“Message in the Closet”

pasted image 0Books on Tap read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood at  Champion Brewery on November 2. The book, originally published in 1985, is being read again both because of the current political climate and the Hulu television adaptation (many JMRL book clubs have read the book this year). The novel is based on the taped diary of Offred, a women living in the Republic of Gilead (one the United States), a monotheocracy where women are only valued for their reproductive potential. It is #37 on ALA’s frequently challenged list and #34 in PBS’ The Great American Read.

Book club members liked Atwood’s writing style, although the story itself was creepy. Those of us who have seen the movie or tv adaptations said their strong visual styling replaced their own mental images. We also thought that they story was believable; her Gilead was recognizably America. Why she never explains how the theocracy gains total power, Atwood has said repeatedly that none of the restrictions and oppressions in the book are invented. Everything that happens in Gilead happened on earth prior to 1986. The near-future setting allowed us to wonder what we would do in similar circumstances, and is clearly resonating with others today, like those have been dressing as handmaids at recent protests. While Atwood was writing about fundamentalism, evangelicals and environmental disasters specific to the mid 1980s, history repeats and keeps this story current.

Offred serves as a handmaid, a reproductive surrogate, for the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. While Offred had been an educated, caring woman before the establishment of Gilead, her current isolation dampens her personality. She once had friends, a child and a partner. Now, she only speaks with another handmaid on her weekly shopping trips and secretly both plays Scrabble with the Commander and meets with his chauffeur, Nick.

The isolation works to tamp down a small resistance movement. Communication is difficult. Ofglen, another handmaid, has to hide a message to Offred in a closet. The murdered bodies of resistors are displayed in public. Offred at first thought her husband could protect her from Gilead’s restrictions and then laid low in hopes of protecting her daughter. She seemed resigned at the hanging she witnesses, possibly due to Stockholm syndrome.

Rationalization was possible because Gilead’s policies didn’t touch anyone Offred knew at first. Then, women policed each other, saving themselves but reinforcing the patriarchy. While people must have believed in the religion at some point, it is now used as a weapon. Those not practicing face peer pressure and family alienation. The only way to integrate in the culture is to participate in the religion.

The epilogue revealed that the bulk of the story is taken from an incomplete set of of tapes of Offred’s oral history. It’s hard to judge if Offred is an unreliable narrator or if missing parts of the story are captured on the yet-to-be discovered tapes. Offred, whose true name is never known, is further sidelined from her own story by the male academics presenting a paper on her edited tapes. They care so little about her humanity that the reader is left wondering: did she escape?

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book
Hulu series
1990 Movie
Gilead in the Bible

The Great American Read #1 is To Kill a Mockingbird. #100 is Dona Barbara.

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Librarians in the reference department at the Central Library of JMRL.

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