Handmaid's Tale, The by Atwood, Margaret, 1985


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The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling look at the horror that results when sexuality and democracy are repressed, and history and religious dogma are reinterpreted to aid in consolidation of authority. Interestingly Atwood stayed away from big-picture issues, and instead concentrated on the life of one woman whose true name is never given. She is referred to only as "Offred," as a possessive form of Fred, a military commander who is basically her owner. Several hundred years in the future a nation called Gilead has come to power in the east coast of the United States. Those who run Gilead are never seen, but it seems that they are Christian literalists who use scripture and bastardized lessons of the bible to control the citizens. As expected the society is heavily ritualized even though things like reading and writing have been practically eliminated. The primary means of control include sexual conditioning and indoctrination. Young women have all been rounded up and put into centers called "Rachel and Leah" centers where they were indoctrinated into their new lives as handmaids. Take a look at Genesis 30:1-3 for an idea about the beginnings of this story.

And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

Although this book is considered to be SF by many, the genre elements are all in the background. After an ecological catastrophe of some kind most Caucasian people became sterile, or have given birth to mutated children. A religious order called the Sons of Jacob arose in the northeastern United States and took control in a bloody coup after machine gunning the President and all of Congress. Turning to scripture and fundamentalist interpretation for the law of the land, they took control of society on a pretext; they believed that damage to the soul that was caused by loose sexual mores was the cause of everything that happened to them, so they enslaved all the women, re-educated those who would comply and banished those who wouldn't. Gilead's social organization was tightly managed by the government and morals were enforced by stormtroopers called "Angels," the most brutal of whom were eventually given women for their own use. Offred was indoctrinated into a class called handmaids. The handmaids were not sterile, and were assigned to two-year billets with successful commanders who were married to other sterile women. The handmaid's job was to assist the lower female classes with the management of the home and to undergo monthly a ritualistic and passionless mating ritual with the master of the house, during which she lay between the wife's open thighs and held her hands (thus the name "handmaid"). The book tells the story of Offred, a handmaid who at first seems to have fully accepted her brainwashing, but as the story unfolds is revealed to have retained some of her original personality and dreams. Ironically the wife of this particular commander, Serena Joy, is beyond her child-bearing years, so the placement of Offred with this family goes a bit beyond the simple need to reproduce, and was likely intended to be a reward of a new sexual object for some job or jobs well done.

The government of the Sons of Jacob was practically Orwellian in the way that they redefined society, and Atwood drew heavily from the colonial puritan outlook of the New England region, though they went much further than that. This was a world where nobody, women especially, was permitted any gratification from sexual contact, where women were forced to wear a burkah like device, they could not even make eye contact with each other. The government had not gone so far as to define mindcrime, but part of the indoctrination process was a reversion back to pre-modern views of sexuality. Women were blamed for sexual crimes against them because they tempted men. "Gender traitors" and those who mated without permission were hung on hooks on walls in parks as examples to the rest. Women were reduced in stature to slaves at the worst, and ignored completely in the least. Men did suffer under the regime, but not as much: They still had some control over their lives, and had the ability in some cases to circumvent authority for a brief time.

I found much of this book to be compelling, well written and pretty frightening. The story however really failed to build to anything; it was just a series of experiences of the main character, Offred, so when the climax came it was just another event in her life, equal to all others in the presentation, even if Offred would attach more significance to it later on (she spent most of the book in a daze of sorts). Actually, that was another aspect of the narrative that I thought was really well done. Offred wandered through much of the book in a trance-like state of shock, sometimes accepting her indoctrination and training as the truth, sometimes marveling at the unfairness of it all, but always compliant in her fate. The sad fact was that Offred's entire family was dominated by Gilead. Her husband was a freedom fighter who was probably dead, her mother, a feminist activist from before Gilead was a slave in a heavily radiated zone working to clean up the land, her daughter was in training to become a handmaid herself, and he best friend was a kept prostitute in a place called "The Club," were commanders went to get a little relief from the hardships of Gilead life with alcohol, cigarettes and "prostitutes," who were actually comfort girls.

