Monday, September 1, 2014
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Ok, so this book I learned about when I was perusing the internet to see if anyone had posted an essay on similarities in dystopian society books. I know I've listed some common themes I've seen, but it's no academic essay by any means. Another similarity I've found is that something is never quite right about the family unit. The most "normal" of family units (as in not interfered with by government in any obvious or overt way) was in the Hunger Games. So I read about this book and was curious, so I put it on hold. I was wary of this book because of the premise. And the movie adaptation is rated R (but then, so is Lord of the Flies). So I wasn't sure what I was getting into. It was published in 1985.
The story is told in present tense with flashbacks to life before. Apparently (you don't find out until the end) there were numerous environmental/chemical exposures as well as biological weaponry unleashed onto society that rendered many men sterile and the population dropped severely. Our government was completely taken over (the protagonist says the rumors were Islamist's, but it is never confirmed nor hinted at since, but the new government system is decidedly of some Christian origins since there are "Aunts" which are reminiscient of Catholic "Sisters" and they use the Bible-Old Testament mostly-in order to justify their positions). They did so using deadly force by killing the entire US government, presidency, senate and house, obliterated them all, and with the use of technology that was already in place: instead of money in the bank and a card, you had a number (it reminded me of kids at school with lunch numbers) and it was withdrawn that way. Everyone had their information attached to this number and they froze all the female accounts. This was the beginning of female oppression and the loss of freedoms and rights for women in general. Women were not allowed to read or write or be educated. Girls were married by around 14 because they needed to start early to attempt to repopulate the society and unions were assigned and girls given away by their mothers (as opposed to the current tradition of the fathers). Women were taken from their families. Then you add this infertility thing and the new government touting the Bible for things. Many religions are persecuted, Jews are the only ones who are allowed a choice-convert or deport (which some deportations you find out are thwarted). The book is VERY sacrilegious in nature because of how the Government uses-I'd say abuses the Bible. I'm not sure what the author's intent is with this. Maybe to make the reader beware that people will distort anything to their means? That religion is a joke?
Anyhow, there is some bad language. But not all of it is in the form of swearing. And there are some scenes that are fairly explicit (I wouldn't recommend this to anyone under 18 for sure), but they were described in a very sterile manner. The use of the "f" word was used several times, but in such a way as similar to when the "b" word is used at a dog show because that is the technical term for a female dog. So it wasn't quite as offensive as it could have been. It may have been used a couple times as a swear word, but I don't remember. The Bible story that the entire society (named Gilead) is based upon is the story of Jacob and his wife Rachel and her handmaid. How Rachel could not bear children so she gave him her handmaid that she "might have children by her". So the affluent men of society are given a "handmaid" via government issue-the women who have been found to have viable ovaries proven by one or more successful births-and once a month-as determined by ovulation cycle-there is a "ceremony" involving the wife and handmaid (to symbolize that the wife would have children by the handmaid) and the husband. By law there is to be no pleasure or romance or anything enjoyable. It is strictly procreation they are after. Nearly full clothing is used. Which the clothing is another thing....there is a caste system, wives wear blue, handmaids wear red, Martha's (working maid/cooks-the women who can't have kids I guess) have another uniform (green? I can't remember) and econowives get stripes. It's very full coverage type clothing. The handmaid only has so much time to conceive before she is cast out to the "colonies" or put out with the "unwomen" (those who supported abortions or had their tubes tied or something like that) and their jobs are dangerous and often lead to quick death. Because of course, if you take that one Bible story as a cue, women are the ones at fault for infertility. And taking Rachel saying "Give me children or I die" literally. The handmaids are stripped of their former names-you never even know the protagonists real name-you know her as Offred (Of Fred), their name being Of and whichever man they currently belonged to. There are also nearly daily hangings for various crimes.
It's a whacked out society for sure. But of course, there's an underground Female Road, not unlike the Underground Railroad for the black slaves of the US History past. At the very end, you read a narrative of an educational seminary whose setting is over 100 years into our future studying the text that you have completed reading which has come from some hidden cassette recordings dictated by a female voice found in an old locker of some sort. So you know the protagonist got out. You don't know anything about the quality of her life post escape, but the fact that there is a society that happens after them does not oppress women.
So I'm not entirely sure I'd recommend this book......definitely not wholeheartedly.....I probably could have gone without reading it, but once I got started (and it wasn't nearly as offensive as "A Casual Vacancy") I grew so concerned with Offred that I just needed to know if she got out, so I finished it. It won awards, but I don't see any real reason to read this book unless you want to have a college level academic discussion of things in this dystopian society.