Reading & Reviewing: The Handmaid’s Tale

Oh, hi.

You may have noticed that the title of this isn’t about my writing journey. And, sadly, it turns out that taking a writing course doesn’t leave that much time for it. As of now I’ve not got any deals offered to me, but will get on it as soon as I have more time.

Given the time constraints, why did I think that now would be a good time to write a blog post? My friends, I have absolutely no idea why I do what I do, and I think the sooner you remember that, the better. (OK, so technically, there was some planning to the timing of this but I’ll get onto that at the end…)

We’re back with another book review, and here I’ll be reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the book I read before the one I’m currently slogging through. Why am I slogging through it? Again, timing. It is in itself an enjoyable read, but y’know…

But what about the one I’m reviewing today? Is it any good? Well, yes. It is. But that conclusion took a while to come to even as I was reading.

The book, or at least its concept, doesn’t need that much introduction. It sort of established itself to me as one the ‘Big Three’ of dystopian fiction that really defined the genre in its modern form, along with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – high praise indeed, given how much these books I hadn’t read cemented themselves as defining points in the genre. As of the time of writing this, I still haven’t read the other two, which has probably earned me a little booing from the non-existent crowd of onlookers.

For those not familiar with it, or at least want a more definitive overview, the book’s premise is essentially this:

Set at an undisclosed point in the near future, the United States government has been overthrown in a coup by ‘The Sons of Jacob’, a group of totalitarian Christian fundamentalists, who manage to keep a low profile to begin with, allowing them to slowly chip away at human rights until we enter the world we see at the beginning of the novel. In the newly formed Republic of Gilead, sex is ruthlessly controlled, particularly for women, who are assigned very particular roles in life, denoted by colour-coded dresses. The Handmaids are the caste given the most focus, and is the group our protagonist belongs to, coded by now iconic red dresses. Fertility is apparently a huge problem in this future, and the official policy of The Sons of Jacob is that male infertility does not exist – all fertility problems are the fault of barren wives. To get over this, the Sons have allowed the caste of Handmaids to engage in ritualistic sex with married men (though always with the wives present) in order to produce children that will legally belong to married couple and not the Handmaid – they provide Biblical justification for this as well, with the cases of Abraham and his wife’s handmaid Hagar (Genesis 16:2) and Jacob and both of his wives’ handmaids (Genesis 30:3, 9). I say handmaids, but to be honest, slave is a more accurate term. As is the case with the Handmaids in this story. Our protagonist goes by the name of Offred, although that is not her real name, as her Handmaid status means she’s only designated a name based on the man she’s assigned to (Offred=Of Fred, you see?) We get to see the world of Gilead through her eyes and her thoughts of the world that came before it.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about this book is the nature of our protagonist, who’s birth name is never revealed. She manages to be both incredibly dull, boring, and irritating, and intriguing, engaging and worth reflection at the same time. I say this with the recognition that she is meant to be – and the book’s epilogue backs up this interpretation – something of an unreliable narrator. Not that she’s lying about the situation she’s in, but rather her perspective is limited, self-centred, and to be honest, feels kind of suppressed. The situation she’s in certainly does elicit sympathy, but not much else. You increasingly get the feeling there’s many more characters in this piece you’d much rather hear about – take Moira, Offred’s best friend, who’s story is mostly told in flashbacks. She’s openly gay and was active in feminism before Gilead asserted itself, and that in itself is enough to engage a great deal of interest, and an opportunity for a window into the lives of queer people, feminists (and indeed queer feminists) in countries that suppress women and the LGBT community wholesale, theocracies being no slouch on that front. But instead, we spend most of our time with this rather unassertive straight woman. It’s enough to frustrate you, but then you realise it may well be the point. I mean, this is a frustrating situation, and not everyone has the means, capability or motivation to resist when the need arises, so it’s possible that you were meant to feel that hopelessness too – it’s not as if the hopeless tone isn’t felt throughout the book. In case Gilead thinks you have too much hope, they suppress that too by displaying the hanged corpses of political/religious dissidents, or just those they deem too sinful, in public, changing them daily so you don’t get too used to it.

The fact is, there a lot of characters in this book who’s stories we don’t hear, and that’s because Offred never heard them herself. Once again, the book is driving home the limits of one life and the frustrations that can result when you’re in, to put it mildly, a bit of a pinch.

And the way this was executed actually led to me to repeatedly question how well it was executed. Several times, I changed my mind on how much we’re supposed to like Offred, or how much of an ideal figure she was meant to represent. My final answer is that – she’s not meant to be an ideal at all. She’s meant to represent helplessness and be the victim of her circumstances. What makes me so sure about this? Well, the most obvious answer is that she simply never does anything.

