The Handmaid's Tale - May 2008 - Rolling Discussion.
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It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now...everything has changed.
Of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's dystopian, futuristic novel, New York Times editor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt warns, "It's a bleak world . . . how bleak and even terrifying we will not fully realize until the story's final pages."
Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the novel presents a totalitarian theocracy that has forced a certain class of fertile women to produce babies for elite barren couples. These "handmaids," who are denied all rights and are severely beaten if they are uncooperative, are reduced to state property. Through the voice of Offred, a handmaid who mingles memories of her life before the revolution with her rebellious activities under the new regime, Atwood has created a terrifying future based on actual events.
The significance of The Handmaid's Tale caused Publishers Weekly to write that it "deserves an honored place on the small shelf of cautionary tales that have entered modern folklore--a place next to, and by no means inferior to, Brave New World and 1984."
A Note to the Reader
Every book is a sort of mushroom cloud thrown up by a large substance of material that has been accumulating for a lifetime. I had long been interested in the histories of totalitarian regimes and the different forms they have taken in various societies; while the initial idea for The Handmaid's Tale came to me in 1981, I avoided writing it for several years because I was apprehensive about the results--whether I would be able to carry it off as a literary form.
In form, the book is a dystopia (negative utopia). A cognate of A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is the story of one woman's altered circumstances, presented as a first-person narrative novel.
The roots of the book go back to my study of the American Puritans. The society they founded in America was not a democracy as we know it, but a theocracy. In addition, I found myself increasingly alarmed by statements made frequently by religious leaders in the United States; and then a variety of events from around the world could not be ignored, particularly the rising fanaticism of the Iranian monotheocracy. The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about have--as noted in the "Historical Notes" at the end--been done before, more than once.
It is an imagined account of what happens when not uncommon pronouncements about women are taken to their logical conclusions. History proves that what we have been in the past we could be again.
1. What is your overall impression of the book? Were her characters credible?
2. Does the story have relevance today in 2008? What do you take away from the novel generally?
3. Margaret Atwood says she didn't set out to write a feminist novel, yet the Handmaid's Tale has indeed become a feminist classic. Why do you think this is? What, if anything, do you take away from the novel with regards to women's issues (if you are willing here, it would be interesting to note if you are a woman or a man).
4. Atwood explains that she was influenced by a fascination with totalitarian regimes when she wrote the novel. HERE'Sthe wikipedia entry on totalitarianism, if you're interested. How does Gilead maintain control of "nearly every aspect of public and private sectors"?
Please feel free to post whatever you like here. The questions are there to respond to if you find them interesting enough. There are some interesting questions in the reader's guide also, perhaps we can throw those out amidst the posts once we get rolling.
I've finished the book but will wait until after the 18th to post:-)
END YOUR POST WITH A QUESTION:
I was thinking of a way to promote discussion and how about this: in our initial posts where we talk about our responses and reactions to the novel (or our reviews), we end our posts with a question. Perhaps something we're still mulling over, like a 'what did you think of . . .' or 'what do you think this means. . .' The next poster can choose to answer it or not.
This was a reread, but each time I reread this book I find I have come to it differently, certainly older! The first time I read this novel, my response was entirely personal due to experience in the 70s with a similar fundamentalist mindset. It was frightening in so many ways. As I have grown away from that intense personal response I have really come to appreciate the novel on many levels. I include the book on this thread because its theme reaches beyond its United States setting.
This book was written in the early 1980s. Prior to this time, here in America we had been preoccupied with the Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostages abroad. There was growing unrest, protests by students, labor unions, and churches against apartheid in South Africa. There had been a rise of fundamentalism here in the 1970s and fundamental Christians were beginning to influence politics through Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. The 2nd wave of feminism was in full swing here. The 'Take Back the Night' march and rally, protesting violence against women, (mentioned in the book) happened in Europe in 1976 and 77, and subsequent rallies were held in the US in 1978. This is an oversimplification of history, but meant as a brief primer to some of the things that may have influences Atwood's tale. Add to this, Margaret Atwood's interest in totalitarian governments.
The book was published just as there was renewed interest in Orwell's 1984. It is also worth noting that V for Vendetta a dystopian graphic novel was written in the same period (there is another dystopia which I also usually include in this period, but the title escapes me at the moment).
