Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.10 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.97 / 5.00

In a frighteningly possible future, the United States government has all been assassinated and the constitution over turned. In its place there has arisen the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Theocracy that ruthlessly imposes Old Testament ideals upon its entire population. The world is suffering from a sharp decrease in fertility and an equally worrying increase in non-viable babies being born. In response to this, a woman’s place in Gilead’s society is dictated by her ability to reproduce or fulfill another useful role in the production of viable offspring. All women are categorized and forced to wear clothing of a certain color to advertise their role in life. They must not stray from their roles, they must not question those in authority, they are forbidden to read and are encouraged to think as little as possible: they must simply accept the role that God has prescribed for them. This is especially true for the Handmaids who have proven to be capable of producing healthy babies.

If a high-ranking official, like the Commander, has the misfortune to have an infertile Wife he can be assigned a Handmaid. She is a non-person, a receptacle for carrying his baby and nothing more. She is known only by the word ‘of’ plus his name. She must do nothing other than receive the gift of his seed once a month and then carry his child. If she fails in this task than she will be passed to a different man, but if she has not had a child after the third man she will be discarded and sent to the work camps cleaning up the toxic zones: for the law states that no men are sterile and so the fault must lie with her.

Offred has already failed to become pregnant with two men and we follow her thoughts as she settles into life with The Commander. She remembers her marriage to Luke, who had divorced his first wife to marry her. This made their union illegal under the new regime and allowed the state to annul it and separate them by force. She also remembers her daughter who was stolen away and given to an influential infertile couple. Then there is her mother, the raging feminist, who became an enemy of the state for believing that women had the right to do things other than reproduce. She also remembers her friend Moira, the lesbian, who escapes from their Handmaid training camp in search of the resistance movement and a way to reach the utopia of Canada.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that I had been recommended many times and I remember watching the film version many years ago, but I was still surprised by its power. What surprised me the most, unfortunately, was how relevant it is to modern America, with its debates about access to birth control and abortion and the rape culture that commiserates about the sentencing of young men who make a ‘mistake’ while the victims are vilified for all the ways that they were ‘asking for it’. I am afraid that women’s rights are several decades behind those in my home country of Great Britain, which I find both painful and dismaying because in general I like living here in the US and I hate to criticize a whole country based upon some prevailing attitudes.

I have always considered myself a feminist in that I believe that men and women should hold equal value and that a person’s gender should never be the factor that determines their role in life. As a biologist, I am aware that total equality will never be possible because of the very unequal method by which we reproduce, but other than making allowances for this fundamental difference in physiology, I firmly believe that neither sex has an intrinsic superiority to the other. These beliefs made it very difficult for me to read about a society where women are either walking wombs or solely concerned with making babies or looking after men. The later revelations about the men who go against their own rules to visit prostitutes, whilst condemning any form of female sexuality was sadly all too predictable to raise much more than sadness from me.

The fear of the female ability to reproduce lies like a stink over Gilead, and it is a stink that also pervades modern America so I found it all too easy to believe that the great democracy that is constantly touted as the leader of the free world could be replaced by a misogynistic theocracy. It is too easy to see how such a society could arise from the absurd statements that we regularly hear in the media here about a rape victim’s body “shutting that whole thing down”, only “sluts” wanting contraception and masturbating male fetuses (that last from a pediatrician, no less). We are bombarded by so much moral criticism aimed at the female of the species that you would think that men had nothing at all to do with the reproductive process.

I fear that the American attitude to women and childbirth is reflected in the frankly appalling provisions that are made for pregnant women here. Coming from the UK, with its mandatory maternity leave of 39 weeks paid leave for the mother at the moment, plus 4 weeks for the father, and an employer’s obligation to hold a woman’s position during this period, I was shocked to discover the situation here. In the US, a woman is legally mandated to receive 0 days of maternity leave. That is correct – when a woman is pregnant in the US she is expected to treat it as if she has an illness, saving up her allocated sick leave so that she can actually take the time off work while she delivers her baby and recovers from a process that is accurately called ‘labor’. What does this say about the American attitude to women?

As a non-slut who made full use of contraception whilst finishing my university education and beginning my career as a high school teacher, I resent the implication that I, as a woman, am not allowed to enjoy a sex life without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. I have to add that my partner at the time, the man who is still my husband, was equally unwilling for us to have a child at that time. He was also beginning his career and the financial burden of a child would have been hard for us, especially as it would have made it much more difficult for me to gain my qualifications and get a full time position. I resent the implication that we should simply have abstained when there were so many methods that could be used to allow us to have a non-productive sex life. It is not as if contraception is a modern invention. Papyri from ancient Egypt outline recipes for contraceptive plugs whilst the Greeks used an extract from the plant silphium so much that it was harvested to extinction. And I will not even begin to relate the number of things that have been used to make condoms.

However, women are not the only victims of the Republic of Gilead. The Sons of Jacob are given the opportunity to emigrate to Israel shortly after the democratic government is overthrown, although it seems that some enterprising captains would dump them into the sea after receiving payment and to increase the number of ‘passengers’ that they could carry. We also know that many Jews remain in Gilead but have to worship in secret because the Theocracy is exclusively Christian. The fate of the Children of Ham is far more disturbing. It seems that many of these African-Americans are considered suitable as the infertile Marthas who run the houses of their wealthy, white superiors. However, most are resettled into Homelands, mimicking the Reservations used to isolate and control the Native American population by the European invaders. No doubt these Homelands allow the people to live in the idle luxury that you would expect for those forcibly removed from a society. Again, this mirrors the continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism that still pervades US society.

I imagine that when Ms Atwood wrote this novel in 1985, she saw it as a commentary on the US of the time or the recent past. We know that the feminism of the 1960s provoked a conservative backlash from the Christian right, and I am quite sure that she was inspired by seeing this during her studies at Harvard at this time. I can appreciate how her Canadian upbringing would have made her very aware of the power that religious groups wield in the US, which was a shock to me when I first arrived. I find it frightening to think that many in the States would actually like to make the country into something so scarily similar to Gilead, and it seems like a real possibility to me. Needless to say, I would be packing my car and heading north shortly after such a disaster occurred.

As a footnote, I was surprised and delighted that a revelation is made at the end of the book that shows that the grand state of Maine was a hotbed of moderates and people willing to help women escape to free Canada. As I live just outside Bangor, it was particularly gratifying that the city was marked out as a particular place of tolerance.

This was not a pleasant book to read, but it was powerful in a visceral, thought-provoking way that makes me understand why so many people rate it as one of their favorite books of all time. I would recommend that every person should read it, man or woman, because it shows us what could happen to the US if the right wing, religious conservatives ever get enough power to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

I read this title as part of:

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