Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reading The Handmaid's Tale in the Time of Santorum

Spoiler alert: This post discusses details of the plot and writing of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale, showing two women in voluminous red dresses and white  headdresses against a stone wall
The Handmaid's Tale is all about concealing and revealing.

The story line is concealed, the events that led to the narrator's present situation even more so, as much as her body is concealed inside a voluminous red dress and her head within a white winged headdress. Key points in the narrative are revealed intermittently, achronologically, until we finally understand, about two-thirds of the way through the book, how women were stripped of their rights and a theocracy named Gilead was established in what used to be the northeastern United States.

The biggest reveal of all -- that the story we're reading is a transcript made from cassette tapes found in Maine, where they had been left two hundred years earlier -- comes in the epilogue, framed as a presentation at a conference of academics who study past repressive religious states like Gilead and late-20th-century Iran.

Reading The Handmaid's Tale is almost like enduring Cormac McCarthy's The Road. You feel buried and terrified the whole time, but end with a sense of possible hope, unsure if it's justified.

I wanted to reread the book, though, given everything that's been happening lately in American politics with women's reproductive freedom. While I first read it in 1986, I can't remember my impressions of it. I'm still not able to write a literary treatise of it, as I might have been able in my college days, but I wanted to share some of Atwood's beautiful language, as well as her chilling premise.

Gilead Rising

How did the U.S. become Gilead? An insurgent religious Right is part of it. An overt coup happens, in which the president and most members of Congress are killed. (A bit far-fetched, yes, but it doesn't take a lot to imagine things akin to this in some of the rhetoric these days.) After a state of emergency is declared and the Constitution suspended, the regular people huddle in their houses, hoping not to be affected; only a few go into the streets to protest, and are rounded up. Porn and obscenity are outlawed, its sellers and makers disappeared. The regular people don't mind about that too much.

By the time of the coup, everyone was spending their money by using the equivalent of debit cards instead of cash, so one day the new government transfers all women's accounts to their nearest male relative, and commands that they be fired from their jobs. The narrator, whose only name is Offred, as far as we know, remembers:
I think about laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself. I think about having such control.

Now we walk along the same streets, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

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 are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it. (page 33)
Environmental devastation is a little-described background to the action. Birth defects are rampant and male fertility has been affected by pollution and radioactivity, but it's women who are blamed for these failures. And so women like the narrator have been turned in Handmaids, whose qualifications are that they have given birth before, but were unmarried or in something other than a first marriage (no longer recognized as a marriage by the zealots in control of the government). They are turned into chattel, kept in the households of men from the Gilead hierarchy. When they reach their fertile time each month, they must lie between the legs of the Wife while the husband does his duty.

Gruesome, you bet.

Despite the fact that Gilead's women live in an almost completely separate sphere from men, they are not in any kind of solidarity. Instead, they stay within their rigid categories of Handmaids, Wives, Marthas (servants), and Aunts (indoctrinators and enforcers). Wives think the Handmaids are whores, even though the Handmaids have no choice in the role. When the Commander makes Offred visit him in the evenings in his study, she has no choice but to comply -- she has no power in the relationship. It's not even a relationship. But when the Wife, Serena Joy, finds out, she is outraged at Offred, not at her husband Fred. "How could you be so vulgar?" "Behind my back…. you could have left me something." "Just like the other one. A slut." The Marthas of the household, Cora and Rita, also look at Offred with narrow eyes and distrust for the most part, definitely not sympathy. Even the other handmaids are standoffish to each other, unsure who can be trusted in a society where secret police and spies are everywhere.

Atwood's use of language 

Yet throughout, there is beautiful language. And so many insights.
In the curved hallway mirror I flit past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke. I have smoke on my mind all right, already I can feel it in my mouth, drawn down into the lungs, filling me in a long rich dirty cinnamon sigh, and the the rush as the nicotine hits the bloodstream. (page 270)

Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. (page 275)

There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities about those in power. There's something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It's like a spell. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. (pages 287-288)
During one of Offred's sessions with the Commander in his study, he lays out his perspective on how things used to be. It's like reading a page from Rick Santorum's script:
We've given them [women] more than we've taken away, said the Commander. Think of the troubles they had before. Don't you remember the singles' bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don't you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn't? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns…. This way they all get a man, nobody's left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they'd have to go on welfare. Or else he'd stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they'd have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they're protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. (pages 283-284)
At the end, Offred -- whose real name we never learn -- escapes from the Commander's house into the hands of the underground movement, but we are not told whether she got out of the country or not. The epilogue follows, telling us that she made it at least as far as Maine, and recorded her memories. The epilogue is full of wry inside jokes about academia, including this slap at cultural relativism (in the voice of the editor of Offred's tapes):
If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily free. Our job is not to censure but to understand. (page 383)
Clearly, Gilead was a flash in the pan, historically, from the point of view of Atwood's year 2195, and that is reassuring to read after so much emotional trauma and ugliness.

But I disagree with the historian's statement that it's wrong to pass moral judgment on the Gileadean way of doing things. Destroying freedom and replacing it with repression and control is an essential negative, and understanding it does not necessitate excusing it.

1 comment:

Bent Lorentzen said...

Brilliant and timely analysis!