Briefly, the book tells of one woman's experience as a 'handmaid' in the Republic of Gilead - which seems encompass most of the eastern US, and most of the story is set in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University. Offred, so named because she is 'of Fred', Fred's handmaid; is telling her own story after the fact. Gilead is an oppressive, fundamentalist republic. I don't want to give away too much of the story but it's clear Atwood was interested in the patterns of totalitarianism and theocracy. One cannot read this without thinking of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, the Iran revolution, and even the New England Puritans.
As with most dystopian novels, the story plays out a 'what if?' scenario extrapolating from then current social and political trends. It is still scarily revelant now, imo.
Atwood did not set out to write a feminist novel, it was really totalitarianism and theocracy she was interested in writing about; but what she has written has also become a feminist classic. If I had to pick just one watershed novel that powerfully influenced my life, this would be it.
Question: What did you think of the very last line in the novel?
Well, avaland and I exhanged this message already in another group so, I'll pick up on her question.
"Are there any questions?" This last line started my mind racing, as the last section of the book, detailing an archeological or sociological discussion of Offred's account, carried a darker and more frightening aura than the rest of the story. Obviously, Offred's account is dark and frightening and filled with anxiety but as the "scholars" pontificate on her story, the historical setting, and the culture/politics/society of her time, their comments drip with condescension and a 'holier than thou' attitude. My mind spun, connecting this mind set to the mind set of those who created Gilead. I began to wonder how Gilead fared, how this new society arose, and whether the new was better than the old. Perhaps this was the point. Perhpas the message is that 'there is no new thing under the sun' and while the form of repression and the types of control may vary through the years, the underlying desire to conquer people's thoughts and actions runs constant in some portion of all society.
Now, as to my thoughts on the book, I should qualify my statement with a note that this is my first reading. I am a fan of dystopian stories and have read a few before but never this one. Having said that, my thoughts about the book fell to a much more personal and individual level. While the feminist and political messages were obvious to me, I found myself much more intrigued by the delicate balance of the relationships between each of the primary characters. Each of them seemed to be constantly struggling for the upper hand in their dealings with Offred. The Commander, his wife, Nick, and Moira all attempt to control Offred's thoughts, decisions, and behavior, each using a different method, some more passive, some more aggressive. And, while Gilead's society is set up for thought and behavior control, each of these people, whether they agree with the societal conditions or not, uses the same methods but on a micro or individual level. So, for me, the message was that the Gilead society simply mirrored the desire in individuals to control those in their personal lives. In other words, for me, the novel commented on personal relationships and the play for power in them by magnifying that dynamic to a societal level.
Now for my question. What do you make of the fact that Moira, who fights back, seems to be on the road to destruction, and Offred, who seems to meet everything with passivity, eventually escapes?
(A confession - most of my comments here are duplicated in previous threads on this book and in my review, since I didn’t have the chance to re-read the book, but I really wanted to participate.)
One of the most interesting things about the book for me was that many of the women in the novel thought about the changes that led to their present condition in very ambivalent terms. Many of them - I think of Offred's mother trying to ban pornography - had campaigned for these changes, before they realized what they really meant. Women became protected from things they used to fear, like rape and pornography - so there was an element of paternalism in all this, coming from both women and men. I guess its hard to know if these changes were actually introduced with a benevolent intent or if this was all just a smokescreen, but clearly women became oppressed and objectified in new and different ways under the regime.
I was especially intrigued by the portrayal of the main character's husband because although he is not one of the men who is directly involved in taking away women's rights, he is not exactly a fighter for these rights. The narrator feels that when her financial rights are taken away and her money is controlled by her husband, he kind of likes it. He also suggests to her that the changes are just temporary, she should just wait it out, and discourages her from participating in protests against the oppression of women because he thinks it won't do any good. I just couldn't shake the feeling that he was not really as a nice a guy as she sometimes thought he was. The kicker for me was when he killed their cat so that it wouldn't give away their attempt to escape to Canada - I am a rabid animal-lover and that sealed the deal for me. He was too willing to sacrifice the weak & helpless in the service of some greater "good."
While I didn't think the message of the novel was anti-men, it sort of suggested that men as a class were kind of all the same - willing to sacrifice women's privileges as long as they themselves were not harmed. Even the relatively benign men were all too willing to become 'guardians.' But the book also shows how men eventually come under the system and find themselves oppressed by it - the restrictions on which men can reproduce, etc. Although I don't want reflect on everything that happens to the women in this book through its impact on men, I thought was a good choice. It enriched the book by showing the horrible bargain that they had all made - some willingly, some unwillingly.
Completely apart from the plot/themes of this book, I loved it on a structural level. I think I almost loved the narrative tricks more than the plot itself, which just tells you what a grad school geek I was at the time I read it. I loved how the narrator gradually became more self-conscious about her role in shaping the story & about her role as an intermediary between the events and the reader. Later, she starts completely making up different scenarios for how an event happened, admitting that it didn't actually happen that way or that it would be nice if she could say it had, but it didn't. This killed me - I loved it! As a fan of ambiguous endings, I really appreciated that Atwood left the ending so unresolved. I appreciated that there was no pretty story at the end, no big revolution, no epic showdown. It just wouldn't have worked in a novel where everyone seemed so resigned to the current state of things, despite their knowledge that things had once been different. The understated tone reminded me a bit of Never Let Me Go, which I also really enjoyed.
I LOVED the final portion of the book - it was an awesome twist. At first I did not understand what I was reading. But then I got it and I loved it. I liked how this was sort of an "outside" voice that could fill in objective, historical details about Gilead in a way that Offred could not necessarily do, since an insider does not see her situation in the same was as a later outside might. I loved how the story came to be (not being more specific for fear of spoilers). It throws the whole narrative into question, which is fascinating to me because I am a huge geek. Really unexpected and cool. I loved how it ended.
Now after all this babbling, I still have to answer blackdogbooks' question, which is a really challenging one to me. The revelation that there was a whole class of women who were kept around for the sexual gratification of men - and that Moira, the protagonist's longtime friend, was one of them - also revealed that they continued to be objectified in the old ways. This was also interesting in light of the whole virgin-whore dichotomy that sometimes gets talked about in feminist circles - these men were so obsessed that they created actual classes of women to embody the hierarchy. Women were either for marrying, reproducing, or pleasure - no one women was allowed to play all these roles. In their own ways, Moira and Offred each bought into the system by playing one of the roles that society deemed acceptable for them. So I guess I don’t see them as all that different. I think maybe what helped Offred to escape was that she eventually came to see herself as a victim of the system, whereas Moira saw herself as having “beaten” the system, even though she really hadn’t. Offred wanted to escape, Moira didn’t. Apologies if this is cheating, I know I didn’t really answer the question exactly…..
Finally, my question: Do you think Atwood’s messages about freedom, rights, and control have a larger (i.e., not specifically feminist) resonance in the year 2008? Does the novel serve as a warning? If so, what is it warning us about?
There are a couple of things that have always struck me about Handmaid’s Tale, as opposed to many other dystopia novels. For instance, it is one of the only ones where the narrator has an adult memory of the time before-the next closest I can recall is Winston Smith in 1984, and he was a child when Big Brother took over. Offred has memories of an affair, marriage, work, protests, a child, reading, money-all of these everyday things that most dystopic protagonists are missing. This, I think, gives us a clearer view of how bad things are in the beginning of a theocratic takeover, but also how little will be done by the populace to stop it. It's also one of the few that has a woman as the main character, especially a woman who isn't fighting. In Jennifer Government and The Traveler, there are leading women, but they are gun-weilding butt-kickers. Offred just is. She's the embodiment of the "Don't call me a feminist" feminist-she appreciates what her mother has done for women, but wishes she'd just shut up and bake cookies once in a while.
When I was in high school, my history teacher used to bemoan us “Gen-X slackers” who would never protest anything, saying we were weak because we didn’t have a war. I think about her when I read this (and whenever I hear-or rather don’t hear-about protests to the current war; not as if there are a whole lot of outspoken Boomers out there). I think about the passivity with which the whole country accepted the changes brought on by the new government and compare it with the US PATRIOT Act. Sure, that’s a tiny thing in comparison, but it’s not too hard to see a parallel. (and that's my answer to Fanny's question about larger warnings.)
As for writing a feminist novel or not-Atwood took the paternalism (maternalism?) of the extreme side of feminism and used it as a weapon against them. Hoisted on their own petard, you might say. Aunt Lydia says “In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now it’s freedom from. Don’t underestimate it.” (This may be from the movie, by the way.) She says this while showing them snuff films, bondage movies, and other images of degrading pornography, in addition to reels from “Take Back the Night” campaigns. I think this shows that maternalism at work-we know what’s good for you and we know what’s bad for you. There is no way you could possibly want anything to do with any of this (even though bondage and rape fantasies are among the most popular non-vanilla fantasies for women), so we’ll remove anything that could possibly lead to it. And then comes the flood of sexual harassment seminars and rape whistles. It made the work of the religious right that much easier. The amazing thing to me is that she wrote this before political correctness and the feminist backlash or the Contract with America came about. She forecasted and extrapolated what strange bedfellows these sides can make when they focus too much on any one issue and try to tell half the population that they know what’s best for them.