Atwood's vision of the consequences of the complete destruction of sexual freedom is bleak, to say the least. So bleak, in fact, that those of Gilead could not even stand it: Thus, the Club. The indoctrination program destroyed not only sexual freedom, but it also took much of the beauty, happiness and joy from the culture. The Club was an attempt to regain some of that loss; that is why it existed. People there could unwind and enjoy themselves, but for the women, it was just another prison, and in fact it was rougher than the prison that Offred had to endure. The women there were used and abused like prostitutes, guaranteeing a shorter than average lifespan, and were almost certain to be banished to "the colonies," which were slave labor camps similar to the one where Offred's mother was already banished. In the end the Club was nothing more than a sleazy outlet for repressed passions, many of which were likely magnified because of other societal strictures.

Told in the first person by Offred, the narrative was heavily laced with irony. The handmaids were expected to be chaste vessels, serving only as stand-ins for barren wives and getting no pleasure whatsoever from their tasks. But the reality of the situation was that everyone wanted Offred only for her reproductive organs. Nick, the commander's chauffeur wanted her for sex and companionship. The Commander's wife broke the law and strong taboo by setting Offred up with Nick secretly so that he would impregnate her and get it over with. The Commander, an old, withered prune of a man broke the law by giving Offred things to read, drink and smoke, and snuck her out of the home to the Club for an illicit (and hopefully pleasurable) affair. The Marthas, or lower women, of the house wanted Offred to get pregnant any way possible so that they could have a little joy in their miserable lives.

More, the story is told in the form of a remembrance, or memoir, written by Offred as she travelled the "underground femaleroad" out of Gilead, towards freedom. The last section of the book told of a scholarly conference at a university in the distant future where men discussed the attributes of Gilead life. Because Offred never gave her real name in the text, which they were parsing and analyzing, the scholars there doubted its authenticity and veracity. They laughingly discussed some of Offred's recollections, and doubted that she even existed. The epilogue was subtlety done, and quite disgusting. I imagine that these were the kinds of discussions that were had by white men after slavery ended in the United States.

As I read it was crystal clear that Offred was a slave and her life was pretty miserable, but I found myself wondering if Atwood was trying to make a statement about the modern lives of women. SF in general usually offers readers an opportunity to examine the futuristic implications of current sociological issues through operation of the concepts of exaggeration and amplification. This I think is one of the greatest virtues of SF; it offers this opportunity because readers will find it relatively easy to buy into the concept that over time, in the future that is, current problems will magnify and will present future society with enlarged versions of themselves. Dystopic stories are particularly useful in this regard. Much of the feminist criticism of this book comes in the form of a debate that centers around what Offred's story says about feminist principles. Some find her too docile, while others find her only marginally proactive in the determination of her fate, and many critics have different ideas about the propriety or moral correctness of Offred's course of action (or inaction, as the case may be). Personally, and with regard to the plain meaning of the text, I thought that Atwood did a phenomenal job of showing a woman in shock trying (occasionally) to reclaim important parts of her psyche. It should be remembered that up until the time that Offred, for most of her life, lived in essentially a slightly futuristic version of our society. At the time of the takeover sexually transmitted diseases had risen to epidemic levels, mobile brothels could be found anywhere, porn stores dotted the landscape, and sexual activity outside the marriage relationship were the preferable way of mating. At the time of the story Offred had been through her indoctrination, and this was either her first or her second posting. She was also dealing with the unknown fate of her loved ones. She was obviously in shock, was very frightened of the government, and was completely brainwashed. Is it any wonder that her thoughts were lethargic and metered? Part of the indoctrination was a form of forced regression that left Offred and others like her with the outlook of inexperienced children; another form of repression of the self, I assume. But there was still something of Offred's former life in there. Discovering what it is and where it took her was the real shining gem in this story.

But I also wonder if there is a little bit more going on here. I wondered as I read this book how closely a comparison Atwood wanted to draw between Offred's amplified pain and the pain of the typical Caucasian, middle class woman of the contemporary United States. Atwood is known to have somewhat radical views. The idea that sexual freedom includes the right to ignore the wishes and dreams of others in the woman's life, no matter what the situation, is one that has value in our culture. Women typically in our culture make reproductive and sexual decisions without consulting their marriage partners, and as a society we generally support this. The issues were probably weighted against female personal choice in the 1980's when this book was written, and I suspect that this is why I feel that there is an element of rebellion here. Personally I am all for woman's rights. I don't think that we can have an enlightened society that truly is capable of looking forward until we have eliminated gender biases in it. But I also think that in these dyads that we are traditionally required to form to procreate no one gender should have rights above the other. Perhaps I'm a bit idealistic in that view, but I don't really care. Thatís the way I feel and I'm sticking with it.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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