Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale

I really like this creepy dystopian adult novel. This is the second time I've read it in 10 years. It is so well-written. In The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood creates such complex characters in her novel that rather than being propaganda for feminist ideology, it is a study of  power and the struggle of one individual to exercise free will and not lose herself in an oppressive regime.

Offred, the main character, is a Handmaid for the Republic of Gilead and narrates the story. Set in the twenty-first century, the world has become so polluted by toxic waste that only 1% of the human population is not sterile, threatening the survival of the human race. The totalitarian government which is comprised of religious fundamentalists has responded to the crisis by creating a government-supervised child-bearing program. Nonfertile women are in domestic roles, fertile women are in training centers, while men make all the political decisions enforcing the laws with military might. Women are denied basic rights such as education, reading, working, and owning property. Religious fundamentalist faith is used to ensure social order and assure that the majority of the citizens support the new government. The novel explores the internal conflict of an individual who finds her current circumstances so unbearable that she risks her life for change.

 Offred is a Handmaid and fertile. Her duty is to produce children.  The story begins with Offred at a Commissioners house on assignment. She has been there five weeks and is having a flashback to the Handmaid training center which reveals the powerlessness and slave-like atmosphere of the handmaids living conditions. The Aunts, who control the center, use electric cattle prods, leather belts, and torture on the handmaids if they are disobedient. The handmaids are confined to what was once a school gymnasium and are allowed outside twice a day for a walk around a chain-linked, barbed-wire fence. The handmaids show subtle rebellion against their situation at night when they communicate by reading each others lips, whispering silently, and touching hands. They must be completely covered and they wear red habits. It is apparent in the first chapter that the Republic of Gilead, while founded on Christian principles, is bankrupt of spirituality and mercy and is ruled by rigid dogmas, corruption, fear, and terror.

Offred lives with the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, a former gospel singer and both who were instrumental in the coup against the former government. Serena Joy was vocal about womens' roles in society as being domestic and submissive. However, she does not appear to like her new right-wing government and  is just as miserable as Offred and full of anger and hate throughout the novel. Ironically, the Commander is presented not so much as an object of power and cruelty but as one who is also trapped and miserable like the other two women. He too breaks the rules and sends for Offred to come to his office alone at night, gives her gifts, and takes her to a prostitution house.  He attempts to get Offred's approval while he fears his wife. Love is absent in this totalitarian regime. The victims are not only the handmaids but the oppressors as well. Everyone suffers the loss of choice as they follow the church-state decrees.

Every month, Offred has sex with the Commander and his wife in a  ritualized ceremony. Offred, eyes closed, lays with her back on Serena and the two hold hands while the Commander performs his "duty." There is nothing erotic about the handmaids, their job is strictly biological. Offred is tattooed with a number on her foot, cannot shut the door to her room completely, must have an escort when she goes to the market, stay covered from head to foot, and is watched by the Eyes or Gilead's secret police. Offred isn't even her real name. The handmaids take on the name of the male in the household they work; the words combine "of" and "Fred". I like the play on words "off" and "red" which show her as a person who doesn't quite fit the mold of handmaid.

Offred has flashbacks that tell of her friendship with Moira, a husband, and daughter. Offred was trying to escape to freedom with her husband and daughter when the Republic caught them and she was forced to become a handmaid. These flashbacks remind her of the freedom and happiness she once had; they give her a sense of identity as she tries to survive in a repressive regime. This is in contrast to the character Janine who loses her identity and sanity because she accepts the regime's structure.  The flashbacks also show a slow progression of rebellion in Offred, an ordinary citizen, who starts to take risks that would mean death as she tries to escape through the underground resistance group. This is contrasted with her strong-willed mother and Moira who outwardly rebel and are silenced as a result. Offred shows a shift from victim to survivor when she double crosses the Commander and his Wife, has an affair with Nick, and becomes associated with the underground network. Offred's love for Nick shows her overcoming her intense fear of punishment in order to choose a life of freedom. There is hope in Offred's flashbacks and the ending  suggests she escaped through the underground.

The novel doesn't point the finger at one gender but shows everyone as perpetrators in this dysfunctional, misogynous regime which makes the novel worth reading. The extreme violence in the book is told by Offred after the fact sparing the reader of detailed gory scenes. Some readers might not like this because Offred is detached and not emotional about the violence; others may find it fits with her character that is trying to survive. In the salvaging chapter after the handmaids tear a man apart with their hands, Janine with blood smeared on herself, is clearly unhinged and babbles: "Hi there," "How are you doing?" "You have a nice day." As a reader, there is enough horror that I don't want a detailed description of how the handmaids killed the man who was accused of rape. Janine's reaction is enough. It is interesting how Atwood shows similarities between religious fundamentalism and cultural feminism. For instance, the harsh punishments setup by the Republic for abortion with public hangings and the killing by the handmaids of the rapist are both extreme.  It is this warning against extreme zealous behavior that makes this novel interesting, current, and controversial. 

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 Smileys

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