But she does a number of small things that reflect things that feminists talked about (which I only know from reading and hearsay-my generation of feminists is different from the pre-Handmaid’s Tale generation). Doctors are no longer participants in birth, though they are part of every step before birth. Breast milk is best. Sunbathing is bad. Live in a primarily female world. Men only want women for sex and babies. (When I read about Jezebels, I think about a line from some random gangster movie. One man is explaining why he has a wife whom he loves, and a mistress who’ll do things with him: “Are you kidding me; she kisses my kids with that mouth?!)
Interestingly enough, the people who live in this book are ones who believe the least. Offred seems fairly agnostic to me and Nick works for the resistance-neither believe in the cause of Gilead or in the Christian God (or at least, not in the same way the Eyes and Commanders do). Even the Marthas seem uninterested in the religious realm. For how important the Bible is to this society, I hear more Christ-talk in my daily life now. No one talks about God’s Will or God’s Plan, planning for the End Days, or anything like that. I don’t know if it’s because she didn’t feel comfortable writing religious-speak (she does so rarely), or if that was on purpose. It’s the Quakers who help runaways, nuns who won’t renounce their vows, the Commander Fred-the true believers who really suffer in this book.
As with most sci-fi and dystopia, I think Atwood is speaking mostly to the need for moderation. But she also speaks to the need to monitor your rights-not necessarily protest. Protest seems to be a fruitless endeavor in the Atwood universe. More like constant vigilance.
But I think one of Atwood's strenghts as a writer is that she can bring out things to make us hate the weaknesses and inconsistencies in her characters (and make us find something endearing about the antagonists) to remind us that it's never so black and white, and that we have things about ourselves we'd hate to see in writing, too.
Has this book effected how you view pregnancy, childbirth or fertility at all?
To kaelirenee's question: my view of reproduction hasn't changed - rather, Atwood affirms my belief in the strength of the desire of a great many men to control women and their reproduction. The book is still quite timely.
I'm interested in fannyprice's notes on the structural aspects of the novel. I noticed that speech is sometimes related in the usual way of fiction, with double quotes around what is spoken, and sometimes not. E.g., the Commander's Wife to Offred on p. 14:
You might as well come in, she said. She turned her back on me and limped down the hall. Shut the door behind you.
Normally we'd expect to see two sets of open/close quotes there, and there are none. But sometimes quotes are used. I was thinking that Atwood uses the normal quoting style for speech where people are connecting with, not manipulating or commanding other people. When Serena Joy starts to scheme with Offred about impregnation via Nick, she sometimes speaks in true quotes. But that pattern doesn't always seem to fit - when the doctor offers to impregnate Offred, he gets quotes. So my question: what is the difference Atwood is using to determine when to use quotes? What does that tell us?
Please do no misunderstand; I do think Atwood's story has feminist themes, I just think that to focus on those to the exclusion of the other themes is too myopic
And accepting this doesn't make the book any less important in a feminist framework either. Understanding that even when one group is perceived to be in complete control over another, they still have to follow (or break and risk great punishment for) strict rules of conduct and thought is an important lesson. It's speaking against any kind of totalitarianism-matriarchal or patriarchal.
Somewhere I read that she said that in a totalitarian government the women suffer first - or something like that, so the story, at least in part, becomes about the oppression of Offred as a woman. Certainly in our own society as women have broken out of rigid gender roles, men have reaped the benefits of that also. It gives them the freedom to step out of their traditional roles also. And certainly gender roles are a way that power gets distributed. I think the novel is first about power and the maintenance of that power through control.
Another question to play with. There seems to be a variety of handmaids presented in the book from Janine to OffGlen to Moira (Red Centre rebel escapee) to Offred, why did Atwood choose Offred to tell the story?
For someone who was raised as a "strict agnostic" (her words), her knowledge of the Bible and Christian beliefs is amazingly vast and complex. Better than lots of Christians I know who go to church regularly.
