Monday, April 28, 2014

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The protagonist doesn’t have a name any more, she is only known as Offred. Because she belongs to Fred. She’s a Handmaid, a woman who exists only to provide a child to the Commander, the man who controls her. Once she was free, once she had a family, jobs, property, a life – but all of that is gone in Gilead – now she is nothing more than a womb facing even greater ruin if she doesn’t produce that coveted child.

In her gilded cage, the only freedom she has is the memories of what was and a desperate fantasies of hope.

The writing has an interesting style, everything (except the very end) is in the woman’s POV (her real name is never revealed though she is forced to adopt the name Offred). This can make for a very confused viewpoint – but it’s an extremely good confused viewpoint. She spends so much of her time unable to do anything, expected to stare into space. She spends a lot of her time having to be silent and accepting of anything people force on her or as a silent witness to what is happening around her. She is a prisoner with no end in sight to her sentence – and she lives very much in her own head. The pasts she imagines for people, the memories she allows herself to be lost in, the possibly fictional futures she invents for Luke or Moira or anyone else around her all combines to really underscore the desperateness of her life. She needs these fictions, these fictions are the only things that bring her anything resembling hope and she needs that hope to keep going, to keep surviving, to hope to see another future.

Does it mean the narrative isn’t always easy to follow? No, because her life is very linear, it’s a life devoid of choices. It’s only when we follow the paths of her memories and dreams that we get the confusion that is inherent with freedom – because in her head is the only place she can be free. I think it’s a very deliberate writing choice and a very powerful one. 

The pacing and introduction to the dystopia was excellently done, each part of the world being slowly revealed, wonderfully contrasting with how things were without ever having to be an info-dump. Everything is conveyed through natural thoughts from the protagonist - nothing felt contrived, nothing felt dubious, nothing felt forced. We see her helplessness not just from the rules of what she can and cannot do, but her petty little rebellions, even her dreams of rebellion - things which are so utterly minor but to her seem like such a grand transgressing. Just think obscenities of one in charge, dreaming of being able to steal a small, insignificant item just to have that power, just to be able to do something.

It’s incredible how many different issues are packed into this narrative without the narrative ever feeling either preachy or text book like or like the lessons have been pushed in. The overwhelming misogyny of the world has been displayed with all its inter-connecting intricacy. The emphasis on purity and chastity for women, reducing women to nothing but breeding stock – putting the Handmaids into gilded cages for their precious wombs – but still reviling and loathing them for having sex; needing them to have sex for that previous fertility, but still hating them for having sex all.

There’s a huge element of how the misogynist culture works because there are women willing to collude with it – whether through their own status being elevated because of it, or because they thought of themselves as the exception or even through genuine programming through “moral” values. One of the constant messages is that this “transitional” generation will be the only problem because future women will be raised knowing know difference. This power of youthful indoctrination is emphasised by things like the banning

But this also pulls into our world today as well – rape culture and the overwhelming victimisation of women and the vast sexualisation of women. Reducing women to objects, to fetishes, to things that so pervades society. From that it draws another excellent lesson – how people will use these issues, and other terrible issues, to enforce their own, equally terrible agenda. How oppressors will do “what is best for you” and in doing so push the oppressed further into cages; on multiple occasions the Gileadan powers that be are extremely good at invoking the horrors that are done to women as a motivation to further oppress, cage and, ultimately, control women in the name of “protecting” them.

This also works excellently with the really terrifyingly realistic presentation of how this could happen, how our current society could quickly transform: fear, apathy, disbelief, the belief that this is just temporary/emergency measures, ignoring the persecution because they’re not directly targetting you - yet etc are all so extremely well presented. You can see how easy it would be for our world to transform down the same path. I also like the powerful statement of how things become normal - how a new normal quickly develops to an extent that the protagonist can't even look at how she dressed in the past and not feel uncomfortable; because she has a new normal now.

The book also makes an excellent point of not needing to caricature and demonise the people who control the protagonist. The Commander is a misogynist and in a position of power in a deeply misogynist society – but that doesn’t mean he cannot be pleasant, or his wife, who often directs bitterness and anger at the protagonist, cannot be sympathetic. It reminds us that these evil systems do not need twirling moustaches and devil horns – it requires people.

It's wonderful how things are presented as luxurious, even sinful - mundane things we take every day are forbidden pleasures - like scrabble becoming a deep forbidden pleasure!

There are no POC in the book, but they are also woven into the narrative of oppression – racist fears fuelling the drive for Caucasian breeding along with the “resettlement” (or extermination) of any group that don’t fit the ideal of the leaders of Gileadan society – it’s erasure for a reason with a deliberate invocation of genocide. Similarly, LGBT people also face genocide in this rigid society. We do have Moira, a lesbian, who does desperately fight against the system she is in and is, in some ways, a talisman for the protagonist in her imagined freedom. There is a problem with Moira in both a reference to “preference” rather than orientation and her sexuality is presented as a hatred of men.

Class also features really strongly, how rules often have exceptions for those near the top of the ladder, or how those at the top feel they can ignore the rules (and, of course, then don’t face the full impact of the society they’ve created, they’re insulated from the true horror of what they have), or how even the oppressed at the top of the tree can direct their anger into hatred of those further down. It’s woven through from the different roles of women, to which men are given perks (which include women) and privileges.

I could go on for pages and pages about the excellent way so many issues and elements have been so carefully brought together in this story – but I couldn’t do it without reciting the entire book because every part was necessary and vital to this overall picture. And I think the ending, with the university lecture really does cap it all off. In some ways it’s almost more emotional, more horrific to have read all that the protagonist went through and then have it academically examined. It brings a jarring impact at the end that is really powerful.

I do have to say again that it’s truly rare and precious to have a book that can cover all of this vastness, all of these issues and more in considerable depth and nuance, interconnecting it all and bringing all the emotional impact while still making it pertinent to our world (because the best dystopias are always worlds that you can see us falling into) and not making it feel like a sociology text book nor make it long or dull – the book works, the elements are all integrated into the story for one extremely powerful, excellent package.