Monday, April 24, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: The Handmaid's Tale

Dossier: Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale [McClelland and Stewart, 1985].

Filetype: Book

File Under: Statist Dystopia

Executive Summary: Offred is a handmaid, which means she has proven fertile in a time of rampant infertility, and has therefore been deemed worthy of being assigned to one of the top officials in the Republic of Gilead, so that he might be able to reproduce. Referred to in the book as "The Commander," but ostensibly named "Fred," since Offred's name indicates that she belongs to him, her master's marriage to Serena Joy has proven childless. So once a month, in a ritual of the theocracy that is Gilead, Serena Joy holds Offred's head in her lap as The Commander attempts to impregnate Offred.

The story takes place early in the time of the Republic of Gilead, which overthrew the U.S. Government and instituted a Protestant theocracy in which women's bodies are not simply politicized, they are literally the property of the state. Women have no essential personhood in this "republic." Offred is paired with Ofglen, the handmaid of another official, to do the daily shopping and whatnot, and Ofglen slowly lets Offred into her confidence, revealing that there is an underground resistance attempting to overthrow Gilead. Offred also gets an inside seat for some of the other off-books types of activities that take place for the well-placed in Gildead when The Commander sends for her on a night that is not set aside for the monthly ritual. The Commander allows Offred to read old magazines, the kind that have now been banned and burned, and play Scrabble with him. Over time, he even sneaks her to a brothel run by and for the higher-ups in society. Serena Joy, for her part, worries that The Commander may not have get Offred pregnant (something which, officially, can't happen because men don't shoot blanks and any failure to conceive is always the woman's fault), so she arranges for Offred to have a side-relationship with The Commander's driver, Nick. As Offred's entanglements with The Commander, Serena Joy, Nick, and the Mayday resistance become more complex and interwoven, she reaches a point where the center can no longer hold, and some drastic, potentially deadly, upheaval is increasingly certain.

Dystopian Visions: This is a pretty grim vision. One of the things that makes it worse in reading about it, though, is the thought that there are probably a lot of people out there in the real world right now who think this is actually pretty close to how things "ought to be." Women are denied any agency, not permitted to read, let alone have jobs or bank accounts. They are told explicitly what they may and may not do with their bodies. They exist for the pleasure of men and the propagation of the species...or, a certain part of the species. Racial and religious minorities are sent "away," ostensibly to places where they are segregated and "can be together," but it is strongly implied that they are either in concentration camps or killed. 

Utopian Undercurrents: There's not much, unless you're a well-connected, wealthy white guy. In that case, you get a big house, cushy position, a wife, a state-sanctioned concubine, trips to the brothel, and if any of that bores you, you can cash it all in for new models by insinuating that whomever displeases you may not be entirely faithful to the ideals of Gilead. That is, of course, unless someone suspects you of somehow transgressing, in which case it's all forfeit. 
The lower-status men must serve time in some type of dangerous military occupation before "earning" the right to an Econowife, so even the wide latitude and openly accepted hypocrisy afforded The Commander is a luxury.

Level of Hell: Ninth. While this isn't the cannibalistic wasteland of McCarthy's The Road, there are no doubt ways to argue about which society, particularly as a woman, you'd rather be a part of. This book combines the paranoia of 1984 or Arthur Miller's The Crucible with the dead-eyed violence of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, and mixes it with abominable gender subjugation. 

Legacy: I understand that people go both ways on Atwood, and this book in particular. Perhaps because The Handmaid's Tale exists at a nexus between speculative fiction, social commentary, satire, and feminism, there are a lot of very strong opinions about it, both positive and negative. Although none of what's included in the book is far-fetched on its face, one might argue about its likelihood of occurring in this place or that place. It has all occurred, and is occurring right now in some form somewhere on Earth.

In Retrospect
The details within the book, both big and small, are closely observed, and for this reader, at least, powerful. The idea of secreting butter away from dinner in one's shoe in order to apply it like lotion later on in one's room — in a world that still has Scrabble and has had Avon parties and fashion magazines — is hard-hitting, and the idea of religious fundamentalists who have built a society around the sanctity of fornication without lust in order to make acceptable babies also maintaining and visiting brothels reads as revolting but fundamentally true to human nature. So too, the characters by-and-large hover in the vicinity of archetypes, but their relationships read as true, and very recognizable. The resentment the women on the household staff display for the handmaids, for instance, feels painful but probably right. This is a book that takes and has taken its lumps, but as a piece of speculative fiction, is well rendered.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 8/10.

Posted by Vance K — cult-film reviewer, sometime book reviewer, and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.