Serena Joy was a famous & influential activist before and during the changes who campaigned for many of the changes that were made and then found all her power taken away by those changes. Delicious irony there too. Women against women....
Also, in a larger sense, there is not really any sense of "sisterhood" amongst the women in this novel, even among those who share the same plight. The suffering of the handmaids isolates them from each other, rather than uniting them against the system. Women from different "classes" (for lack of a better word) see each other as rivals and reminders of their own lack of wholeness (handmaids are allowed to reproduce, but not mother; wives are allowed to mother, but not to experience sex; women like Moira are for sex and nothing else). Every interaction, regardless of gender, involves the possibility of betrayal. The more I think about this, the more it becomes curious to me that this has become such an archetypical "feminist" novel. Perhaps its because I am thinking simplistically and expecting that a "feminist" novel would have all the women be good and all the men be bad. Its a credit to Atwood that she wrote a novel that is so much more complex than that.
Fanny-I love some of your comments about women vs women in this books. I'd thought of it a little bit with the Aunts (and how brilliant it was to have Aunts train the Handmaids, not Eyes), but never really considered the length to which it went in Gilead. This is why I love bookchatting with other people! Your comments remind me of the conversation Offred has with Fred, in which he mentions that in the time before, women wore different outfits. Now that women have to wear the same clothes, men have different women. Rather than wearing different hats (figuratively and literatlly) a man has many different women. This is heightened in significance by the inclusion of the EconoWives, who wear dresses striped to signify that they are Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas all rolled into one.
I sometimes wonder what will happen when women no longer know anything different in this world (though with the May Day group and all the other resistance, chances are slim that they'd have that chance)-Aunt Lydia had mentioned that it won't be as difficult for those who have never known a different world. I wonder then where they will get Handmaids from. Just from fertile lesbians? If women are more used to Gilead, will they still try to run? If not, then that's a huge number of women who won't be available to become Handmaids.
So, that's my question: After the initial crush of out lesbians, nuns, and fugitives wanes away, where do you think they will get Handmaids from? Will they just start recruiting fertile women? Poor women? Or do you think crime (or rather, crime that isn't punishable by death) will still be high?
Scratch brings up a good point. Names and naming. What effect does taking away the handmaids' real names have? Naming something bestows power on it or gives it legitimacy. Names also define and lay claim to something.
And speaking of May Day, doesn't that have a double meaning? 1. warning call sign 2. a celebration of fecundity around a phallic symbol.
I was also struck by the idea that later generations would not know anything different. Maybe that's more a hope of the rulers than reality? I read Marjane Satrapi's The Complete Persepolis right after The Handmaid's Tale - it's Satrapi's memoir, in the form of a graphic novel, of growing up during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Satrapi sees a similar difference between herself, a ten-year-old in 1980 who hated having the veil imposed upon her, and younger people who did not remember the old regime. However, resistance to the strict Islamic code has continued to this day, especially among the young, apparently. So people find ways to learn about freedoms they've never had.
Wonder where all our other readers are?
Here are some of the little bits I marked.
Lilies used to be a movie theater, before. Students went there a lot; every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall of Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (p. 25, hardcover US edition).
122. You young people don't appreciate things, she'd say. You don't know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don't you know how many women's lives, how many women's bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?
154/55 They get sick a lot, these Wives of the Commanders. It adds interest to their lives. . . .They take turns. There is some sort of list, invisible, unspoken. Each is careful not to hog more than her share of the attention.
177 Offred recounts being let go from her job.
We stood in a cluster, on the steps outside the library. We didn't know what to say to one another. Since none of us understood what had happened, there was nothing much we could say. We looked at one another's faces and saw dismay, and a certain shame, as if we'd been caught doing something we shouldn't.
It's outrageous, one woman said, but without belief. What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?
227 Offred re: relationships
If you don't like it, change it, we said, to each other and to ourselves. And so we would change the man, for another one. Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves
230 The Commander has given Offred the costume to put on.
Yet there's an enticement in this thing, it carries with it the childish allure of dressing up. And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free. Freedom, like everything else, is relative.
edited to fix typos.
Atwood has said this novel is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. That's an amusing irony to those who are familiar with the very liberal town affectionately known as The People's Republic of Cambridge.
So I think Lilies is probably the Brattle Theater, a mainstay art-house movie theater which is still open in the present, DVD/download era.
122. You young people don't appreciate things, she'd say. You don't know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don't you know how many women's lives, how many women's bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?
