Friday, May 18, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale—Margaret Atwood

I am way behind in reading this book. It has actually been sitting on my shelf for a while (yet another $1.00 book at Half Price Books) but I just hadn't gotten around to reading it. I think it was one of those that everyone kept telling me I "have to read" and that makes me less interested. Even though it may be the best book in the world. There have been too many of those that have scarred me - Twilight would be an example. Poor choice, on my part, to listen to anyone about that.

Regardless, I am glad that I finally made the time to take in this one, spurred by a friend of a friend who insisted that I must read it.

In a future time when population numbers have dwindled, women are objects, vessels for younger generations, and the powerful men are to fertilize as many women as possible under the guise of assisting with numbers. These Commanders essentially own their "surrogates" (Handmaids) who do not retain their own names, but instead are given names that are derived from their commanders. For instance, our narrator is called Offred, as her commander's name is Fred. Names are changed when Handmaids are transferred to new households. The commanders have wives, who seem to be too old to have children of their own. When babies are born, they are raised by the commander and his wife, and the handmaid moves on to her next Commander.

In this time when women are objects (even more than they have been in the past, when they were property) they are not allowed to read, they must all wear full body coverings, and wear hats that are essentially blinders. There are no mirrors - vanity is a sin, after all. All options for escape or release are removed in order to ensure the safety of the Handmaids. Offred remarks that it looks as though where there used to be an overhead light, it has been removed, most likely because it could be used in order to hang oneself. It is very interesting to think about what the reaction would be to such a drastic change for our society. As our narrator says, she remembers the time when things were what we would consider "normal," and perhaps the generation younger than her remembers as well, but there will be a time in the all-too-near future when people won't know anything different. We learn that Offred had a whole life before society changed - a partner and a child. The reason that she has become a Handmaid (there are many different reasons for this particular role) is that she was not married to her partner, and he was in fact married to someone else when their relationship began.

Offred temps fate by breaking many of the society's rules. She begins to associate with her Commander outside of the ritual mating time, a relationship which is instigated by him. He allows her to read, he takes her out dancing, they talk about how things have changed. But she can't really be herself with him. Through her walking buddy, a fellow Handmaid, she learns that there are those who are rebelling, who are escaping, through a sort of Underground Railroad. She begins to have an affair with Nick, who is the handyman/chaffeur around the house. When she becomes pregnant, which should be a joyous occasion as she's been successful at her one reason for being, wheels are set in motion to help her escape.

In the afterword, we learn that tapes from Offred have been found, which is how we know about her experiences. The afterword takes place at a convention, a time even further in the future, when Offred's society is but a strange memory. Due to the naming and renaming of Handmaids, it's been near impossible for this convention to track down who Offred is. There is no way of knowing who she was before, even attempting to use the names that she has included: Nick, the handyman; Luke, her partner before the "revolution"; her daughter.

What is perhaps the most frightening about the scenario presented in this book is not its hypothetical - it is that situations like this have happened in the past, where groups of a society are targeted, persecuted, and made to follow strict rules. Historically this has progressed to the perceived need to be rid of this particular group. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be capable of learning from the past, and are doomed to repeat our mistakes, so a society like Offred's is not so far-fetched.

Overall a great, thought-invoking read. Margaret Atwood is fantastic.