Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood / Review by Caryn James

The Handmaid's Tale 
by Margaret Atwood
The Lady Was Not for Hanging
by Caryn James

The dedication of ''The Handmaid's Tale'' -''For Mary Webster and Perry Miller'' - holds clues to the novel's roots in our Puritan past. ''Mary Webster was an ancestor of mine who was hanged for a witch in Connecticut,'' Margaret Atwood explained. ''But she didn't die. They hadn't invented the drop yet'' - the part of the platform that falls away - ''so they hanged her but she lived.'' The author's studies in early American history under the Harvard scholar Perry Miller also informs her theme of religious intolerance. ''You often hear in North America, 'It can't happen here,' but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn't agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume that the seeds are not there. That's why I set the book in Cambridge,'' said the Canadian author, who lives in Toronto and has traveled widely in the United States. Like many of her fictional women (she has written poems, essays and novels, notably the feminist classic ''Surfacing''), she is wryly unpolemical. ''Feminist activity is not causal, it's symptomatic,'' she said of the book's antiwoman society. ''Any power structure will co-opt the views of its opponents, to sugarcoat the pill. The regime gives women some things the women's movement says they want -control over birth, no pornography - but there's a price. If you were going to put in a repressive regime, how would you do it?'' Despite the novel's projections from current events, Margaret Atwood resists calling her book a warning. ''I do not have a political agenda of that kind. The book won't tell you who to vote for,'' she said. But she advises, ''Anyone who wants power will try to manipulate you by appealing to your desires and fears, and sometimes your best instincts. Women have to be a little cautious about that kind of appeal to them. What are we being asked to give up?''

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