Banned Books' Week - The Handmaid's Tale

Where do I start?

Banned Books Week.

Just the fact that there is such a thing boggles my mind. Life is full of choices and in America we are blessed with freedom of choice. Even in schools (where choice can be limited by rules), if parents don’t want their child to read a certain book, it is my understanding that teachers will accommodate that by providing alternate reading materials.
That said... this week the banned book I’m looking at is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Let’s take a gander at two of the main reasons it has been banned (here is a detailed list ) The funny thing about this list is that you could practically read the entire book based on the excerpts that this person has pulled - all out of context. Anyway, back to the two main reasons...

Sexually explicit - pornographic

Okay. Now - what is the book really about?

It’s speculative fiction about a future where the U.S. Government has been overthrown by a fundamental Christian sect called the ‘Sons of Jacob.’ (Although, in the book, citizens are told that the President and all members of Congress were assassinated by Muslim terrorists. How interesting is that?!)

These ‘Sons of Jacob’ systematically remove any rights that women have, in the name of “protecting” them. Women, including those who were part of the ‘Sons of Jacob,’ soon discover that their freedoms are non-existent and they are relegated to whatever role the new society deems appropriate for them based on their ability to have children. Handmaids are just as in the Bible - slaves who are forced to bear children for men whose wives are barren. (Most people in the new Gilead are barren due to radiation and other chemical warfare.)

The purpose of Atwood’s cautionary tale is to wake people up to what is going on around them. To make people aware of how easy it is to give up rights in the face of fear and the reassurance that they will be “taken care of” and/or “it’s for your own good.”

The sexuality in this book is not meant to be titillating or pornographic (altho' there is pornography mentioned in the book.) It is used for procreation. And, for pleasure in the whorehouses to which the government turns a blind eye. There is no sex as an expression of love - except for the main character's attempt at a caring relationship and her remembrance of the loving relationship she had with her husband.

As far as the anti-Christian part of it... well, honestly, so much horrible stuff has been done in the name of religion (every religion, bar none) that I have no issue with people being reminded that that can, and still does, happen. And, when people try to force everyone to come to their way of thinking about a higher power (or not) “or else” - well, no. Just plain old NO.

Now - I'm not going to do a full-fledged book review. I guess I’m going to rant for a second... or more.

I wonder when so many people (i.e. book banners) in this country are going to quit being afraid? And, what is it that they’re afraid of? Ideas! Discussion! Different Points of View!

I think that fear comes because deep down inside, those who try to ban books are terrified of the ideas in those books. Perhaps their fears are not so much that children’s minds will be tainted by these “filthy” books - but that those same children might have some new thoughts, might not be content to live life exactly as their book-banning parents would wish them to. And, maybe even more so, those book banners are afraid that their own thoughts won’t be able to stand against new ideas. Maybe they really don’t have enough blind faith to withstand a little new light being cast on it.

I have no patience with small-minded people who think that forcing their ideals and morals on others is a good or right thing. It is a scourge that threatens our very freedoms. If we become complacent and allow others to "fight the good fight" - we may find ourselves like Atwood’s main character, Offred. A woman without her own identity - a slave to a totalitarian government that does things “for your own good” - and one who is ritualistically raped in the hopes that there will be children born to carry on the ideals of the system.

While we may not find ourselves in the actual position of physical rape, we can be ritualistically, and repeatedly, frightened, bullied, and inundated with falsehoods, half-truths and outright lies. If we stay quiet against those lies, beware.

Our future, the future of our children and their children may well be a banned book away.

End of rant.

Buy banned books. Read banned books. Don’t let anyone tell you what is right for you or your children - make those (informed, please!) decisions yourself.

Even if you don’t agree with ideas expressed in a book - defend to the death the author’s right to write them!


fairyhedgehog said...

Was this book banned, and where?

I think it's a brilliant piece of science fiction and rather frightening because something like it could come true.

It's been serialised on Radio 7 in their sci fi slot, and will probably come round again.

Bridgette Booth said...

The Handmaid's Tale is brilliant and a book that has stayed with me for years, but I wouldn't be thrilled if it was put in my teen's hands unless it was done by a skillful and insightful teacher.

It's interesting to me this whole notion of banning books. Looking at the list, it seems that for the last 60 years or so we're really only talking about blocking books from the classroom or school libraries. No one, that I could tell, was promoting censoring books from adults.So why is it a big deal? I'm not being flippant, but truly curious. If black parents don't want their children reading Huck Finn b/c of the "n" word, is that really censorship to the other children when they can go purchase the book from any book store and read it themselves? Or A Handmaiden's Tale? Is it really banned if you can purchase a book at Wal-Mart? Mein Kampf is harder to get hold of (and rarely taught in a high school classroom, thank goodness!).