This line has always struck me in particular. My grandmother was big in the second wave feminist movement-to hear her tell it, she never did anything in the late sixties but burn her bras. Me being a stay at home mom for two years and then a librarian (oh the shame-a pink-collared job) has always annoyed her to no end. I was suppose to be the standard bearer for the new wave of feminists. And in a way I am, but I don't feel the need to fight the way she did. I think Atwood had the foresight to see the new generation of women accepting the work of the previous generation without having their own battles and being annoyed at how combative they seem to be-and to see the strife it would cause between the two groups. This was just starting in the early 80s and has only gotten stronger in the meantime.
Re: the same passage (122). I think here is one of the places that shows Atwood is talking about more than feminism/women as we have discussed earlier. Offred's mother goes on to say that at one time a man who loved to cook would've been called 'queer' not so long ago (I had a cousin who went through this repeatedly in his adolescence and young adulthood...). By containing women in distinct roles, does it then require men to play other corresponding roles to make it all work? (in Gilead).
At Fred's level in the patriarchy, work consists mainly of political maneuvering to advance his and his faction's interests. Stressful, but not heavy lifting. Fred's disgraced at the end, and it's clear that this will impact the household - I think Serena may get taken in by the other Wives, but Cora and Rita are probably going to experience a sharp drop in standard of living.
Ah, but what your grandmother may not recognize is that these were your choices. And besides, think of the fact that you probably raised two children with good values who will make the world a better place. And that librarians instill kids with a love of reading and provide access to books. How can that possibly not be feminist? :)
I was talking to my mom about the librarian thing today-apparently, since I'm an academic librarian, I'm OK, but I'd be in trouble if I were a children's librarian-which almost makes me want to become a children's librarian. LOL
I talk quite a bit with our women's studies professor about the different waves of feminism and the differences between my generation and my mother and grandmother's-it's apparently a very big topic in feminist studies circles. I think some of the discussions between Offred and her mom or Moira foreshadow this really well-so well, I sometimes forget this book was written when I was 5 and the "backlash" hadn't really started. Already, her mother was an anachronism, already women were taking her fight for granted but none of them knew how to fight when they really needed to and just watched their rights escape from them. I think this is why it's often called a feminist dystopia-not because women take control or because it shows how feminism did great things, but because it's such a cautionary tale about taking rights for granted and not really fighting for the important things for women.
I don't think we've talked yet about the whole fertility-infertility thing in the book. I think that is a really interesting theme that seems to come up in a lot of futuristic or dystopian stories. Why do you think Atwood chose to use infertility, instead of convenience or vanity on the part of the wives (not wanting to gain weight, get stretch marks, something like that) as the reason for the class of Handmaids existing? The fact that a whole group of people became unable to reproduce suggests that at least some of the social structure in place in the novel was a (rather misguided) response to real fears that people had that their society would be wiped out & not just the fact that all the men were unfeminist jerks.
However, I did notice that when she was considering the daughters who were getting married, or maybe it was considering a gaurd, she'd mentioned that when he gets to be a high enough rank, he'll get a handmaid of his own. I don't recall them saying it was only if she couldn't get pregnant.
I think the infertility thing also could have been influenced from reports that fertility rates in men have been falling. I don't remember when those started being issued but it's possible that could've also influenced the story (I know this was the influence of P. D. James's Children of Men, published in 1992). But also, as you say fanny, it is indeed a fairly common thing in futuristic stories.
I took a women's studies class in the 90s when I was in my 40s. There was another woman in her late 30s but the rest of the class were all in their early 20s. The chasm between the two of us and the rest of the class was incredible. While the younger group would say things like, 'oh, yeah, my mother told me about that" but had no real understanding or appreciation about how their freedom to choose so much came about. I was horrified at how much they took for granted and how they didn't realize how easily it could be taken away again (I'm talking not just about reproductive rights, but choices in education, jobs, motherhood or not...etc.). There are people out there willing to take away our choices in the name of protection, in the name of making our lives easier...etc. Still, I have to say, none of my feminist friends or even ones I have met here on LT resemble the kind of militant feminist stereotype that gets bandied about (of course, if a woman demands what any man might demand in a situation, they often get lumped into that category).
