Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood



















Recommended many times, I have finally got around to reading, what most think of as, Atwood's cautionary tale of feminist dystopia, a disturbing but convincing window into the future which reminded me of the other dystopian classic 'Brave New World'. Set in alarmingly 'not so distant' future, the American Government have been overthrown and a totalitarian theocracy established in which women are categorised according to their fertility and men by military ranking.

Written in the present tense, the main character Offred gives us hints of the time before the Republic of Gillead in brief flashbacks; a normal life with a boyfriend, flat, credit cards, a cat, all of which are harshly taken reminding us of a lost normality. More importantly her young daughter who after a near snatching in a supermarket and clearly in the present missing, suggests at some sort of population crisis with desperate women. This is later explained by radioactivity in the new world that has rendered most men sterile and pregnancies that do come about ending in 'unbabies' or 'shredders' which have to be disposed of making healthy babies a precious commodity.

The social control is kept by threats of torture and death and in particular a 'wall' of executions to keep everyone in check, this wall hanging the most wicked on hooks for all to see as a warning; from adulterers to abortionists, the order is kept by fear. Although published in 1985, sadly around the world this still rings true, most notably in Afghanistan today with the Taliban regime. Bizarrely the handmaids have a dark curiosity to walk past this wall, almost as if it reinforces their 'choice', if choice is the right word when your only other choice is death.

Paradoxically the Republic of Gillead seems a woman's world if run by men; although kept in their various places, subdivided by rank according to whether they are wives, breeders, servants or whores; they are invaluable in the domestic ethos in right wing oppressive theocracy. Even the Commanders seem to have little to contribute in their own household; Serena Joy, the wife, seems to have the authority over a weak man who starts an affair with his handmaid by wanting her to play scrabble. In a world where books are banned, word games are considered wicked. The commander is a pathetic character, lonely with a hidden stash of gems from the old world to give as gifts to his handmaid, a fashion magazine, some handcream. Anything to make Offred's life easier, ironically as if caught out, she would be put to death and mostly borne out of his guilt at the suicide of a former handmaid.

There are echoes of various biblical stories of reproductive jealousy in that the fertile women are forced to be handmaids, basically surrogate mothers in a monthly ritualised rape as the handmaid lies on the commander's wife to be fertilised.

"The commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too is inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose"

Obviously when your only other choice is death, this is questionable.

The old times are not portrayed as favourable for women even after thirty years of feminism in pre Gilleadian times, mostly represented by the flashbacks of Offred's radical mother, equality was never really achieved and this is the backlash.

Harrowing descriptions of women being punished for trying to escape and one that stood out for me, very early on in the book was the punishment of a woman who had aborted after a gang rape at 14 years old. The cautionary message seems to be that female emancipation is a new and fragile thing and could easily be taken.

The ending? Well read it and see what you think?

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