so much to say that we can’t do it all on one night!
    Please feel free to join in at any point, we are leaving comments open and will be checking in regularly. I think this discussion might carry on tomorrow!
    Thanks again 🙂

  18. Probably the most prolific takeaway for me was that not only was this a speculative piece of where the U.S. MIGHT head if we are not careful. But Atwood had no problem pointing out that the “before time” was no better. Instead, Atwood suggests there were really only two options for U.S. society (both negative for women).

    1. Men had the freedom TO do as they please with women: degrade, belittle, sexualize, cat call, etc.

    2. Women had the freedom FROM men’s sexuality.

    That’s it. “In the before time”, men were permitted to do what they wished and stare and touch the the sexual toys known as women. Women had to live sexualized as the second among equals, present themselves sexually, and succumb to men’s sexual desire. Offred’s friend Moira brings up the problems of the “before time”. But in the “current time”, women were “free” from these sexualized roles. In the current time, women are “protected” from men’s desires.

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Interesting comment, thank you.
      I hadn’t realised that at all (I hope I get better at analysing as we read more!) but it’s so true, those are the only options in the book.
      I suppose the ‘before time’ is pretty much now, in the grand scheme of things, so I disagree that mene were permitted. They are not allowed to, but that doesn’t stop them doing it.
      I’d much rather have that sort of freedom, for men to behave like that and for us to be able to call it out, stop it, educate, change things. Than the freedom from it, with no real freedom at all.
      I really really hope that this time we are on our way to a different option.

  19. Awwww! I’ve come in so late. Would love to carry on the debate tomorrow. Will give me a chance to read the debate so far. I’ve just read the book for the first time and was shocked at how many similarities with the real world I could find. There are so many women in the world today living in very similar circumstances and religion plays a huge part in that existence.. I’ve skimmed through the discussion and spotted a debate about why people didn’t rise up. I think we only have to look at our recent past (for example East Germany, 1961 to 1989) to see it is fear that stops people rising up. There were “flash-back” paragraphs that alluded to protest (when Offred’s employment was taken away) but again, that hint of fear.
    Hope to be able to engage with you all soon 🙂

    • Poppy (@popbadger)

      Hello! Thank you for joining in, lovely to see you here 🙂
      I’m hoping we might carry on the debate over a few days, there’s lots to say.
      Yes there are so many points where you recognise a similar circumstance to an event in recent history, or something that is happening now. And you think, why didn’t we do more, why aren’t we doing more. Opens up some big questions, of when should we intefere, can we intefere, who says our values are the right ones, the country that we’re ‘liberating’ may well think our values are wrong. Many thoughts, and not directed at you for answers don’t worry!
      Fear definatly the reason, and if you feel like you’re alone, how could you ever get the confidence to walk out alone and say ‘no’?

  20. I’ve been out this evening, so just catching up on all the great discussion now. I wanted to pick up on Atwood using 17th century ideas – for me one the more striking aspects of the book is the ritual surrounding childbirth. Having only women in the birthing room, all the neighbours gathered together, was the norm until the later 17th century. Of course, it is turned into something strange and menacing with the aunts and wives. I’m really interested in the way in which the Ceremony was constructed too. Why were the wives lying along with the handmaid and the commander, and who thought that up. It could hardly be more creepy or unpleasant for either woman. I’m thinking it’s about control and negating any sense of sex as pleasure.

    One other idea that I thought was very striking was that Offred talked about being seen now equated with being penetrated. The handmaids are all but hidden under and behind their cumbersome garments, and their own vision is seriously curtailed too. I’m very interested in the ‘male gaze’ and how it shapes women’s lives; it is a factor in a repressive society as much as a permissive.

    I’ve very much enjoyed reading all the comments above, and what a great idea to set up this website – thank you!

    • That’s interesting. I did not know about the pre-17th century childbirth ritual.

      As for the Ceremony, I agree, that was incredibly creepy. I’ve never read the “f” word with such hatred as in that scene. But I think Atwood might have intended both disgust and something more. I think the Ceremony was created in a way that NEITHER sex enjoyed sex. The point was that if MEN can’t enjoy women and THEIR sex, then nobody can. The Ceremony was the epitome of Protestant procreation. No enjoyment. Simple procreation for procreation’s sake. Having the wife holding the handmaid there added a level of security in terms of ensuring the lack of sexual pleasure.

    • I really enjoyed the writing on the male gaze. I too find it interesting in how it shapes women’s lives and our society today. But no, the magazines cry, women dress for other women, but I think that underlying it all for so long (as in a patriarchy, men dominate the culture) is the male gaze. Being seen being equated with being penetrated is SO powerful.

      The idea of seeing / being seen is important – I think it’s definately relevant that the women’s vision is also curtailed. Part of how power is maintained through lack of knowledge? There is so much Offred doesn’t know about her current society and I think the fact that she can’t see properly is a reflection of that as well.

      • That works beautifully doesn’t it, not being able to see the actual world around you and not knowing what it really going on. I like that conflation of vision/knowledge. I hadn’t thought about it so directly, but it ties in with Offred’s saying she wants ‘to know’ everything to the commander.

  21. Littlerobbergirl

    Hi sorry i missed the discussion

    Starting at the end; perfect. Im so rooting for her to live against the odds, the van, hope, then turn the page and yes! There is ‘after’, the story did go on, out of our ken. I cried.

    The slow build, boredom, fear, holding in emotion, every word and movement controlled, hide! Keep still!
    trust lost as people fall away, left only in memory, then regained, lulling into false sense of security, before bam! Horror, collapse of the small bubble of security, into motion again.
    the tiny victories so important to a slave.
    The awkward position in the house, not a common servant (prole in1984), but powerless, like a governess trapped between upstairs and down

    the poignancy of the strong mother, seen only on film, once so free, then beyond rescue, but still standing – then iterated with the strong friend, captured, doomed, but living in the now, making the best of it. All strong women die in this land, the meek (maybe) slide under the radar, the woman, her daughter

    The husband, i went ‘ha!’ when her card is blocked, hes one of them, the situation works in his favour, that corrupts him. But he redeems himself, bloke style, does try to get his females out

    And in the end, what has changed? The history professor is patronising, sexist, at least there is one woman prof there as well – full circle to now?

    Timings; like all future stories i obsess over when if its not spelled out. I estimate the woman born 1984, the ”emergency’ is about now. Atwood was writing this in 1984, no coincidence, there are dog whistle words and scenes all through for us catastrophists. Do it to her, not me!
    All this stuff was happening, not just in ancient history, but then; reaganomics, the moral ‘majority’ cia dark ops; in iran women had been fired and sent back home, under the veil. She saw trends abd extrapolated, some are looking pretty on-course, some have been shifted by unexpected regime change in russia (oceana is now at war with eastasia) and disruptive tech (internet, mobiles).

    Thanks for setting this up sisters, ill try to read the next book on time!

    • Thanks so much for your post! Sorry for taking so long to reply. Your historical summary at the end was really interesting so thank you for that, I have never tied the book in with actual historical developments in the world at the time, which is pretty silly of me. I do agree that it seems to have come round full circle to what it is today. That’s something that makes the ending so poignant I think. on the one hand, you have all your sympathies with Offred so you are really happy when you find out she’s survived. (Although we still never really know if the van was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – whether being taken away in the van was being rescued by the resistance or whether that happened later). However, on the other hand I find it so sad that the terrifying regime of Gilead has ended, but there is nothing better on the other side. As another commenter, Rene, says, Atwood seems to suggest there are only two options for women – there is no actual utopia.

      But then this is a common theme with dystopian novels, they never seem to have a fully happy ending because utopia doesn’t actually exist. (If anyone can correct me on that I’d love to hear it!). In Brave New World by Huxley, the Savage (John) tries to create his own utopia, but it ends devastatingly with his suicide.

      But that’s why I think the ending is really poignant – happy and sad all in together.

      Thanks for commenting, and our next book is the Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter 🙂

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