12 May 2017

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale

I had no intentions of blogging about this book because I read it
soooo long ago and I'm not nearly smart enough to be talking about it. However, Meghan suggested I write about it because of how relevant it's been in the media lately and after she said it it seemed like I was hearing Handmaid's Tale references everywhere. There's a new miniseries with Elizabeth Moss out based on the book that looks soooo good, and Emma Watson just announced this book to be the next for her book club, Our Shared Shelf... so here we are. It's a great piece of fiction, don't get me wrong, but I didn't want to beat a dead horse. Hopefully I'll have a fresh perspective on the book for you but likely not.

I used to really like reading Atwood writing. I specifically love her short stories, but I even liked her poetry and I'm not a poetry person. As a lit major in Canada, you're bound to find something of hers on some syllabus at some point... In my third year of University I was so excited because Atwood had accepted an invitation to speak to our arts program at Western but unfortunately, I found her to be very rude. She was not inspiring, and instead seemed a bit snobby, and discouraging to the many aspiring writers in the room. I told myself she must have been having a bad day, I hope that's true. Unfortunately since then I've been less excited about her work. I can hold a grudge with the best of them and I never forget. 

Would you look at this bad bitch of a woman? I wanted to love her so much.
Anyways- The Handmaid's Tale. I read this as part of the curriculum in high school, and also again in University. I remember loving it the first time I read it, it was so different from anything I'd read before. At one point I even made my MSN name "don't let the bastards grind you down". (I was badass in high school eh?) It's a dystopian novel set far in the future, and the reason you keep hearing about it is because all of the scary notions in the book are starting to seem more like a reality in the US right now. I don't know enough about politics to discuss them on the internet, so I won't continue to make parallels, but you're smart and can make them for yourself. 

The plot follows a woman named Offred who's a handmaid. Her name isn't Offred, but her 'commander' is named Fred and the handmaids are identified as of+commander's name. The handmaids are a product of the totalitarian govenment that has taken over in the United States, before this Offred was a regular woman with a husband and daughter. In this futuristic state, environmental damage has ruined fertility rates, so women who weren't as wealthy were turned into handmaids for rich men to rape during the right phase of their menstrual cycle. Offred was captured and made a handmaid when her and her family attempted to flee to Canada during the turn of the government. She has no clue what happened to her husband and daughter...The book flashes between the present, when Offred lives her life as a handmaid, and Offred reflecting on her past life before this government. There's a resistance, and an affair, and some other drama, but that's pretty much the just of it. I won't spoil the ending but I think it was perfect.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. 

'Keep calm', they said on television. 'Everything is under control.'

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed at home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could point your finger at... Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful.”

Complacency, is one of my favourite themes of this book that we discussed in school. The reason this totalitarian government was able to be in the first place is because the citizens were complacent. The government gaslit them into thinking the initial policies were for their own protection, and the next thing they knew, women were slaves. Women are written as being especially complacent. They all just do as they're told, let whoever penetrate them, and they always return home even when they've been out shopping alone, etc. The resistance that they talk about that some of the handmaids are a part of, was needed ages ago, before they were someone's property. The efforts are too late. In the context of what's going on today, this is so important. If we're complacent for the smaller things, the things that make us feel uncomfortable but that we're not quite willing to inconvenience ourselves for, things will undoubtedly get worse.

There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew.” 

I also really liked how Atwood was realistically sympathetic towards the men throughout the book, but I think I read this through Offred's lens and she was obviously suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. For example, Offred's commander begins to offer tiny affections to Offred. He takes her out to places she isn't technically allowed to go, lets her read magazines and plays Scrabble with her. It's his wife in this scenario that is oppressive to Offred. Offred's doctor is also sympathetic, and offers to impregnate Offred so she can stop being raped by her commander, noting that the commander himself is likely sterile from pollution as well. Even as I write this I'm aware of my own flaming Stockholm Syndrome, but I like that Atwood offered these humanities to the men. It would have been very easy to draw the line between the sexes and paint men as bad and women as good except this dichotomy is in itself unrealistic and unfair. We can see this in the percentage of white women who voted for Donald Trump last year. 

Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.” 

The final thing I'll talk about (because there are hundreds of things to talk about with this book and I'm not smart enough for most of them) is the relationship between Offred and her friends, specifically Moira and Ofglen. During the turn of the government Moira was captured the same as Offred, but chose to go work as a Jezebel (brothel/strip club type deal) rather than become someone's property. Ofglen is another handmaid who Offred frequently meets for shopping trips, but Ofglen is very involved in the resistance. I am 100% Offred in that I would never try to escape or resist because I have zero survival instincts and the fear of being caught/punished is enough to keep me docile for life, but I do like the way the three women are positioned against each other. Offred and Moira sit at sort of extreme ends of a spectrum and Ofglen in the middle... I won't ruin the ending for you but there's really no 'happy' ending for any of these three and I think that's the point. I think Atwood wrote each of these three characters to show this in a way, that it won't matter what you do or how you act- at a certain point, you're just fucked. There may be someone with a more positive interpretation of this novel, let me know if you find them.  

A still from the Hulu adaptation that I can't wait to watch... Liz Moss, Alexis Bledel and Joseph Fiennes are you kidding me?
This book is a very politically and sexually charged and I highly recommend studying it in an academic environment if you have the opportunity. Professors and other students will always have new things to offer that you didn't notice when you were reading it yourself. I'd recommend if you're out of school to join Emma Watson's book club so you can read it in a group format, which is likely the next best thing. Regardless of how you read it, I would highly recommend it if you're a more advanced reader. It's not a light, fluffy, romance novel and it's slow to get into (like most Atwood novels), but if you enjoy a more challenging read that makes you think critically about gender and politics, then you'll really appreciate it. 

A note to women- I think there is a common misconception that this book is going to make you feel empowered but you'll be very disappointed. If anything, I think the reason this book is so scary is because there's a real "nothing you can do" mentality about it. 

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