"Puritanism is the protest of one stage of civilization against a later stage at which itself in turn is bound to arrive. It is a confusion of language to speak of one spirit as ousting another or to describe progress in any way that implies more than one agent. Change in matters of thought is not wrought by the action of a thing upon another thing. there is but one thing. The common intellect of our race. Whatever dissensions arise are only the result of some portion of the great progressive organism getting ahead of the rest, or pulling contrary to the general direction of development. The chameleon similie is nearest the truth. Whatever the momentary colour may change to, the same beast is beneath all the while. When Luther was at loggerheads with Rome, he was fighting with a portion of himself that he left behind." - Out West, His Journals and Letters by Owen Wister
While I don't necessarily agree with every sentiment expressed here (ie, how is the direction of the great progressive organism directed?), the cyclical, or perhaps spiraling, nature of civilization is a thought I have been mulling over a lot recently. Reading Darkness at Noon and Handmaid's Tale in short order helped such notions bubble to the top. the reviewing anthropological committee at the end of Atwood's story and Keostler's hero suffering the same fate he inflicted on other revolutionaries are examples of such thought. Koestler's hero even gives voice to this thought, agonizing over his countries cycles.
On a side note, Wister's journals are beautifully written and are one of my favorite reads and discoveries in the last couple of years. Such thoughts as recounted above are matched with wonderful descriptions of the frontier West and those who live there.
#45: Whatever the momentary colour may change to, the same beast is beneath all the while. In The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), a once-free female populace is enslaved and then ultimately freed again. I believe that a minority group -- women, blacks, homosexuals, whoever – may gain its right to live as free as the power brokers, but only a few decades of lost vigilance can allow the oppression to return. The lesson here is that we need to leave a stick in the doorway to keep it open. The Orange Prize, Affirmative Action, quotas, whatever – these initiatives prevent the door from closing after the agitators move on. I was horrified by the conference at the end of the book when everyone laughed at the phrase, “The Underground Frailroad.” That was the sound of a door closing once again.
#11: The idea of men providing protection is a powerful element of the Muslim issue as it concerns women. My experience with many Muslim men in Pakistan was that they adored and respected their wives and mothers, and were driven to protect and thus confine them through the noblest emotions.
The question keeps coming up: what is feminism? As a Boomer feminist, I simply wanted to be respected as a woman. I wanted choices, and believed that when women took their rightful places in business and politics, we would see a change in the way business was carried out. Today, we are often respected only when we mimic men. That makes a woman’s freedom rather precarious, as there is a biological element that may not always fit that model. And we may not always do the world a favor by packing heat, following the Tomb Raider prototype. Maybe we need to define our own feminism, one by one, and support others doing the same. Does Atwood address this by making her protagonist an individual with no agenda, no definition of what constitutes a strong female, or an appropriate female role? Ultimately, she can only define that for herself.
#26,29: What happens after? I love that question, because it is wonderful and scary to see what happens after a war is forgotten. One thing I believe from observation is that ordinary people will sooner or later demand to be heard. They cannot be oppressed indefinitely, even if the memory of freedom is lost. Other observations:
The Wooden Camera, a South African film, shows the bright side of forgetting the past. Three kids redefine their lives without reference to the bitter shadow of apartheid.
Two examples of the dark side, from my teaching life (both in a prestigious American private school):
*Teaching Night to 9th graders: many had never heard of the Holocaust before, and challenged me to prove it was true. A few stubbornly refused to believe it.
*I asked senior film students to comment on the implications of an MTV image of a woman on all fours, scantily clad, wearing a dog collar, her leash held by a man. Not one student could imagine that the image implied anything at all.
#43: I agree that the architects of the regime in THT could have had a conversation about finding a Biblical argument for mistresses, meanwhile convincing themselves that this would serve society’s needs. Isn’t that the definition of abuse of power? Consider how those in power sold the Iraq war, kept the Viet Nam war going, murdered Jews, or protected abusive priests. All those efforts were supported by lies claimed/believed (by their authors) to protect the greater good, while also serving selfish desires.
Last note, if you get this far. :-) I read THT near the same time I read The Blind Assassin. I believe they are both about the oppression of women by a society’s rules and regulations. The latter had a more powerful effect on me, however, because the characters and their world were so real, so personal.
I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner, but it's on YouTube. I just searched "Bill Moyers" and "Margaret Atwood". Or see if this link works:
People in the Handmaid's Tale, but especially women, are de-humanised, seen not as fully-fleshed out people, but as the functions they perform. Taking away of the names of the Marthas & the Handmaids is part of this. When a new handmaid comes, she is given the name "Offred", as if she is just a replacement of the previous girl. This maybe makes it easier for the Commanders, their wives & others to keep up the way of life, as the Handmaids are not people with feelings, histories, desires; they just perform a function, and if this "Offred" goes, she will just be replaced by another.
