24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Month: June 2017

Abby Reads: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
McClelland & Stewart, 1985, 311 pages
Dystopian Fiction

As a handmaid, Offred’s life is monotonous. She spends most of her days in the home of those who own her or around town with Ofglen, shopping for the needs of her household. With flashbacks to how the oppressive world of Gilead (modern-day Maine-area) came to be, Offred is only safe in her imagination until she begins to put small amounts of trust in those around her, including the Commander; his wife, Serena Joy; Nick; and Ofglen. Perhaps even those upholding the military dictatorship under which the characters live want something more. But Offred The Handmaid's Tale by [Atwood, Margaret]must first decide if she’s willing to find out at the cost of her life.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic, and there’s no denying that. As it happens, the book is resurging as an important piece of literature as many readers see similarities between the book and our current and future state as a country and as a government. Literature is powerful.

It’s fortunate, as it turns out, that so many are reading it at once. There are plenty of discussions going on about the book and, while I haven’t yet sought any out myself, it’s to the book’s benefit. I was certain as I read the novel that I would have gotten a much better sense of a variety of angles Atwood approaches had I had the opportunity to discuss the book in a classroom or even book club setting. Atwood is no stranger to literary allusions, and I know I missed more than a few in this novel. While many biblical nods are easy to pull out, Atwood no doubt includes many others to works with which I both am and am not familiar. This is not, of course, a shortcoming of the book — in fact, I admire books which handle allusions with skill and subtlety. Instead, it’s a shortcoming of myself and my reading environment.

Atwood writes the book with a first person narrator in the present tense, which requires the reader to continue guessing Offred’s (the narrator) end. With so many authors choosing first-person narration to aid in the surprise of the death of a character, readers might wonder if Offred is approaching her earthly end. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t yet read the book, but this first-person present narration is an interesting choice beyond just the fate of the narrator due to a final chapter in the novel.

Juggling a military dictatorship, a past, a present, and the philosophical feminist ideology throughout the text, Atwood does run into an issue of ambition — maybe. Offred’s descriptions of characters and their personalities beyond the Commander and the caricature of Serena Joy are limited. I never fully felt I got a grasp on any of the characters’ true personalities. I’m caught, however, between believing this was a point for improvement in the novel or if it was deliberate, showing how not only Offred attempts to protect identities from her apparent disobedience at recording her story at all, but also how the regime has forced people into limited displays of their true selves. This isn’t to say that each character is entirely flat — for the most part, they differ from each other and are individuals, just not to the extent I would expect given the skill in craft in other areas.

The same issue occurs with the worldbuilding. While readers do not get a full tour of Gilead and the world beyond Offred’s immediate space in any sense, perhaps this was deliberate. Offred, in her reality, may believe anyone accessing the material she creates is already familiar with Gilead, and so there is no motivation to describe the nuances of the world and make it real (I think of Harry Potter, of course, and the relatively inconsequential Diagon Alley, of which I know far more than even I know about the whole of Gilead). So, unintentional, or deliberate? I can’t say.

Atwood does accomplish a great deal with tension. With strength in syntax and, yes, withholding information, the prose creates an atmosphere that urges the reader onward with a great deal of discomfort, not unlike a great horror movie. Although few moments in the book are truly exciting, the almost-there is what does it for most scenes, the what-ifs and if-only Offred did this or that and oh, she is so close to doing it. The psychology within the novel is projected into the reader’s mind and veins, amping up with every page and bringing it to a crescendo toward the end.

And by the end, we are left with only ourselves to look at.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #16, “Read a book that banned or frequently challenged in your country,” and I leave it behind with three-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
W. Norton & Company, 1966, 176 pages
Fiction (Published Fan-Fiction)

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea takes a famous secondary (tertiary, really) character of a classic and fleshes her out to full person-hood. As a prequel to Jane Eyre, the novel explores the life of the woman in the attic before she was driven to madness. Her childhood in the Caribbean, her marriage to Edward Rochester, and her imprisonment in his manor are all examined in Rhys’s narrative, supplemented by chapters about Rochester as a young man and his struggles with his unwanted marriage and a wife he perceives as insane. Whether Bertha Mason, known as Antoinette Cosway in Sargasso, is in fact mad in earlier chapters is unclear, though her insanity by the end is clear. The path to that point is muddy, though, resulting in a text that is thought-provoking if confused.

Rhys provides no context for her story, even opting to use an alternative name for Bertha/Antoinette for much of the story and hardly ever naming Rochester. Without the knowledge that Sargasso is, in fact, intended as a prequel to Jane Eyre, readers will find few clues to the connection and may be therefore lost for the purpose of the novel and its implications. This issue of vagueness is exacerbated by a prose style that utilizes dialect (both in pronunciation and grammar) which, while perhaps accurate to the location and helpful in characterization, serves to further obscure the content of the novel in a text that is already confusing.

While Antoinette’s plight is certainly one for pity (at least from what I could tell), it’s difficult to feel sympathy for her when readers are left feeling so uncertain of the events and circumstances. The novel is full of maybes — maybe Rhys’s depiction of people of color who live on the island (generally in a service capacity, as is accurate to history) is racist, but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear; maybe the novel gives Antoinette more agency and calls into question her insanity, but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear; maybe Rhys layers a newer generation of feminism onto what is generally considered to be an early feminist novel (Jane Eyre), but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear.

Maybe I’m missing something or was choosing to read this as a leisure read rather than as an academic one. Maybe this book is better suited for the classroom, where discussion around the maybes and professor-provided context can shift the focus to pieces that I overlooked. Wide Sargasso Sea is, no doubt, a great opportunity for scholarly work. But ultimately, it’s not something to read for fun, even for fans of Jane Eyre.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #11, “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location,” and I happily leave it behind with two hearts.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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