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Literary Glance: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

May 1, 2017

I originally read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood decades ago because of a college girlfriend who recommended it.  If I remember correctly, she wasn’t exactly my girlfriend until after I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Maybe the book was a litmus test for me, but if it was, I passed, at least for a few weeks.

I didn’t really enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale back then because I never like books that I’m forced to read.  Plus, I remember a slow pace and a bunch of sentences that I had to read more than once.  Now that The Handmaid’s Tale is making a comeback (it’s a television series now), I thought I’d go back and see if my original perception of the novel was right.

The Handmaid’s Tale starts off simple enough, with a Chapter I titled “Night.”  And then the first few sentences:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Good opening sentence.  I get it so far, and I had to read it only one time.

The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone.

Here’s where I had to start thinking while I was reading.  I wondered if Atwood thought her readers wouldn’t understand that the stripes and circles were for the basketball court and that’s why she mentioned “the games that were formerly played there” and basketball nets when she could have just said the hoops had no nets.  I watched a lot of basketball in college when I originally read this.

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.

I had to read this sentence more than once.  It started off okay, and then there were a bunch of commas and girls in skirts and miniskirts and pants and earrings.  I’ll give myself credit, though; I figured it out the second time I read it.

Dances would have been held here; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.

I had to look up the word palimpsest.  And I had to read this sentence more than once.  That’s two sentences in a row.  If I have to read that next sentence more than once, I’m going to have to rethink rereading this book.

There was old sex in the room…

… yeah, and I’m going to stop right there.  I have to be in the right mood to read prose like this, and I’m not in it right now.

30 years ago when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I had incentive to finish it.

Besides The Handmaid’s Tale, I read The Mists of Avalon and later on Interview with the Vampire for that girlfriend.  When I told her that I didn’t care for Interview with the Vampire, she broke up with me and shacked up with a professor a couple days later.  I bet he told her he thought Interview with the Vampire was awesome.

I always thought being a professor was scam, and that incident just confirmed it.  It still chaps my hide.  He wasn’t even a young professor.  He was an old guy who dressed in ratty jeans and looked like Shel Silverstein.  I felt cheated.  This girlfriend told me she distrusted the patriarchy, and then she got attached to an old dude authority figure.

I could have been a professor, but I chose not to.   Maybe I couldn’t have been a poetry professor, but I could have been a professor of something.


What do you think? Do you enjoy reading books where you have to read a bunch of sentences more than once?  If you could be a professor, what would you be a professor of?

One Comment
  1. I got lucky I started reading novels at young age. Mind you, I have a big dictionary beside me. I’m grateful though as I’m not a native English speaker and reading greatly helped my understanding of grammar and I gained an advance vocabulary.

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