The ending was very powerful for me. I had seen the historical notes, and had assumed it was an author's note, about where the ideas came from. I had to read the beginning a few times to get what was happening. This gave the preceeding story the air of accuracy and history. I saw similarities to memoirs of survivors of political regimes, in that someone has experienced something horrific and has written about their experiences in a very powerful and moving way. It ends up becoming something intellectual, and not someone's life. I suppose it becomes a bit de-humanising again. The writers of the original document (Offred or the subject of biographies) are sometimes not seen as flesh & blood people by those studying them but as functions, the things they do.
The distinction between freedom from and freedom to is very powerful. Today the word freedom seems to be used in situations that are more about controlling others, or getting them to think or live your way.
ETA: to make more sense
Freedom is quite a subjective term. Freedom to and freedom from are both freedom of some sort. When governments start freeing us from things, they usually stop us from being free to do things as well. In the Handmaid’s Tale, although the women were free from rape, they were not free to make any choices about their own reproductive health. This doesn’t really seem much like freedom to me.
I don't think those in authority in the Handmaid's Tale were really concerned with the freedom of women, but used it as an excuse to control them and make them afraid.
I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale at least a few days ago, but I wanted to wait a little bit to let it sink in before I wrote my review. It was my first completed book in 2011, and it was a very powerful book.
This book can be read as a dystopian book, or it can be read as a political warning (almost a satire, but a little dark for that even). I will try to avoid spoilers. Some events has happened that has lead to war, and has also lead women to lose virtually all of their rights. They are however protected from being attacked. (Freedom from rather than freedom to). The story is told from the point of view of one ‘Handmaid’ during the middle of her experience. Therefore we find out bits of what happened to cause this situation in retrospect which helps to soften it a bit, at least for me. There are various classes of women, she is a Handmaid, or a woman who is still fertile, and is essentially shuttled between married couples who cannot have children (for mating purposes). With virtually no rights (Reading, socializing etc) boredom is a very large part of her life, and she takes pleasure in the smallest of details.
I was initially worried that this book would be to dark for me. Despite having a dystopian category, I am somewhat of a wuss. (Therefore having this category forces me to read through these books!). While this novel is dystopian it is not gritty in a sort of ‘rip the flesh of your bones’ zombie sort of a way. I also appreciated that it was broken up into manageable pieces. By that I mean that there are short sections on various parts of the past, short sections on the present, on her thoughts, etc. This means that it is not a depressing read, but it is a very powerful one.
Parts of the novel were even quite funny. The scrabble part made me laugh out loud in the middle of the airport. Several passer-by’s probably think I am insane. Oh well. It’s a free country.
What makes this novel stick with me so much is not only how ludicrous it appears, but also how realistic. You could very easily see *some* of these things happening. When you consider the ban the American army has on reading sections of the New York times, banning some reading is not implausible etc. What I am saying is that this books makes you want to play closer attention to things politically and not take freedoms for granted. The restrictions came suddenly after a shooting at congress. I finished this book a few days before the shooting took place on the weekend… it is really making me take a closer look at how politicians etc can use fear. If you are not generally a dystopian fan I think you would still very much enjoy this book if you are at all interested in politics or feminism. FIVE STARS.
Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PubyDwbNqYA
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj05QxebnC4
Warning … John Green and his crew are not everyone's cup of tea, but I found him informative and amusing, and have watched several of the episodes on Crash Course Literature, Crash Course Theatre, Crash Course Mythology, etc. which might make many 'high brow' scholars cringe. Each to his/her own. My own experience saw all four of my children in high school all at the same time, so these 'highlight reels' were helpful in getting us out of the gate when it came time to English and Drama classes. My only real complaint is that John mispronounces Nunavut. =(
Yes, he's that John Green, author of; Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking For Alaska, Turtles All The Way Down, etc. so obviously his style as a teacher and writer of YA is tailored to that niche. Fortunately for the over 50 crowd, he can also be appealing to us, removing or sorting some of the more daunting content of these intimidating works of literary art.
He also seems to think that Margaret Atwood's Twitter account is the only one worth following because she is as searing and dry witted 'in person' as she is in print. An all around genius. Nice stamp of approval.