Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Wake-Up Call: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Imagine: You go to the store. When you attempt to ring up your purchases, you find that your card keeps being declined with a cryptic "invalid number" message, even though you know there's more than enough on your account. The man at the till - who has without comment replaced the woman who worked there just yesterday - seems to know a bit more about your debit card woes than he's letting on. After you, and all your female colleagues, are sent home from your office on the orders of rather inhospitable-looking gentlemen with automatic weapons, you find out that all of your assets have been frozen and can only be released to your husband or closest male relative.

And that's just the start...

Even two weeks after finishing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in a 24-hour flurry of pages, I find that the profound sense of dread I have felt creeping into the back door of my consciousness is making it quite hard to approach the book with any semblance of analytical distance. In part, this is due to Atwood's beautiful writing, which creates such a powerful empathic bond with the narrator that I felt as if, instead of reading the memoirs of Offred, I lived them. And like an all-too-plausible nightmare, part of me remains stubbornly unwilling to partake in the profound relief I should be feeling that the world of THT is in fact not (yet?) a reality.

But: Even before opening THT, I was acutely aware of the beating that the rights of women have taken over my lifetime. In 2008, women have already lost the right to sue for pay discrimination (rendered a practical impossibility by Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Co.). In 2008, the state has already been given a green light to dictate what medical care we may receive without regard to any attendant risks to our health (thanks to Gonzales v. Carhart), and the same decision, reached by an all-male majority, spends about as much time on the "feminine mind", deemed too emotionally immature and indecisive to make important medical decisions, as it does on actual constitutional issues. In 2008, we have a Supreme Court Justice who believes a man should have as much power over his (adult) wife as he does over his (minor) daughter.

The fundamentalist clerics who had just begun their ascent to power in the mid-80s, when Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, far from being thankfully raptured out of existence on 1 January 2000, have had plenty of reason to celebrate. From the grip they now have over our Air Force to the indoctrination centres featured in the documentary Jesus Camp, from the pressure they now exert over our educational system (getting science out of our schools and taking the sex and the ed out of Sex-Ed), the dream shared by the likes of Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye of becoming one of the most powerful reactionary forces in our society has come frighteningly true.

Thus, in reading The Handmaid's Tale, I found that I perceived the fundamentalist Christian theocracy it described (which came to power by suspending the Constitution after an alleged Islamic terrorist attack) not as speculative fiction, but as a warning of an entirely possible future.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred ("of Fred"), told as a first-person, oral memoir. In "the time before", Offred was a university-educated IT professional who worked at a local library, and was married with a 5-year-old daughter. What we hear of her life in "the time before" (as she always calls it) is told in brief, disconnected flashbacks, distant recollections of a time that hardly seems real to her anymore. And understandably so. In the time in which the principal story is set, she has lost all she once had. First, she lost her bank account (transferred to her husband, Luke). Then, she lost her job (it is now illegal for women to work outside the home). Then, she lost her home, her husband, and her daughter (Luke was previously divorced, rendering the marriage adulterous and thus criminal in the new order). Not only that, she has lost the mystery novels she used to enjoy reading (women are forbidden access to reading or writing materials in an effort to eliminate female literacy), and every last vestige of control over her body.

Offred's new status, which brought with it her new name, is a great honour. Or so she is constantly told. She is a Handmaid, a fertile woman assigned to a member of the élite of the new regime, a Commander of the Faithful, so that he might use her uterus to conceive a child. If she fails to conceive - by definition her failure, as official doctrine holds that there is no such thing as male infertility - she will be sent to the Colonies, the slave-labour camps of the new regime, as an Unwoman. If she does conceive and give birth to a healthy child, she will be spared this fate. Her posting in the household of Commander Fred is her last chance.

She is not the only woman-in-captivity in Fred's house. Together with her are two Marthas, infertile women used for domestic services, and Fred's wife, whom she calls Serena Joy. To the Marthas, she is a pariah, though fraternisation with them is illegal, anyway. To Serena Joy, she is the object of resentment, though Serena Joy has plenty of resentment to go around. In "the time before", Offred remembers seeing her on television, copiously made up, evangelising to women about the joys of staying home and being submissive to one's husband, joys in which she did not herself partake. Now, she - like all women - has been completely banished from the public sphere, and divides her days between knitting the same scarf over and over again, smoking, and making Offred - with whom she must now share her husband - feel as unwelcome as possible.

Offred's days are spent in mind-crushing boredom. Most of the time, she stays in her room, which has been carefully rid of any potential instrument of suicide, with the only reading material she has left: a pillow embroidered with the word FAITH and a hidden inscription in the closet reading Nolite te bastardes carbondonum, a message she surmises was left by her predecessor, who was found hanging from a light fixture that has since been removed. She wears the same thing every day: a blood-red ankle-length dress designed to obscure every contour of her body below the neck and a bonnet designed to cover her hair and eliminate her peripheral vision. Once a day, she is allowed to leave the house to do the day's shopping, accompanied by another Handmaid to ensure mutual surveillance.

Her partner on these daily shopping excusions is Ofglen. After enduring multiple painstakingly orthodox conversations about safe topics ("Blessed be the fruit", "May the Lord open," amongst other gibberish), Ofglen begins outing herself as a member of a resistance group known as Mayday, thus becoming the only person with whom Offred can speak with anything approaching candour. From Ofglen, she learns that Mayday is bringing women to safety in Canada (or "removing our precious national resources from the country" in official regime parlance). On their excursions, they always pass by the Wall, where the recently executed are hanged, allowing Offred to ascertain whether any of them is her husband.

