On (re-)reading The Handmaid’s Tale: A few random thoughts

The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was in university…and I didn’t understand it at all.

To be fair, I was probably about 19 or 20. The book was just a couple of years old, a major bestseller already, and critically acclaimed. It was one of those “you have to read this” books, so I read it. And didn’t get it.

I was at university, so I had a lot of reading to do already. I was very young, and like all young people, caught up in my own emotional, educational and possible career plans, so I was not as up on current and world affairs as I am today. And I was not a bible-thumping religious type — in fact, I had barely read the bible, and found most of what I had read insufferably boring and irrelevant to modern times, so I missed the religious references almost altogether. If not for the epigraphs on the front page and the blurb on the back, I wouldn’t have had the foggiest clue what the story was all about.

The book didn’t frighten me as much as it simply bewildered me. Was this really supposed to be a vision of the future? Because if it was, I didn’t recognize a thing in it. The pseudo-biblical terminology slid right by me, as it would for anyone who was not brought up to be very religious. The futuristic extrapolations, too, slid by, as they would for someone whose present was defined mainly by her grades, her friends, her crushes and (failed) romances. The rest of the world was distant, mediated by TVs and radios that you could turn off if they bored you. And the story itself was so choppy, so disjointed, I could barely follow it. Only a few striking, discordant images stood out in my mind: nuns in scarlet habits and white-winged bonnets, whose job it was to get pregnant by other women’s husbands? A suffocating world of spies, lies, and cars with eyes? What?

And that was the impression it left on Very Young Me. Too-Young-to-Get-It Me was so utterly, boringly predictable. And whether I realized it or not, Margaret Atwood had her number. MY number, I should say.

Fast-forward to Not-So-Young Me. The second time around, in my thirties, I grasped it a lot more. By then, I’d acquired the necessary critical background on the religious and societal aspects of the story. And I had the wits to be scared by the implications, especially when reading an interview with the author in the back of the book (obviously, a newer edition of the book by now; this one advertising the then-upcoming opera based on the story). Margaret Atwood said she hadn’t included anything in the book that had not already been tried somewhere, by some society, in the world. So this freaky fiction isn’t all made up out of nowhere.

And I looked, and sure enough, I saw the parallels. Theocracy: Check, though this I knew mostly from things I’d seen about Iran. The US certainly had plenty of elements of it, though, with a lot of lawmakers unable or unwilling to understand why the church must be separated from the state. The public executions, with corpses left hanging on a wall to admonish the onlookers: Check, again. Iran and Afghanistan came to mind. And the public beheadings in Saudi Arabia, too. And even closer to home, I recalled how hangings used to be public here in North America, too, back when capital punishment was the law of the land for severe offences (and it still is, in some US states, although not by hanging anymore). Widespread infertility, necessitating sperm donors for some and surrogate mothers for others? Well, okay, that one wasn’t quite a check. Most people who want to get pregnant and produce biological offspring of their own do still manage it just fine, and there are plenty of us who don’t want any and are able to freely exercise our choice not to have any, too. The problem in today’s 7-billion-plus world is not infertility, but either a surfeit of fertility, or in the case of those who want children and are able to control how many, getting the timing right and making sure the final outcome is healthy.

But that being said, there ARE surrogate mothers. And in more recent years, there’s been an explosion of surrogacy in poorer countries, where women have virtually no other chances of lucrative employment. Surrogacy tourism has become a thing, and a deplorable thing it is. And feminists are speaking out against it.

And yes, the heavily polluted environment in the book is only a slight exaggeration of what’s really happening right now, too. Pollution and widespread health problems resulting from it: check.

So my second reading of the book was: Yes, I get it. This is a barbarous, but very possible, vision of the future. But for the most part, it was still a bit far-fetched to me, as we appeared to be no nearer to it than we were when I first read it.

And now, there’s Almost-Middle-Aged Me. I’m on the third reading, and suddenly, it all looks frighteningly close. And not just because incipient middle age is making me far-sighted. I’m now about the same age Margaret Atwood was when she first wrote it, so I can see this through her eyes a bit more. And I can understand completely why she hesitated to write it at first. I would be more than a little hesitant myself, if it were me writing that. It’s the story of a frog being slowly brought to the boil, in a kettle full of millions of other unwitting frogs. How would one write something from that viewpoint?

