The Handmaid’s Tale
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some.
If someone presents a book as a dystopia, it’s sure to pique my interest right off the bat. I like thinking in terms of what if (though nothing as crazy as Sheldon & Amy’s counter-factuals game – I just had to sneak that in) – you can run off it with every which way you like. These dark, glum visions of the universe are liberating (in a strange way, they can mentally prepare you for the worst) and frightening (precisely of what that worst might mean) at the same time. 1984 (which is probably the best known dystopia) created a world so suffocating and oppressive that the reality of the communist regime (in itself terrifying) pales by comparison. I’m not trying to compare real pain and death with words scratched on a paper – I’m merely trying to point out how fragile the equilibrium between fiction and reality sometimes is.
Margaret Atwood puts forth the Republic of Gilead, a patriarchal world in which women are defined by function and ownership. There’s the Commanders’ Wives, in their blue garb; the red-wearing Handmaids (whose sole purpose is to be a vessel for reproduction); the Marthas (the cleaning and cooking staff, dressed in green); the Econwives (issued to those of lower income and rank, wearing stripes) and the Aunts (an educational unit in charge of forming new handmaids). There are also outcasts: those living (or rather, dying) in the colonies and the women at Jezebel’s – prostitutes really, the world’s oldest profession flourishing under any conditions. In what concerns the ownership, the women no longer have names of their own (actually, this seems to be restricted to handmaids) and are identified only by the name of whoever they serve: Ofwarren, Offred, Ofglen etc. When they change households, they automatically change names as well.
Offred, our narrator, shares her tale, but not her real name. She describes the social changes and morals though her own experience and in strict relation to her life – so it can’t be taken as a complete portrait of Gilead. But we know enough about discrimination (sexual, religious, ethnical, wealth or prestige based – they’re all there) to fill in the blanks. What struck me the most was the insidious nature of these changes, and it reminded me of Hitler’s ascension to power. It all starts out with an attack (perpetrated supposedly by Muslims – the book was written in 1985, but can you not draw parallels with 9/11?) and all measures taken then are justified by self-defense – until the day everyone wakes up and realizes their world has completely and irrevocably changed; but then it’s too late.
Offred’s story is often ambiguous, subjective, tantalizingly incomplete, but never fails to be interesting. It’s a non-sequential back and forth between past (her daughter and husband, her friends and the destruction of their little family, followed by her re-education at the Red Center) and present (her new household, the shopping walks, the various ceremonies and most of all, the rule-breaking). There are only patches but you can reconstitute most of her life and you can commiserate with her, knowing that she’s lived through a “normal” age and the transition to theocracy must be all the more difficult. The Aunts are at least right about this one; future generations would have an easier time dealing with the castes since it would be the only reality they’ll know.
The genius of this book is not only in Ms. Atwood’s vision, but also in the details that bring it to life: rituals (the violence they let loose – salvaging, particicution), conception (or the attempts at it), birth, clothing (the red of the handmaid’s is both a privilege and a stigmata, I think), the wall of the dead (a strange callback to medieval times) and the general brainwashing to which all women are subjected. In fact, as prof. Pieixota discourse at the end says, Gilead is not built on any original foundations but has brought forth an original was of combining ideas already in existence.
The question of freedom, as you’d expect, is discussed at length and Aunt Lydia puts things in a pretty clear perspective:
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to, and freedom from. In the days of the anarchy it was freedom to. Now, you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
In the end, you’re left pondering the flaws in our own world and, more than that, the eternal lesson that passivity leads only to destruction. I would have liked to know what became of Offred – but the book is perfect just as it is.