Friday, February 12, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale--Margaret Atwood

When I first read The Handmaid's Tale some 25 years ago, it had a profound effect on me. All these years later, I find that the basic message still holds true.

The novel is set in the not very distant future. The damage we have done to the environment has taken its toll on fertility rates, as well as the water and food supplies. Feminist mores of society have also become more extreme, adding to the drop in childbirth rates. An extremist group, feeling like a move away from traditionalist values is to blame for the ever-alarming direction society is moving in, enacts a coup and in one fell swoop violently guns down the members of Congress in session. Swift and immediate repercussions are the freezing of all bank accounts by women and halting of international travel. (Extreme reliance on technology in the society make this possible--everything, including money, is all automated.) The Constitution is suspended in order to 'enact emergency measures to stablize society.' In the blink of an eye, all systems are in place for a reversion to a completely patriarchal and near-dictatorial system of government.

In this new system, there is a distinct hierarchy designed to maintain patriarchal rule while simultaneously building back up the population. Those who are still fertile but are not considered worthy to be wives of the elite become Handmaids, vessels for the sole purpose of reproduction. Hearkening back to the Old Testament, the Handmaids' bodies are 'borrowed' for surrogacy by Commanders and their wives who are unable to have children. They are reduced to that basic biological function. Once they have successfully managed to produce a child, that child is given to the Commander and his wife to raise as their own.

Offred, the main character is one of these Handmaids. She is a former feminist, daughter of a feminist, and is now in service under her Commander. The society is ruled through such fear and intimidation that she dares not rebel, though her position is what one would consider degrading and subservient. The unexpected happens, though, when her Commander summons her for a clandestine meeting at night behind closed doors. What they do there Scrabble. The written word has been denied women in this society, as has free conversation. It turns out, this is what the Commander most misses about the old society--the ability to converse, engage in word play, enjoy verbal banter. He misses the emotional and intellectual connection that has been eradicated in this highly regulated, compartmentalized society. She learns, in her undercover meetings with the fairly high ranking Commander, the impetus for the coup, what they hoped to accomplish, what they still hope to attain in this newly restructured society.

Through the Commander, Atwood warns of extremism: extreme political views, extreme social views, extreme religious views, and extreme reliance on technology--all elements we battle in our own contemporary world. When one group superimposes its own singular viewpoint on others, everyone in society loses. Even those whose will is powerfully enforced will find that something is lost. The Commander says, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." He says this to justify the sacrifices made by some, presumably for the greater good. What he doesn't realize, though, is that he, too, has sacrificed something, and that what they thought was the greater good might not have been so after all.

A caveat: if you decide to pick up this book (and I think you should), be sure to read the Historical Notes at the end. I have recommended this book to friends and students many times and have realized that the notes at the end can be misleading. It looks like an addendum--perhaps Atwood's research notes. Many bypass this section as they might a preface or a forward. However, in this case, it is, in fact, part of the novel itself. If you don't read it, you haven't actually read the end of the book, and it does make a difference. Offred says in the novel, "Context is all," and here the Historical Notes, closing chapter in the book, give a new context that has bearing on the perspective of the rest of the novel.


1 comment:

  1. I first read this book at Donna's recommendation a few years ago. For me, this was one of those books that keeps you thinking a long time after you finish it. It wasn't high on my list of books I wanted to read and I wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been so highly recommended. Now it is on my list of favorites.