Until I read your post, I've never really thought about banned books other than "that's bad, shouldn't happen". I mean I do understand the First Amendment implications, and don't agree with censorship on adults, but I don't know about children. Aren't parents supposed to monitor a child's intake of television, movies, and yes, books? And since parents turn over so much influence to the school system, isn't it important and the responsible thing to do to hold the schools and teachers accountable by challenging ideas they don't agree with?

I hope I'm not coming across as argumentative, because that's not my intention. I'm truly curious. Your post has made me think harder about this topic than anything else I've seen. :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

THANK you.

Gah, i hate censorship so so so much

April (BooksandWine) said...

Well, according to V For Vendetta (the movie not the comic) 'ideas are bulletproof', so in a way, I suppose they are incredibly scary.

That said, I really enjoyed the Handmaid's Tale when I read it back in high school. I'll have to re-read my copy sometime, since I have forgotten many of the details over time.

What an excellent review though, it makes me want to dive into my copy!

Matthew MacNish said...

I forgot about this one. What an excellent story it is. Rather prophetic as well considering it was written in like the early 80s, right?

Angie Smibert said...

Bridgette, you raise an interesting point about not teaching certain books in the classroom. However, sometimes challenges (made to ban a book) are targeted at removing a book from a school or public library.

Tere Kirkland said...

I read this book at age thirteen, when I was starting to question everything. Reading it made me more cynical and less innocent, I guess, but it also prepared me for real life. It also reminded me that there were/are places in the world where women's rights aren't much different than what is represented in Atwood's book.

Basically it taught me to respect the rights I have as a US citizen—including the right to read the books I choose.

Great post.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Nice rant Julia!

Bridgette,I think you're right when you say that its appropriate for parents to have a say on their kids reading material, but I think what Julia is talking about is the government (in this case a school) making that choice for kids.

Basically, I can make that choice for my family but I have no right to make that choice for your family.

Colene Murphy said...

That book sounds incredible! I'm ashamed to say I hadn't heard of it but man. Need to pick it up!

Julia said...

Thanks for all the great comments everyone!

Cellophane Queen said...

Amazingly prescient book. We're in danger of it coming to be. That's great scifi. Extrapolate a future. Will it happen? Unfortunately, we're damned close.

Ms. Atwood nailed it with this one book. Instantly classic. Instantly banned by those who would have this be our future.

Anonymous said...

Bridgette, Something to consider - not everyone can afford to buy books, so if it's banned from a library there will be kids who cannot read it. You should read Saundra Mitchell's post on this:

Also while every parent has a right to decide what his/her child can read, another parent shouldn't be able to decide what other children read. Banning a book from a school or library is doing this.

Julia - Great blog!

Bridgette Booth said...

Thank you lizwhelan, Jeff, and Angie. I agree 100% that censoring or banning books for school or public libraries is a horrible idea, and I didn't mean to suggest that in my first post.

When I read the ALA's list of complaints against certain books I noticed that the majority of them were directed at a certain book being taught in a classroom. Very few challenges were aimed at school libraries and even fewer at public libraries. To me, there is a difference between challenging required reading in a classroom of a book versus wanting to bar access to a book in a library.

That difference is what I've been exploring, and that's why, lizwhelan, I said if the book is available elsewhere it is hard for me to consider it being banned.

And, Julia, because of your excellent post, I had a great conversation with a librarian today to ask about my local library. She told me that she has never had a formal challenge but there have been a handful of complaints - all about children's books, either having them in the library or the placement of the book on the shelves. (Think a YA book should be in the ADULT section for example.) She also said that she worries more about those people who self-censor (steal the book) than about a formal challenge.

So, thanks Julia for spurring on such a great conversations. :) I would have posted earlier except each time I tried I got an error message.

Julia said...

Bridgette - I'm so glad this got good conversations going!

Thanks everyone for coming by - commenting - and mostly for thinking & talking about this subject!

Jen said...

Holy cow.

This is the best rant (or as I would prefer to call it, educated disagreement) against censorship of any kind that I've ever read. Period.

Thank you for reveiwing this book. I've seen it but didn't know what it was about. I'll be reading it for sure.


KA said...

Well, it was offensive, but that was the point. It was supposed to be. Women are treated badly and sex has little to do with love. It's supposed to cause outrage, and then when you see something in our society that reminds you of the book, then it makes the need for change so much more urgent in your mind.

Penelope Sanchez said...

Chilling, moving, vivid, terrifying and sometimes even humorous, The Handmaid's Tale is a profoundly moral story. It is a true masterpiece of power and grace that will someday attain the status of a classic.

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Hyacinth Marius said...

If you read this book long ago, pick it up again. If you haven't yet read it, move it up to the top of your TBR. Buy it for friends. Buy for your sons and daughters. Use it to teach and to learn what kind of world we could be if we stop valuing the diversity of all people.

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It seems that for the last 60 years or so we're really only talking about blocking books from the classroom or school libraries. reword my sentence

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Jimy said...

Now I got it.This book should remain ban for the rest of life.The books like these create violence and racism in the society.It can be read after 18+.Thanks for sharing

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