Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Sometimes, when I read dystopian fiction I try to distance myself from it, thinking it's only fiction, that it might happen, but Thank God it hasn't. In the case of this book, truth is, it has. Maybe not in my country, or in yours, but somewhere in the world, in the past ,or even now, those things have happened or are happening. This is what makes it not just scary or disturbing, but profoundly sad.
Everything that the regime does in The Handmaid's Tale has being done before, and if this doesn't give you the shivers, I don't know what can.

The Handmaid is a woman who's telling the tale, but she never says her real name. She's only known through the patronymic Offred (of Fred), referring to the Commander who she belongs to. She's living in a future America, called Gilead, where a religious fundamentalist organization has taken power, and has stripped women of their freedom, so painfully earned in centuries of struggles.
Now fertile women who have been living a non orthodox life (in non married relationships, or divorced for example) have a "choice" to either become Handmaids or to go to the colonies and be condemned to a slow death through toxic exposures to radioactive waste.
Every handmaid has to wear a long concealing red habit and a white headgear similar to this (sorry, didn't find a better picture).This doesn't allow for much conversation. In fact is specifically designed to discourage conversations and to deprive women of a free view of the surrounding world, as well as to keep their faces hidden.
The Wives have a little more freedom, but they too are required to wear a blue habit, and to accept the presence of handmaids in the house.
In this future, fertility is The Problem. Pollution and nuclear radioactivity have crippled the humans' ability to procreate, so now women are regarded as an instrument, a container, whose only purpose is to bear children.

There is so much to be outraged about this regime, I don't even know where to begin. The saddest thing, though, is that something the Aunts (women who train and control the handmaids) said in the book reminded me of what I have read about women living in fundamentalist Islamic societies. In an interview, a woman claimed to be happy to wear the hijab, because it gave her freedom. It allowed her not to be looked at, not to be showcased, not to be whistled at in the streets, to be regarded for her personality and not for her beauty.
This mentality is exactly what the Aunts meant when they were saying that women now had another kind of freedom. Instead of being free TO, they were free FROM.
It also shows that for women brought up within this mentality, their condition will become normal, even liberating. They won't miss what they never had.
I'm not aware of the women's liberation movement in theocratic societies (not to self: research!), but I can draw a parallel with what Marjane Satrapi says in Persepolis. Women hated the hijab at first and would take it off as soon as they could.
I've only talked about Islamic fundamentalism because that's the only direct contemporary example that I can think of. But it must be said that Atwood was thinking more about the early Puritans who came to America, and in fairness the existence of such people is equally scary. But I don't want to dip too much into that or I'll start shaking with rage.
Let me talk more about the book instead. Far from being an essay on women's condition in totalitarian regimes, this is firstly the story of a woman, which I found totally compelling. It was the kind of book that I couldn't stop reading. At bus stops, on bus, walking to work. Everywhere. I found the writing absolutely beautiful, and thought-provoking. I especially appreciated the way the narrator expressed the sense of emptiness that her new life gave her now. I've always thought that if I ever had to go to prison, as long as I could have books and that I could write, it shouldn't be too bad. But Offred is not allowed to read, nor write. Worse than prison, this is Hell!
Her days are made of empty hours waiting for the little events of the day: lunch, shopping, dinner. And the Ceremony once a month. The reproductive activity with the Commander and her wife, which is hard to call sex.
Mostly, her days are spent waiting, thinking about little things like the ray of light that comes through the window, the possible meanings of the word "chair", the geography of an eggshell.
If reading is forbidden, then a single sentence in Latin, engraved in the cupboard, by the previous handmaid, becomes en enormous transgression. A mantra to hang on to.
But probably the fact that she has been torn away from her life, her husband, her baby daughter, is what alienates her the most. Her body doesn't belong to her anymore. She's not entitled to feel pleasure, to be held just for the sake of it.

Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it, I too am disembodied. I can listen to my own heartbeat against the bedsprings, I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it's like running my hand over a plateful of dry rice; it's like snow. There's something dead about it, something deserted. I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window blowing in as dust across the floor.

There'd be so much more to say about it, but I've blabbed long enough.
The very last thing, only, is about the ending. I was like "WHAT?". Open ending, no conclusion. I still loved it, but I wouldn't have minded to know what happens to her.

There was an interview to the author at the end. When asked if this is science fiction, she firmly denies it:
Science fiction is filled with martians and space travel to other planets and things like that...The Handmaid's tale is speculative fiction in the genre of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-four.

But I choose to regard speculative fiction as a branch of science fiction, so it still counts for my Sci-Fi Experience!

other blog reviews:
Life and Times of a New New Yorker
In Spring it is the Dawn
Reading Reflections
Under the Dresser
Care's Online Bookclub
Just What You Want
Things mean a lot
Melody's reading corner
Rebecca Reads
The Bluestocking Society
A guy's moleskine notebook

Did I miss yours?

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Ana S. said...

"Ladies against feminism". That's a funny one.

(On second thought, it's actually not funny at all.)

I knew you'd love this book. And I loved your review.

As for that Margaret Atwood quote: sigh. Actually, that one is not too bad, but she once said science fiction was merely about "squids in outer space." The fact that she says such snobbish, narrow-minded and profoundly ignorant things makes me so sad. Especially because I admire her so much in so many other ways. I knew about her "I'm above sci-fi" shenanigans before I ever read her, and they actually kept me from picking up her books for a while. I'm glad I finally did, but as much as I adore her as a writer I sometimes wonder if I'd like her as a person.

mariel said...

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't yet read this particular Atwood novel, yet I have seen the film and feel that I already know the story very well. Wonderfully written review Valentina, you've managed to express exactly how I feel about several dystopian novels that I have read. They may be classed by science fiction by some, but some are scarily real to me.

Atwood is a notoriously brittle woman, but I for one wouldn't have it any other way! She reminds me of one of those eccentric and unyielding authors of the great literary circles in the 1930s.

Thank you for your excellent review. You've inspired me to get off my backside and finally read it!

Melody said...

Great review, Valentina! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I enjoyed this book too... so scary and yet moving!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an awesome review! This book is one of the most frightening one I've ever read. Days days I put down I was still astounded by how accurate and vivid Margaret Atwood delineates what might happen to this world (or has happened like you mentioned). Frightening and hair-splitting, the novel paints a bleak society in which women have no rights, no choice, no freedom and no emotional capacity–the regime completely robs them of humanity.

valentina said...

Ana, I didn't know she such ideas, as if science fiction with martians and spaceships didn't explore human issues as well as speculative fiction! they do but it's probably more subtle.
and no, Ladies against feminism is not funny!

melody, thank you! it was indeed very disturbing, I still think ab it sometimes and shiver.

Thank you Matt, I'm glad you liked it too!

Marg said...

I really did not like this book when I read it a couple of years ago. Far too bleak and disturbing.

Cheryl said...

Hi Valentina. First time to your blog. I just finished The Handmaid's Tale. Very affected by it. Usually when I read dystopian literature (one of my favorite genres), I read it thinking this cannot really happen. However when I read this novel, for the first time, I realized that this could happen. It's no so far reaching and that's very disturbing. It really brought my feminism to the forefront of my mind again.

I have to agree that I don't put consider her work "sci-fi" either. Maybe "soft sci-fi" but I do dislike when dystopian literature is thrown into that mix. Not that sci-fi doesn't have it's own merits.

I do agree that the abrupt ending really bothered me. Sometimes I like when that books end abstractly like this, but here I felt Atwood was unfair to us. I wanted to know what happened to our protagonist. I wanted to konw what happened to her daughter.....Thanks!