Reading: The Handmaid's Tale  

Posted by Megan Moulos in , , ,

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

Before I start, I’d like to say: I’m Pro-Choice, Anti-Fanaticism, and 100% for stem cell research…and I cannot understand why anyone would be otherwise. It's my body, I do what I want!

My recap here is almost as jumbled as the narrative of the novel. I’m writing this as it comes to me, or as I remember things. I know I am leaving out this and that, but whatevs, this is more for my personal use/memory than anything else.

This book was quite clearly feminist, although not entirely outlandish. Women’s bodies are property of the state, and commiting adultery with your government appointed concubine is law. It takes all of a sane person’s fears of radical Christianity and totalitarian governments to the extreme. It really questions the limits of what human beings are willing to accept or fight for.

The narrator, Offred, relates her story from inside the Republic of Gilead - an area of the former United States. Humans are becoming increasingly infertile from pollution and nuclear fallout, among other things. The plummeting birth rate and overall fear led to a “revolution” in America. The US was plunged into civil war after “terrorists” murdered the president and the entire Congress. A new dictatorial and insanely oppressive government ruled the new Republic, suspending the Constitution and effectively stripping women off all their rights.

“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, the 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?”

In this new world order, only men are granted rights, and even then only those with status. Commanders with enough prestige are given personal, supposedly fertile, concubines known as Handmaids. Offred is a Handmaid, and as such is expected to sleep with the Commander (as the Commander’s Wife lays in bed during the action, holding down the Handmaid and making sure no pleasure occurs) in what is dubbed a Ceremony. Handmaids are worth only what their ovaries will produce and their wombs will carry. They aren’t even allowed to have their own names, they merely are Of-Fred or Of-Joe or Of (owned) by whichever male they have been assigned to. Handmaid’s such as our narrator wear huge cardinal red dresses which hide the body completely, and strange flying-nun hats which obscure their faces.

The adultery is justified as necessary to replenish the population, and the Bible is cited as reference:

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. –Genesis 30:1-3”

Other women are classified into sub-groups: Marthas, Aunts, Wives, and Econowives. Marthas do the cooking and cleaning, and are generally housekeepers. Aunts teach incoming Handmaids, much like nuns at Catholic schools. Wives are married to Commanders, and Econowives are married to poor men or those with no status. Every station has a uniform: Marthas wear only light green, Wives are always in blue; Econowives wear striped dressed which designate their status. Men, too, are classified and given specific duties and clothing. There are Angels who fight the resistance forces, Guardians, Commanders, and the Eyes, which act as the all-knowing KGB of Gilead. Everything is government issue, down to the phrases each station must use to greet each other. Although Commanders can breed and even have sex with prostitutes as they please, men with little or no status cannot speak to or stare at women in the street, or even have pockets (no adjusting/itching your junk, basically). Babies are divided between Unbabies or Shredders (those with birth defects, stillborn or with physical deformations that are taken and “made to disappear”) and Keepers.

There are also those outsiders: Unwomen (lesbians, unfertile women, widows, etc.), Gender Traitors (homosexuals), and Jezebels (whores and prostitutes who are used for legal pleasure by Commanders). The Unwomen and Traitors are murdered or exiled to perform hard labor until death.

Offred’s narrative is jumbled, jumping between present and her past before the war, when she had freedom and a family. She alludes to the idea that a drug has been used to keep her and the other Handmaid’s complacent, but it may just be that there were no other perceived options. She often muses on suicide and dreams of stealing knives, scissors, etc. Women are not allowed to read or write (I would lose it completely). Handmaids cannot smoke, drink, or indulge in any other imaginable pleasure. They are only alive to be baby-making machines, their sole purpose is to breed and stay quiet.

Humans are “protected” from every perceived vice (aside from those they can get on the black market) like pornography, smoking, and casual sex. There are some concessions given (to make the dictatorship tolerable). The Commander’s Wife, an ex-evangelist named Serena Joy, is allowed a garden, and she smokes and knits and watches television. The Commander has a stash of forbidden items including fashion magazines, books, and the game Scrabble. For all the power and supposed privilege the Commander wields, he strikes up a relationship with Offred to engage in conversation, get “kissed like it means something” and play Scrabble. This relationship is dangerous – it could mean death or exile for Offred – but is a glimmer of humanity.

Offred details the many rituals of handmaid life. The sanitary sex of a Ceremony, the insanity of a Handmaid birth, a Salvaging, the walk to the grocer, a doctor’s visit, and the hours of empty solitude. Entwined are stories of her “other life” with her husband and daughter, going to the Laundromat, wearing shorts in summer, making love, owning a car, having a job. Offred regains some liberties during the course of the novel: the Commander allows her to speak, read, and drink; she engages in a sexual affair with Nick, one of the Commander’s men; she befriends another Handmaid who is part of a resistance. All of this makes her life seem bearable.

Rape is a woman’s fault, for leading the man on. Abortion is a war crime. Handmaids murder a man with their bare hands who is convicted of some such crime.

It’s in the Bible, it’s all in the Bible. This covers any possible horrendous deed.

The epilogue of the novel is written from a fictitious academic conference about the “Gilead period” in which Offred lived. Researchers discovered 30 cassettes recorded by Offred after her escape from the Commander’s house.

Quotes and such:
"nolite te bastardes carborundorum" (Don’t let the bastards grind you down) Offred finds this quote scratched into a cupboard in her bedroom. She later discovers that it was made by a previous handmaid who committed suicide after engaging in a similar relationship with the Commander.

“We are a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.”

“Beside the main gateway there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks…The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors or scientists…Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. “

“There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.”

“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest by because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”
“I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 5:20 PM and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others.” what page is this on?

April 25, 2010 at 8:42 PM

Thanks for your comment :D

It's on page 126.

May 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

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