Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Oftentimes, when I sit down to start one of these posts, I struggle finding a place to start.  I struggle to find the words to express the journey I have just traveled at the hands of an author.  It is, in a fractional way, what the author themselves must have faced in writing the work.  Another personal benefit of this blog to be noted: if I ever do get around to writing/finishing that novel I have tucked away, I will have this experience on the battlefield of writer's block to assist me at least a little.  

All of that to say, when I come across a novel such as this one, I cannot help but to be astounded by the skill the author sets forth.  It is difficult enough for me on some days to attempt a blog post; I cannot imagine how long it will take to write a novel.  And even then, it will be nowhere close to the writing level of Margaret Atwood.  In The Handmaid's Tale, she has crafted a terrifying story of a country ruled by a legalistic theocracy.  As with many of these types of books (which, I realize, I have been reading a lot of lately.  I swear, I am going to move past this phase eventually), it takes the reader a while to truly understand what is going on.  When you do, you are struck with the horror of it. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

This book struck particularly close to home for me, as the society that Atwood has created is one which values women only as an object of procreation.  The story follows a woman who has been plucked from her normal twentieth-century lifestyle and caught in the snares of a changing government overthrow.  She becomes a Handmaid, a woman placed in the home of a high-ranking official for the sole purpose of acting as a surrogate for the married couple, allowing them to have a child through her.  The government has stripped her of her true name and she is called Offred because of the Commander she is placed with.  Get it?  Of-fred.  The Commander's name is Fred.  She belongs to him.

The details of this process, the rules of this society, are horrific at best.  Offred painfully remembers her life before the change in leadership - her husband and her little girl, her mother, her best friend and college roommate.  She follows the rules that are set before her.  She participates monthly in the Ceremony with her Commander and his wife, desperately hoping to conceive a child and secure her place in the new world order.  This could almost be a fourteenth century story; the woman must cover themselves completely upon going out of the household.  The Handmaids are even required to wear blinders of a sort.  The pretext for putting women in this position is that it is for their own protection.  Men cannot be trusted.  Look at the rape, domestic abuse, and sexual violence that pervaded the free love society of America.  See what happened?  This is for your protection.  That is the cry of the new government of Gilead.

Of course, the nature of humanity is depraved, regardless of the rules the government sets forth. Offred's mistress, Serena Joy, encourages her to start a sexual relationship with the household's chauffeur.  Serena Joy is willing to break the rules because she longs for the prestige having a child would bring to her and her household.  She bribes Offred with the promise of a picture of her missing daughter from the time before.  The Commander, on the other hand, starts his own relationship with Offred, outside the confines of the state's regulations for her role.  It begins innocently enough with Scrabble in his study (dangerous enough, seeing as woman are forbidden from reading or writing) but winds up with Offred in being snuck into what can only be described as a brothel to serve as her Commander's escort for the night.  All the while, she dreams of her husband and fears his will be the next body she sees hanging from the Wall, where the hang the prisoners and dissenters.

Even the title of the book, The Handmaid's Tale, speaks to the value Offred has in this world.  Atwood does not point this out until the very end of the book.  The novel closes in an incredibly unique way.  Suddenly, at perhaps the most climactic moment of the story, the reader finds him or herself reading the transcript of a presentation at a literary conference in the late twenty-first century.  It is as if Offred's story has been found decades later and scholars are speculating as to her identity.  The speaker, in one short sentence that could easily be missed by the reader, points out the irony of the title.  "Tale" should be read as "Tail."  It is a vulgar reference to the fact that she is a sex object, valuable only for her ability to bring a child into a world underpopulated after wars and nuclear destruction.

The most frightening thing about this book, for me, was that this twisted society is the resulted of twisted Scripture.  Atwood makes it clear that the government is based on some form of Christianity - although Baptists, Quakers, and Catholics are all mentioned as dissenters.  The words of the Bible are taken and used out of context and even changed.  This is radicalism at its most extreme.  This is Christianity taken to same length as the Taliban takes Islam.  It is sobering to realize view it in that context.  Religion is a key element of the book, with all sorts of ceremony and rites being required.  Yet, there is no relationship - not with God or with those around you.  The love and trust that forms the very building blocks of Christianity are nowhere to be seen.

Reading this novel weighed me down.  I thought it was going to be another distopian novel that I tore through at lightening pace.  While I did experience that same eagerness to finish the story, it was also hard to pick up at times because of the content.  The oppression and abuse of women is a topic that I am burdened with on a regular basis.  It is marvelously written.  Atwood has a true gift for story telling.  She is creative and does not restrict herself to typical techniques.  Her message is strong and clear without having to be spelled out, which I appreciate.  I definitely recommend the book, however with the caveat that it is not a children's story.  If I ever have a daughter, I definitely want her to read this, but once she is in her late teens - not any sooner.  In fact, I'm glad that this classic from 1985 is something that I have not taken the opportunity to read until this point, in my mid-twenties.  I think I value its message even more now as a young woman who has experienced the same freedoms and privileges that Offred knew in the time before. I can understand what has been taken away from her, because I treasure and utilize my rights as a woman on a daily basis.  However, in the face of that, The Handmaid's Tale was a sobering reminder to me that women all around the world would not find this book too far off from their own truth.

Pages: 324
Date Finished: May 3, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment