The Sunday Salon Review: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

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.

Read on:
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.

Review: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins

This book is a modern history of women in the United States from 1960 through the 2008 US Presidential campaign.  Gail Collins, the first woman to serve as editor of the New York Times editorial page, begins with a detailed review of the role of women, and societal attitudes towards women, in 1960.  There were virtually no women doctors or lawyers.  Television had taken the nation by storm, with 90% of American families owning a TV, and most programs portrayed the men in lead roles and women as subservient.   Housework was very time-consuming, with labor-saving devices only just beginning to enter homes.  Most women did not feel poorly treated; it was just the way things were.  Surprisingly (at least to me), the civil rights movement was a trigger event that set waves of change in motion.  Collins takes the reader decade by decade up to the present time, showing how women gradually earned rights, both legally and informally, and celebrated the early pioneers who made it all possible.

The book effectively covers my entire life (I was born in 1962).  And while I had some idea that we’d “come a long way baby,” (as the ad used to say), I didn’t realize how much radical change had occurred until reading this book.  I also found it very interesting to reflect on my personal experience during each decade.  In that regard, the most meaningful chapters were those covering the 1980s and early 1990s: the time in which I came of age, went to university, got married, started a career, and had a family.  But the chapters covering the 1960s and 1970s were compelling, because they put into perspective events that were somewhat of a mystery when seen through a child’s eyes (Roe vs. Wade is one notable example).

I recommend this book for all American women who would like to better understand the key people and events that shaped the society in which we live today.

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Review: Mary Olivier: A Life, by May Sinclair

Mary Olivier was the youngest of four, and the only daughter born to a Victorian family in 1865.  She was treated exactly as you’d expect of girls in that era:  where her brothers were given education and opportunity, Mary’s intellectual and personal ambitions were thwarted.  She questioned the Bible and refused to participate in prayer and other religious practices.  Family and friends ridiculed her attempts at self-education; her mother constantly nagged her about her faith. Meanwhile, Mary’s brothers went off to serve their country in foreign lands, or learn a trade, leaving their mother pining at home, and leaving Mary to look after her:

Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird.  She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will.  She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.  (p. 124)

Well that’s pretty heavy, isn’t it?  The back cover of this book includes this description: “This is one of the finest novels ever written depicting the mother-daughter relationship and the eternal conflict engendered by that deepest of ties.”  And in fact, about halfway through I had to take a break from this book — the intensity of the “eternal conflict” was a bit much for me.

In the second half, things picked up a bit as Mary continued to forge her independence, undaunted by societal pressure.  She began writing poetry, and continued to study the philosophers and new scientific topics of the era, such as heredity.  However, her sense of duty called her to care for her mother in her decline, which required Mary to set aside certain professional and romantic aims.  She reached middle age a strong, independent woman, but achieved this at no small personal cost.

I found this book difficult going, and very depressing.  It’s a fairly accurate portrayal of the conditions women faced 100-150 years ago, and the situation was indeed bleak.  The novel’s autobiographical nature also created a problem, described well in Jean Radford’s introduction to my Virago Modern Classic edition: “the pull of the autobiographical impulse makes itself felt within the text. The novel is too long; there are too many lovers lost, too much detail about her philosophical reading, too many scenes in which mother and daughter enact the same painful conflicts.”  This is a powerful book in many ways, but by the end I just wanted to say, “enough already, Mary!”

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Review: A Woman, by Sibilla Aleramo

This novel, first published in 1906, is considered part of the very early canon of feminist literature.  Sibilla Aleramo was married off to a man who worked in her father’s factory, and had raped her when she was 15.  She found work and fulfillment writing for magazines, and raising a son.  Meanwhile her own mother battled severe mental illness, and her siblings were in constant conflict with their father.  Through her writing she met a variety of intellectuals which made her husband feel threatened.  Her feminist sensibilities evolved and were expressed through her work.

Although classified as fiction, A Woman is more like a memoir.  I struggled with the intellectual tone of this book at first, wanting something more literary.  When I realized it was essentially Aleramo’s life story and began reading it as such, its searing emotion was evident.  And when I placed myself back in its time of publication, I realized how radical some of Aleramo’s ideas would have seemed to European society.  At about the halfway point, Aleramo hits her stride as she examines traditional ideals such as motherhood:

But a good mother must not be simply a victim of self sacrifice, as mine had been: she must be a woman, a human individual. But how could she possibly become an individual if her parents handed her over, ignorant, weak, and immature, to a man unable to accept her as an equal, a man who treated her like a piece of property, giving her children and then abandoning her to perform his social duty, leaving her at home to idle away her time – just as she had done as a child?  (p. 114)

And later, as she contemplates taking a dramatic step in search of happiness:

What if mothers refused to deny their womanhood and gave their children instead an example of a life live according to the needs of self-respect? … Perhaps if we realised that relationships founded on domination and seduction originate in selfishness, we would put more emphasis on the responsibilities involved in parenthood.  (p. 194)

Aleramo’s sad life and limited options made this book difficult to read.  It took longer than expected simply because the emotional content forced me to take breaks more often than usual.  However, it’s a thought-provoking book and, I think, an important one for those who value equal rights and appreciate feminist literature.

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