I’ve seen ineffective protagonists before, and sometimes they’ll end up doing a lot of passive things in the time you spend with them (which, given they are the protagonist, is not surprising), but they’ll never make any active contributions to the plot. They’ll almost always have things done for them rather than take initiative themselves. Offred is this in spades. One of the biggest frustrations she offered to me was how many times her thoughts wandered to her bloody ex-husband. Hey, what gives? I thought this was supposed to be a definitive piece of feminist fiction, and all she’s doing is thinking in adoartion about the men who have dictated her life? (Not an entirely inaccurate description the more you read about their past together.) As for having things done for her, it has to be said that it’s not just the men of the story who do that, although they definitely do. Indeed, another one of the biggest frustrations this story had to me was, trying not to give too much away, was when another female character offered a very significant olive branch to Offred and she REFUSED, partially because of the sex she was at that moment having and the weird emotions that resulted from it. I made me want to holler at Offred and tell her how ridiculous she was being, but then again, she’s only human, and sometimes humans will go with their gut instinct in situations, something she readily admits herself. Worth noting is how the women who step beyond their boundaries for Offred (or around her, at least) never get away with it, being condemned either by Offred’s narrative, or by the ruthless powers in control of Gilead. The men who do the same, on the other hand? Nothing. They get away with it more or less perfectly. Again, deliberate? I can’t help but feel so. The story’s epilogue takes place at the end of the 22nd century, where a male historian is giving his opinion of Offred’s life as described in the book, and spends a great deal time speculating on the motivations of the men involved rather than trying to empathize with her.

This book’s frustrations may well be the best thing about it. The fact that I can read a work of feminist fiction and feel that the protagonist is entirely unhelpful, and above all, fails to consistently empathize with many of the women around her (not all the time, but enough) is really telling, and perhaps showcases a condemnation of totalitarian moralizing and thought control far better than descriptions of hanging corpses can, horrific as that is. This book I think was always meant to be a cautionary tale, but one that runs deeper just than the outset of a misogynist dictatorship, right into the veins of our unreliable narrator. This is a metafictional approach I have to salute in how well it was executed. Is it one I’ll keep going back to? It’s unclear – it’s certainly not a feel-good read, but definitely one which will probably light up the mind upon a reread, and, for those into books that challenge your thoughts in different ways with each turn of the page, it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

How accurately have I interpreted it? It’s really difficult to be sure. I want to bear in mind that my maleness may give me something of a blind spot when it comes to determining the aspects of feminist themes throughout, and I have to admit there were a few areas where I feel that my own personal tastes got in the way. For example – we have a heterosexual woman as our protagonist, which will inevitably make me pull faces at various points at the narrative trying and failing to make men attractive. (Spoilers: They’re not.) Not a failing of the book, just an issue of personal taste. And then there’s the whole smoking thing…yeah…I know this was published in 1985, when smoking was a more mainstream thing, but seriously, these characters treat cigarettes like fucking gold dust, using them as almost impervious bribes and reliefs. I utterly detest the smell of cigarette smoke, and am way too traumatized by graphic anti-smoking PIFs I saw as a child to take it up now. Obviously, I’m aware that nicotine addiction is no small thing to overcome, but it would appear as though I’d be difficult to bribe in Gilead.

OK, this brings me the reason for the timing of this post – something of a Real Talk time. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, but I fear its political talking points are very relevant at the moment.

Those who have been following the news know that Alabama has recently passed immensely restrictive anti-abortion laws. The bill in question seeks to prohibit abortion in nearly all cases, including rape and incest, and only makes an exception, as far as I can tell, for when both the survival of the mother and foetus are in question. This bill was inevitably passed by a group of cisgender men, people who’d never have to consider the consequences of this themselves. Ominously, the supporters are even anticipating the bill to be blocked in court (running counter to Roe v. Wade, 1973), but they are wanting to have it pushed to the Supreme Court so a big stink is made about it, and the possibility the newly and highly conservative judges overturning this landmark civil rights case. This possibility sets a worrying precedent that’s already present in the Supreme Court, given Brett Kavanaugh’s dangerous, authoritarian views on presidential power. No wonder Trump fought his corner.

OK, obviously I have my own opinions on the right to an abortion, but for those of you who do consider themselves pro-life, bear in mind that no law, even of this caliber, is going to prevent abortions from happening. All it will do is stop safe abortions from happening, and the kind of backstreet abortions I’m talking about used to be done all the time before people sat up and realized how ridiculously unsafe it was. That’s what we risk returning to if these kind of bills become commonplace – it already happens in countries were abortion is illegal. A 2006 report by the World Health Organization determined that at least 22,800 deaths can be attributed to unsafe abortions annually. Anyone who calls themselves pro-life should definitely take that into account. Also, if you think abortion is akin to murder, does that mean you should investigate every miscarriage that ever took place? Be aware of what you’re agreeing to…

I can’t do a great deal about this where I am, and I know I don’t have a particularly big readership. I don’t even know if any of them reside in the States, but those of you who are reading this, please spread the word, let everyone know that action needs to be taken. Voting in candidates who aren’t awful would be a good start. And for those who are anti-abortion – please consider your position carefully, what it means, and why you hold it. Take the time to learn a little bit more, don’t just react instinctively to the emotive language sold to you – or indeed, Trump’s ridiculous and bare-faced lies on the whole procedure.

Until next time (whenever that might be) everyone stay safe, and remember to fight for your rights.

 

 

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