The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


Summary

Offred is a direct product of before and after the establishment of the new Republic of Gilead. Once a free woman who could do as she pleased, Offred wakes up in a world of nightmares where her life has drastically changed in a short span of time. After the leaders of Gilead have decreed all capable women must dedicate their lives to reversing the country’s fallen birthrates, Offred is nothing more than a vessel waiting to be filled. Women who cannot give birth are given other roles and assigned a spot of the totem pole. Those who are old and unruly are sent to the dreaded Colonies.

Offred’s duty as a handmaid is to respect her Commander, serve the Commander’s wife, and deliver the family a baby after a successful ceremony. But Offred can’t help wonder, is all female automony really gone, or is there a resistance flickering in the distance?


Memorable Quotes

“We learned to whisper almost without a sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June,” (4).

“I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace,” (12).

“There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes,” (22).

“The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center. The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deadwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion,” (112).

“They [men] aren’t a patch on a woman except they’re better at fixing cars and playing football, just what we need for the improvement of the human race, right?” (121).

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation,” (146).

“Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city,” (191).

“There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves,” (195).

“There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. In the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks. It was like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion. The mere idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itself heartening,” (222).

“I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack,” (249).


Thoughts

It’s been awhile since I’ve picked up a book that is a page-turner yet difficult to read. Somehow I think this is what Atwood intended, but it still startled me. I figured it would be shocking and a call-to-action, but in some ways I guess didn’t really expect how much the topic matter would affect me. I picked up this book a couple of months ago on Independent Bookstore Day at the Green Apple on Clement Street. I had heard of it and had wanted to buy it for awhile but for whatever reason I held off until that day. Currently The Handmaid’s Tale is surging in popularity due to the release of the new Hulu series (which I have yet to watch, but I’m sure it’s great) and the current political climate.

About 25 pages or so into the book I updated my progress on Goodreads and noted: “I love the way Margaret Atwood keeps me on my toes. At times the atmosphere will feel idyllic. She illustrates soft pastels of the wives’ clothing, neat gardens, and gentle whispers. And then suddenly, she brings the tension back with one unsettling line. It’s a striking balance.” When I think about the beginning in particular, this is something which makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel unique so I’m glad I wrote down my first impressions.

The setting Atwood creates is meant to be disquieting, but parts of it are familiar. In my mind this vague familiarity helps orient the reader while also keeping them off-kilter long enough to know something about this world is very wrong. Offred lives in what appears to be some kind of town but it’s a community (of sorts) nonetheless. She lives in a house, shops for groceries (with a partner for supervision of course), takes baths, and eats meals. There are blooming gardens in the background and cars to be washed on the driveways. But life is not anywhere close to normal. Often Offred will go from being treated as a prized farm animal to a slave and there isn’t too much in between.

Offred’s situation isn’t revealed in the beginning, but there are hints along the way. About halfway through I got a good sense of what was going on but it was also mysterious enough to keep me reading. I appreciated these small unveilings throughout the book because they sustained a web of tension and prompted character development. Most of all, I felt a sense of patience reading each clue which really made me respect Margaret Atwood as an author. When I’m writing I always want to give away the punchline, but Atwood does an amazing job of holding off until she’s ready to reveal her secrets.

The ending wasn’t quite what I pictured, but it was everything I could hope it would be. Even though I finished this book a couple of days ago I still find it hard to think about. Maybe it’s because there’s never a definite conclusion about how to reverse the wrongs. How do we re-orient ourselves after everything has turned upside down?  In a world where women have been stripped of their rights and turned into objects only good for housework and babies, it’s a terrifying future to conceptualize. The power in The Handmaid’s Tale is it extends beyond a grim prediction into a warning. What that warning is may be up to you. For me, this may be a book I need to re-read because it just hits so close to home.

The Circle

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The Circle by Dave Eggers

(Title image credit goes to The Daily Beast.)


Summary

Mae, as many twenty-somethings do, finds herself stuck in the mechanical ebb and flow of everyday life. With each passing day, she becomes increasingly troubled by her mundane office job and the overall lot she’s been given in life. One day, an old college friend named Annie contacts Mae and advises her to apply for a job at an up-and-coming tech company known as “The Circle”.  Mae is immediately taken with the idea of fully realizing her potential and quickly applies.

