Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

Even though I re-read this book last week, I've been procrastinating on this post because I love and admire the book so much, and I'm afraid I won't do it justice. But I suppose that's precisely why I need to write about it.

I read this book in high school, expecting a dull story about a subservient female. Instead, I was drawn into a futuristic world where the government is controlled by a Taliban-like Christian oligarchy. The Handmaids are women who have proven their ability to bear children, which is a rarity in this time, after polluted water and radiation began causing infertility and birth defects. Each Handmaid is assigned to a government official, or "Commander," and lives with him and his Wife in their household. Once a month, when the time is right, they perform the "Ceremony," in which the Handmaid lies between the Wife's legs while the Commander tries to impregnate her. Biblical parallels are drawn to Jacob lying with the his wife Rachel's maid to provide children for them. Handmaids are given a period of time with which to conceive; if they do not do so, they will be sent to the Colonies, where most die of radiation poisoning.

I began craving this book a few weeks ago, and after I finished it, I realized why: the women in this book are valued only as vessels for conception and birth. While I am not at all treated this way, there have been times recently when I felt defined by my pregnancy, and that part of me sympathized with the Handmaids in a way I was never able to understand during my previous reads.

There is so much to this book and its futuristic world that I would love to delve into, but it would take several posts to do it justice; whole college courses could be built upon it. Instead, I am going to give you some quotes from the book that should help illuminate the society's framework; the main character, Offred (Handmaids are known only as being "of" their Commander's name); and Margaret Atwood's insightful writing, remarkably free of judgement about the hellish government she portrays.

Offred describes the differences between the previous society (the United States as we know it, circa 1980s) and the current one:

"I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.
Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."

The Handmaids wear red robes and white headdresses, with wings like blinders: "We have learned to see the world in gasps."

"We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices."

Offred was re-educated in a Center, governed by the Aunts, the highest possible post for women:

"You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make... For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.
She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.
She said: Because they won't want things they can't have."

And lastly:

"Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing."

Read this. It's the highest of top-shelf literature.

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