Since the story is told only through the eyes of one Handmaid, we can’t see the bigger picture, even when/if we want to. Only glimpses and snippets of it. Only a myopic focus on the seemingly irrelevant details that Offred sees in her stifling round of existence. Little wonder Young Me found it all so choppy and hard to parse! Offred’s world is limited to whatever she can glimpse whenever she looks up momentarily from under the white wings of her nunnish bonnet. It’s a narrative composed entirely of tunnel visions. She can’t tell us all of what really happened because she couldn’t see it all herself. It came in increments, sandwiched between the mundane vagaries of a modern young working mother’s life, and by the time full-fledged theocratic fascism was upon her, it was already too late to do much of anything except try futilely to make a run for the border. (The Canadian border, of course, for this future dystopian theocracy is what once was the United States, and once more, an Underground Railroad for escaping slaves runs through it, ending in Canada.)

And we rarely even hear her naming herself, and when we do, and realize why she is called “Offred”, rather than a real name, it’s even more appalling. She is chattel, property, breeding stock. She is no longer a full person in her own right. She has no rights. And she is owned by a rather unimpressive older “Commander” named, we infer, Fred. All the Handmaids are known not by their real names, but by their owners’ names: Ofglen (who is Offred’s market-day companion), Ofwayne, Ofwarren. Which harks back, of course, to the days of slavery, when slaves were named by their owners, and bore their owners’ surnames, but also takes it a bit further: the Handmaids have no surnames (that we are aware of, anyhow); they are simply of their owner’s first names.

Margaret Atwood’s dry, sardonic humor is her signature, and it peeps through here and there, dealing an unexpected backhanded smack to those we think we ought to revere. All the Commanders’ names are WASPy, modern, and thus, oddly flat and unprepossessing when transposed to the roles they are meant to play. The Commanders are hardly the fearsome biblical patriarchs one ought to expect; on the contrary, they are rather meek, even downright wimpy. Fred is embarrassed almost to the point of impotence when doing the monthly sexual “Ceremony” in an effort to impregnate the narrator; his wife, a former televangelist named Pam (but known to the world as Serena Joy) seems a great deal more fierce during the deed than he, and even she comes off for the most part as a bitterly disappointed old lady with arthritis, whose garden and whose knitting (shades of Madame Defarge!) are her only solace. Later, after a failed visit to a brothel-like meeting-place known as “Jezebel’s”, Fred delegates the task of trying to impregnate the Handmaid to Nick, his younger (and one hopes, for Offred’s sake, handsomer and more virile) chauffeur.

If the Commanders are not biblical patriarchs with suitably impressive names like Isaiah or Jeremiah, what are they? And, if their roles are meant to mimic the biblical society of patriarchs, what are we to make of the biblical patriarchs themselves? To me, the Isaiahs and Jeremiahs of mythical times suddenly look not like Charlton Heston’s Moses, but like crabby old men with poor circulation, ulcers, and foot odor! In other words: mere mortals. Not prophets whose God-ordained word is to be taken seriously, much less literally.

Fred’s idea of subversion is to play Scrabble and read old magazines with the Handmaid in secret — a ludicrous detail that will make you chuckle a bit. This even though you know that women are not allowed to read, and that only men may do so (and then, only from scriptures, before the entire household). The harmless pastimes of today are, supposedly, the sinful, deadly vices of tomorrow. But again, like the Commanders’ names, this goofy little detail alerts us that theocracy would be truly silly if it went so far as to take the bible literally, down to the last letter. Saying that one does not suffer women to teach, but only to listen in humble subjection, is ludicrous. And that’s the whole point. These men are so plainly unfit to hold anyone in subjection, much less own her outright.

Certain once-modish “radical” concepts, like lesbian-separatist utopias, are also not left unscathed; the only actual lesbian we meet, Offred’s college friend Moira (also one of the few women who still bear their real names in this narrative), is just as mired in the dystopia of Gilead as everyone else, though she valiantly tries to escape. Her lesbianism, otherwise considered “gender treachery” and a hanging offence, becomes an underground girl-on-girl show at Jezebel’s, to titillate the bored Commanders; it is not a way of being, but a mode of performing. Enforced gender-separation, even the creation of a parallel “women’s society” run by the prison-matronly “Aunts”, does not eliminate sexism, but exacerbates it. Everything women do in Gilead is never for themselves or each other, but only for the benefit of a bunch of boring old fuddy-duddy men.

The men of Gilead certainly aren’t fit to run a government, and yet they do. And that’s what’s so scary. We are currently, more than ever, in danger of being Gilead: run by the stodgy, the stupid, and the unfit. In the United States, the epitome of stodgy, stupid unfitness is already president.

And this danger is with the rest of us constantly, unless we exercise our own judgment and rob them of that power before they ever get a chance to seize it fully.

The question now is, will we?

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