Another Sunday, and a new month, too! This week brought more nasty weather — ice storms followed by rain — so why am I pinning my hopes on the groundhog, who predicted an early spring? People believe what they want to hear, I guess 🙂
Thankfully the crummy weather was offset by good reading. Following on the heels of Virago Reading Week, I picked up the feminist classic and 1986 Booker Prize nominee, The Handmaid’s Tale. My daughter had to read it last summer for her AP Lit class, and I’ve eyed it for months now. I’m surprised I never read it before! What rock was I living under?
I was also stunned to find that the 1986 Booker Prize winner was Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils. This was one of my all-time least favorite Booker winners (read my review). And The Old Devils is a very masculine book, celebrating the joys of drinking, and sex with various partners. I find it really sad that the Booker judges awarded the prize to Amis and not Atwood, who wrote a much more thought-provoking book describing a totalitarian society in which women existed solely for the benefit of the men. Sigh. Have we learned anything in the intervening 25 years? I hope so.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling view of a repressive, controlling society — the Republic of Gilead — in which women are confined to specific roles, all designed to meet the needs of men. They lose personal freedom of both movement and speech, and fear for their lives. Women are grouped into castes and wear a common uniform. Marthas are responsible for cooking and housework. Wives represent the highest caste, married to high-ranking men called Commanders (“ordinary” women are known as Econowives). The Handmaids’ primary purpose is reproduction. Handmaids are assigned to Commanders, and subjected to a monthly ritual in hopes they will conceive. Those who fail (and yes, it’s always the Handmaid’s fault) are moved to a new post, and exiled if they remain unable to bear children.
The story is set well into the future, but the characters still remember their lives “before.” Offred is one of the Handmaids, separated from her husband and young daughter and assigned to a high-ranking Commander. She recounts her training period in the “Red Center,” and the systematic way in which the women are forced to submit to governmental authority. She dutifully dons the required long red habit, and the white headgear that blocks most of her vision. Once in the Commander’s house, Offred discovers evidence of the earlier Handmaid, including a mysterious foreign phrase carved in the floor. On her daily trips to the village shops, Offred makes tentative contact with other Handmaids. While they cannot converse openly, every opportunity to exchange a few whispered words helps them better understand the world around them. And yet one never knows who to trust. Men and women are routinely executed and left on display. Fear and betrayal run like electricity through the community.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot; it won’t do justice to the book because it really must be experienced. Margaret Atwood paints a bleak and disturbing picture, all the more so because of its resemblance to certain aspects of contemporary life. Atwood drops several hints about how the United States turned into Gilead, critiquing many aspects of late 20th-century society. Despite its extremes, it’s not that difficult to imagine. Some aspects of Gilead exist in the world today: extreme repression and fear are not uncommon, and even the most “enlightened” societies subjugate certain elements. As Offred adjusted to her new life and struggled with loss, isolation, and confusion, I willed her to find a way out. I wanted the totalitarian regime to crumble. I wanted good to triumph over evil. But that’s not the point of this novel, and Atwood won’t let her readers off the hook so easily. This is the sort of book that strikes you between the eyes, leaving you with a lot to think about.
Read more from The Sunday Salon here.