Friday, May 05, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

I wish I could remember the first time I read The Handmaid's Tale (I remember how it made me feel, just not when it was). It must have been approximately 20 (!) years ago and, conservatively, I've read it at least 5-6 times.  It is My Favorite Book.  Margaret Atwood is My Favorite Author. And it is this book against which I judge all books.

It's recently come to my attention that not everyone KNOWS about The Handmaid's Tale book (WHAT) so, a brief synopsis: written by Canada's National Treasure, Margaret Atwood, who didn't include any details in this dystopian fiction that didn't have a historical precedent. The Handmaid's Tale is about a woman, Offred, living in Gilead in the former United States.  Handmaids are fertile woman who are impregnated for leaders of the Gilead community because a variety of causes have led to widespread infertility. 

I reread it last weekend because it's been a few years and also the show is on Hulu and also we're living in a dystopian nightmare and also why not.  Every time I read it I find something new, and, as I get older, the way I engage with it changes as well.  This time I noticed the repeated motif of eggs - how many eggs Offred eats, how she notices eggs, how she is a walking ovum, ready to be fertilized.  Atwood spends an incredible page and a half describing Offred's soft-boiled egg breakfast. They are words of singular beauty and elegance.

Earlier this year I saw this tweet that really made me laugh but is also true:
Offred isn't waging a revolution - she wants to survive and stay alive, so she's not sticking her neck out.  What's interesting in Offred's point of view that she knew what life was like before (similar to life now) and is experiencing the first wave of this new society.  The Aunts keep telling them "This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary."  I think one of the reasons people are so drawn to this book at this time in history is how quickly and quietly the citizens of the US rolled over and allowed the new regime to take over - first everyone was eager to allow for decreased freedoms in the wake of a terrorist account for the sake of "safety" (as we saw after 9/11) and then there came a point when protesters were simply killed - a terrifying tipping point of which the precipice feels ever closer.
image from the 2017 Women's March

There were hardly any notes in my 1986 hardback, signed (!!!!) edition (maybe 3rd?), but I tentatively put some in, in pencil, after explaining to M that it was my most prized possession and needed to be pulled in case of fire (my fiction books are obviously organized by last name.)

A Few Spoilers Below

One of my favorite parts of the book is the end, the "Historical Notes" which I didn't read for a few days after finishing the book the first time because I thought they were just the sort of boring notes that are sometimes included at the end of a book.  While the entirety of the preceding pages is from Offred's POV, suddenly the language and tone changes abruptly to some time in the future (the year 2195, actually) at a keynote session at a conference in Nunavit (Northern Canada) where is is revealed there are "Gilead" and "Caucasian" studies, those concepts being, presumably, inexistent by that time.  The speaker discusses the difficulty in authenticating the narrative (contained on a series of cassette tapes, in a bit of charming anachronism), and with what feels like agonizing academic distance, considering what we've just gone through with Offred, discusses the possible fates that awaited her, if indeed the tapes were truly authentic.

What jumped out at me this reading was how the male speaker, presumably of Inuit heritage (his name is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto), in the year 2195 (for fucksake), is still subtly undermining the female experience.  For example, he says that the title is a pun, "... having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail, that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats."  Similarly, he refers to "The Underground Femaleroad" as "The Underground Frailroad."  What Atwood does, again and again, is remind the reader there is no safe place. Inuit academics several hundred years in the future are not benevolent truth-tellers, they are just slightly sympathetic historians who crack dumb jokes. All women are not victims in this story - some women are the horrible propagators of terror and state-sponsored rape.

Throughout Offred's entire awful experience, her most violent reaction is to the sight of Aunt Lydia.  Not learning about her mother's death, not watching a child taken straight from a women's vagina to another woman, not seeing people hanging in the streets or the nauseating "Salvaging" in which the handmaids are forced to share complicity with netted punishment.  "I've begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit."  That's what the sight of Aunt Lydia does to her.  I think it's the active cruelty of Aunt Lydia to the handmaids, specifically as a woman to other women, that causes this visceral reaction in Offred.  Cruelty of women towards women is a not uncommon theme in Atwood's books, and it serves a cold reminder that, unfortunately, some women don't support their sisters they way they should.  The side-effects of a paternalist society, say I - although I'm not entirely sure Atwood would agree with me.  For a long time, Atwood was reticent to call herself or the book "feminist" (although I think she's finally come around on that) and she certainly doesn't like to refer to the book as "science fiction" but rather "speculative fiction."  Fair enough, she's 77 years old and she's written one of the greatest books of the 20th century.  She can do what she wants. 

No comments: