The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
April 23, 2010 § 25 Comments
I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.
About a month ago, I read The Penelopiad, my first Atwood. I had rather enjoyed that one, but many left comments saying that it was The Handmaid’s Tale that finally did the trick for them. And well, being quite the fan of dystopian novels, I couldn’t resist the temptation. And indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale is a very disturbing novel, about women in a world I’d much rather not imagine us living in.
The Handmaid who narrates this story to us is someone called Offred. That’s not her real name, of course. Rather, it is more like a title, or maybe an attachment; a way of identifying to whom she belongs to, her Commander. Of-Fred. She is a Handmaid, and therefore her prescribed attire is a red, shapeless piece of cloth that covers her from neck down. She’s also obliged to wear ‘wings’ on her head; a hat of some sort, I presume, that functions also as blinkers – things that stop her from seeing much without turning her head around.
In this Republic of Gilead, the Handmaid does nothing much more than go to the market (never alone, mind you, but always paired up with another Handmaid from another Household), and once a month, she attempts to be ‘fertilised’ by her Commander. Really, a Handmaid’s true duty is to bear child. The Marthas, their attire green, are the ones who do most of the housework, while the Wives, the wives of Commanders, sit around and knit all day. It’s a ‘delegation’ of work, or something like that. In this new world, in this republic, women no longer need to fulfill so many roles. They each have their own, and they are to be happy for it.
I have to say, those who left comments about how they loved this book were not wrong about it. Dystopian novels hardly ever go wrong for me, but The Handmaid’s Tale just took me tenderly and flew away with my soul. I was disturbed, not only by the environment in which women were made to exist, but even more so by how close to reality it could potentially be. I almost wish I could have read the entire book and concluded, “This is too far-fetched, too ridiculous to ever be real,” but the truth is, it hit much closer to home than I would have wanted it to.
The spectacles women used to make of themselves. Oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit, and bare backs and shoulders, on the street, in public, and legs, not even stockings on them, no wonder those things used to happen.
Change is almost never sudden, like what Offred tells us. It’s like putting a frog in water and slowly boiling it. The frog would die without ever having been the wiser. Throw it in a pot full of boiling water and it would jump right out in an instance. Small freedoms, those we take for granted, are slowly chipped away, slowly pulled back, with reasons such as for our own safety, for our own good. We surrender these freedoms unwittingly, and there will come a time when these liberties would be all but a distant memory.
There was this one speech a Commander made to the women in Gilead which has stayed with me for a while. It’s painful to think that there might exist such thinking, but what makes it sadder is that maybe, somewhere, dystopian or not, a woman may be believing all that he says.
“I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel,” he says, “with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
“But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection.” Here he looks us over. “All,” he repeats.
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
“For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
“And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
“Notwithstanding she shall be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.”
Atwood’s writing is beautiful; and no one can say she can’t tell a great story. The Handmaid’s Tale was frightening, chilling, yet completely engrossing. It’s a book I’m bound to remember for a long time.