Gradually, the situation in the household of Commander Fred becomes somewhat more complicated. Fred, it seems, would like to see Offred privately, outside of the officially sanctioned context of the "Ceremony" (the bizarre monthly ritualised rape in which the Commander attempts to inseminate his Handmaid). While this is strictly forbidden, Offred has no real option and acquiesces, uncertain what she is to expect. As it turns out, she is to expect a game of Scrabble and the opportunity to read an assortment of magazines so banal that she could barely tolerate them in "the time before", but which now are like a bottle of Perrier in the intellectual desert of her life. In exchange for this, Fred wants her to kiss him "like you mean it". She must also endure his lectures on what a lovely idea this new order was. From him, she discovers that the inscription in her closet is dog Latin for "Don't let the bastards grind you down", an enterprise in which her predecessor met with rather limited success.

To make matters even more uncomfortable, Serena Joy begins speaking increasingly candidly with Offred, and even offers her one of her cigarettes (nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are all illegal for Handmaids, and Offred spends many a paragraph talking about how much she's dying for a smoke). As it turns out, Serena Joy is convinced that her husband is sterile, as appears to be the case with many of the Commanders. In order to secure a child for Serena Joy and safety from the Colonies for Offred, Serena Joy proposes that she sleep with Fred's driver, Nick, a rather enigmatic character who is either affiliated with the Mayday Resistance or with the secret police ("the Eyes"), a proposal to which Offred agrees.

There are too many facets to The Handmaid's Tale to attempt a full synopsis without it becoming a mediocre retelling of a brilliant story; thus, I will leave the remainder to the interested reader, and move on.

Margaret Atwood's prose is a tour de force. Her style beautifully reproduces the feeling of oral recollections retold without the aid of anything but the teller's memory. The descriptions of Offred's daily life are laden with free associations of words, puns, and other verbal tics that can often be heard from a person trying to force vague or difficult memories to the surface. Her writing gives Offred's story an immediacy and an urgency that break down any analytical walls that may separate the content of the book from the mind of the reader. It is all too easy to see and feel oneself in Offred's position, to feel what she feels, to see the world and her life as she sees them. It is, indeed, like an all-too-real nightmare that leads one to spend the entire day not entirely certain whether the events in the dream actually happened or not.

I am no stranger to heavy reading material. For years, atrocities and dystopias, historical and fictitious, have been a major staple of my library. It is exceedingly rare for me to be shaken by something I have read. I was shaken by The Handmaid's Tale, and, to a certain extent, still am. One of the most peculiar side-effects of reading THT has been a heightened awareness of things that I normally take for granted (as I should be able to do).

In particular, it has made me extremely conscious of the very act of reading, even in trivial instances. Normally, unless I am reading a language I cannot yet read well, reading for me feels like a purely sensory act. I see a word. The underlying interpretive act that connects the symbolic data in front of me to the phonetic and conceptual representations and associations I have in my mind is normally reflexive and unconscious. Since I began THT, I have become remarkably aware of this process. The day I started reading it, I had to go to the supermarket to buy a bottle of red wine, where I found that I was extremely aware (and somehow rather surprised) to find myself reading the words on the wine labels. I have the same feeling, the same vague fascination and relief now any time I read something and don't need to be clandestine about it, the things one feels about something to which one is not entirely accustomed.

Perhaps, though, the greatest threat to the rights that allow us, as women, to live our lives is the fact that we have grown accustomed to them, to the extent that we often give little or no thought to our exercise of them. Even less do we think about how recent, how utterly new those hard-fought victories are. It was not until the early 1970s that the Supreme Court decided - parting with about a century of precedent and the entire enactment history - to interpret the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution as even a limited prohibition on sex discrimination. The right to self-determination over our reproductive systems, now in great danger, was not officially recognised until 1973. A late-1950s business law hornbook I bought years ago at a used-books store includes a footnote in its section on "Contractual Capacity and Disability" (essentially who is legally capable of concluding a binding contract) listing the states in which as of the date of publication a married woman could not sign a contract without the written consent of her husband, even if he was in no way bound by it. In the decade that saw the publication of that hornbook, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor graduated at the top of her class at Stanford - an achievement that would cause every major institutional law firm to roll out the red carpet for a male graduate - and could not find a firm that would offer her a position as more than a legal secretary. Last but not least, there are still people living today who remember our first major victory, suffrage (which we have had for all of 88 years).

Put briefly, our social and legal victories are nowhere near sufficiently settled or indisputed to be taken as a matter of course. A small, but powerful and well-funded, minority has been working tirelessly for decades now to reverse every single one of them, and their every success is thanks in part to our complacent assumption that what we have so recently won can safely go undefended. In reading The Handmaid's Tale, it is worth keeping in mind that every major feature of the society Atwood describes has been actively advocated in one form or another by the people who rejoiced at the nomination of the men who gave us Gonzales v. Carhart. It seems to me that we need a reminder of how vulnerable our rights really are (and if there's anything I felt whilst reading the book, it was vulnerable), and Margaret Atwood's excellent book is a very powerful reminder.

1 comment:

The said...

Thank you for a really terrific post. Great synopsis of this amazing book and I agree that it's very relevant to women today.