Friday, 10 June 2011

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Reductio ad absurdum  is a form of argument in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence. 

Atwood's use of language in The Handmaid's Tale is almost mathematical. I felt that I could clearly see many of the locations and was often stopped in my tracks by the precision of her prose. She manages to make the confabulation of religious fundamentalism and extreme feminism convincing, and indeed there have been some regimes that sprung into existence since this book was written that might have used it as an inspiration rather than a warning.

The titular Handmaid, Offred, narrates the book, and her incomplete knowledge of the state (Gilead) in which she lives means that we share her journey towards a greater understanding of how the system really works. Her name is derived from 'of Fred' as Fred is the Commander in the household in which she has been placed. It is also close to offered, and that is what she is, on a monthly basis, in the hope that she may bear Fred and his wife a child.
Being a Handmaid is just one of the strict roles which a woman can be assigned to. She could be a Wife, a Martha (domestic servant) or even an Aunt, one of the teachers. This is of course, to free women from the burden of being all these things at the same time.
This vision of a possible future is powerful not because of any vision of scientific advance or other planets. It shows us that any human society has to base their martial and economic power on a domestic foundation. This is an exploration of how the domestic, individual life can change (and differs as much from place to place) on this planet as a result of how society is controlled.
Early on Offred sees herself in a mirror "myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairytale figure in a red cloak.." There are few mirrors in this society, they have been removed or replaced. Offred must also wear a wimple, and sees a blinkered world. Self-consciousness and awareness are dangerous commodities that can but lead to desire. And desire is dangerous. It led to the world of violence, pornography and rape that had to be reformed.
In those days (through which we are living) the rules that governed a womans' life were also strict, but unwritten: "I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but that every woman knew." These were the rules of behaviour to keep yourself safe.
In the doublespeak of the Aunt who re-educated the Handmaids this is expressed thus: "There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you ate being given freedom from. Don't underestimate it."
The price of this "freedom from" can be seen at "The Wall" where the bodies hung as examples with "their heads in white bags tipped sideways onto their shoulders." "The heads are the heads of snowmen, with the coal eyes and the carrot noses fallen out." The delicate way in which Atwood describes the brutality is extraordinary. Or ordinary. "Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to."
And what you can't get used to, you ignore. "We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it." This, as with all of this book, reflects back into the here and now from this fictional future. What are we ignoring? Is there not some truth in the story the Aunts tell about the present. Do we want to look this closely at our world, our own belief systems. What you don't know can't hurt you, they say, or as Offred puts it: "I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was."
Offred's experiences at training continues to be filled in as the novel progresses. Atwood acidly describes "Testifying", where trainee Handmaids tell of the awful things that happened them in the time of anarchy. The form is familiar. "Aunt Helena is here, as well as Auny Lydia, because Testifying is special. Aunt Helena is fat, she once headed a Weight Watchers' franchise operation in Iowa. She's good at Testifying."
This novel explores what we testify to and what we ignore. As with all great dystopias the new state of Gilead reflects elements in our society, but amplified ab absurdum. The acts of seeing and understanding are shown to be active, not merely passive. A rope can be "like a fuse, or the string of a balloon." Being seen itself is made an active crime in Gilead. "Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen - to be seen - is to be ... penetrated."
This fear, that anything outside the clearly prescribed can be a crime, and that anyone could report you for this crime, the man who looks at you, the other handmaid's you talk to, the wife, the Martha, even your own thoughts could give you away, or your need to be understood.
For me it was the descriptive language which made this book so powerful. There is a sense of a backed up sexual frustration that has curdled into a sort of disgust running through the book.
"I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter. I want to be with someone."
Or this observation of Fred's wife, Serena: "Even at her age she still feels the urge to wreath herself in flowers. No use for you, I think at her, my face unmoving, you can't use them any more, you're withered. They're the genital organs of plants. I read that somewhere, once."
Adjectives are a form of resistance, thoughtcrime embraced where crime has been eliminated.
"We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.
I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit. This is what I will tell Moira, later; if I can.
All of us here will lick you into shape, says Aunt Lydia, with satisfied good cheer."
As to whether this knowledge, this mental resistance, has a result, you will have to read to find out.
"I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it.."
I just thought I'd add this Billy Bragg song as a 'bonus feature' inspired by this quote from The Handmaid's Tale.
"The sky is clear but hard to make out, because of the searchlight; but yes, in the obscured sky a moon does float, newly, a wishing moon, a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink. The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh god, how beautiful anyway.
I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable."


  1. Wow, powerful and insightful review! It brings back memories; I read this book in a Women In Literature class in senior year of high school, and that was many, many moons ago.
    Now I remember why my teacher chose this one-- the descriptive phrases linger in your mind long after you close the book.
    Thanks for sharing this review with us.

  2. What a wonderful choice for a review! I read this book quite by accident. I saw it on a bookshelf and grabbed it & simply adored it. I think it is going back on my TBR list..All thanks to you :)
    Wonderful review btw. New follower http://vampyregurlsbookclub.blogspot.com/