The Circle is a utopia in every way Mae could have ever hoped for. With dozens of passionate employees (known as “Circlers”) and a combined drive for world peace, Mae discovers a sense of solace in this new hub of progression. The Circle represents the best technology and an even more promising and innovative future with each new program it implements. However, the longer Mae works, the more unsettling the company’s ethos becomes. With eerie mantras promoting complete transparency over personal privacy, the Circle slowly transforms from a company of promises to one filled with secrets.


Memorable Quotes

“She couldn’t stand it. Every day of that job, the eighteen months she worked there, she wondered if she could really ask Annie for a favor. She’d never been one to ask for something like that, to be rescued, to be lifted,” (page 11).

“‘I like your voice,’ he said. ‘Was it always that way?’

‘Low and scratchy?’

‘I would call it seasoned. I would call it soulful. You know Tatum O’Neal?'” (page 35).

“‘You like bowl cuts.’

‘No. Your voice. So far it’s the best thing about you.’

Mae said nothing. She felt like she’d been slapped.

‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Did that sound weird? I was trying to give you a compliment,'” (page 35).

“‘Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. And I’m not talking about a new building on campus. I’m talking about an era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would be lost. Well, we live in a similar time, when we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle,'” (page 68).

“‘Mae, we would finally be compelled to be our best selves. And I think that people would be relieved. There would be this global sigh of relief. Finally, finally, finally we can be good. In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good. Can you imagine?'” (page 292)


Thoughts

Truthfully I hadn’t heard of this book until I happened to see one of the first movie trailers for its film adaptation. I figured that I hadn’t read any dystopian-leaning fiction in awhile and the plot looked fascinating, so I was immediately drawn to the book and purchased it as soon as I could. This being said, before I even picked up the book I had a sense of the material I would be working with. I figured the layout would look a little something like this: Tech company looks great at first glance, a hopelessly naïve girl applies for her dream job, aforementioned girl is lured into the jungles of the company’s promises, and then everything suddenly turns sour in a matter of chapters until the girl realizes her first mistake working for the company. The magic of this genre, primarily paved by noteworthy novels such as 1984 and Brave New World, is that the plot’s ever-present anxiety and tension is built into the very foundation of the book just as much as it is in its text. This tension is a definite strength in The Circle. Dave Eggers does a wonderful job of suspending the reader in an atmosphere feels both hostile and warmly inviting. In my mind, this juxtaposition creates a thrilling electric tension.

In addition, one of the greatest characteristics about this book is how mysterious it is about revealing the company’s true intentions. As I was reading, I felt like I was running through page after page hoping to arrive at an obvious climax, but each time I became more ensnarled in the Circle’s web. The beauty and the insanity of this book is that you’re constantly presented with unfulfilled questions despite the spiking tension. In time, this either becomes enticing or frustrating depending on the reader.

Without spoiling anything I’ll give you a quick example. Mae’s job includes many components which seem ridiculous, but no one (not even Mae herself) ever confirms how ridiculous they are or questions why she’s being put up to all of this work. She starts off with two computer screens which seems somewhat normal, but then her manager begins adding one monitor after another. After that she’s answering surveys, conducting more tests, coaching newbies, and still completing her regular workload. The company also continually harasses Mae into staying late for events and clubs and interrogates her if she doesn’t comply. But again, this is left for the reader to gauge as the Circle is only as horrifying as the reader makes it.

In totality, I think the book’s biggest weakness lies in the fact that it somewhat trivializes the social commentary it hopes to invoke with over-simplified and reused technological cliches and criticisms. The message of The Circle is one the general public has already heard time and time again, so it’s really nothing new. (I like to think of it as more of a call to action rather than a direct claim about the way technology is integrated into society for better or for worse.) Furthermore, sometimes it felt like Eggers was trying too hard to write the next 1984 so that turned me off a bit. However, on the flip side I think there is something to be said for the pacing of the plot and the overall character development (**or lack thereof). The Circle is similar to many other dystopian movies and books in content and structure, but different as its conclusion leaves multiple questions hanging and challenges the genre in an interesting way. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this book is revolutionary, but it is an interesting read nonetheless.

Lastly, I haven’t seen the movie but if my sources are correct, there are many differences between movie and book so I think it’s definitely worth reading.