We met last night to discuss this book by Margaret Atwood. Whole plot is here for those who’d like it.
A half-assed summary from me: the story is told from the perspective of Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead (formerly Massachusetts/USA). Like others of her caste, she’s owned by a wealthy man whose older wife can’t have kids anymore (if she ever could). Fertility rates in Caucasians had plummeted some years earlier (due to environmental issues among other things) and it became “necessary” to round up women of child-bearing age and, if they could, force them to produce children for the right (read: rich “pious” government) couples in need of offspring.
Through the telling of her story, we learn about how Offred lost her husband and first child when the round-up happened, that her mother rebelled against the new system and paid dearly for it, and that a woman she admired as a rebel didn’t remain rebellious for long – at least, not in a “free” way like Offred assumed would happen. We also learn that there’s an underground group that’s trying to free handmaids from this sexual slavery.
We hit on a lot of different topics as presented in the book. We discussed the power structure in place in Gilead that keeps women oppressed and argued about how the situation tied Offred to her Commander and his Wife and the dynamics such an arrangement would make them to deal with. Offred doesn’t have much in the way of choice in what she’d be doing at the house (she’s there to be slept with) but the Commander uses his position to give her a little sense of the freedoms she once had but now lacks. In this dystopia, women are banned from reading and writing but the Commander secretly invites her to play scrabble and read magazines. We didn’t really discuss why he’d feel compelled to offer those little banned luxuries to her. I wonder if it’s because his Wife, Serena Joy, never would have kowtowed to those particular whims, even if she did actually love the man in some way. She was too hooked into her role in this society, and more concerned about getting Offred pregnant – if not by her own husband then by someone else. She was willing to put up with having a handmaid in the house if it meant she’d have a child to raise at the end of it. One of the guys suggested that the book is less about the strict, totalitarian ideologies and loss of rights (of everyone, not just these handmaids) but about adultery. Much of the book focuses on Offred and the Wife and their weird relationship, plus her changing relationship with the Commander as she’s allowed more freedoms. Her manner of dealing with him becomes less stilted and perfunctory as she gets to know who he is and what he likes, and this makes everything even more awkward when they’re in bed with the Wife.
We talked about Atwood’s use of language in the book and decisions she made in her character development. One complaint had to do with prolonged flashbacks to Offred’s earlier life and love but since it winds up that the whole of the story is a flashback anyway, a reconstruction of events as Offred remembered them (however badly) during the recording of these memories onto cassettes (we learn at the end), we’re stuck with a narration focused on precisely how this woman deals with the past, what she dreamed and hoped for, and what grim realities she faced instead. That was a long sentence. Sorry. Point being, like or hate, Atwood put all that in for a reason. It helps to build Offred’s character if we know what she dwells on, even to the point of annoyance from a reader’s perspective.
Talk turned to France and the burqa ban for a bit, which is where the night ended. Some thought it was a terrific “it’s about time” kind of thing and others argued about choice and things. Is it about the religion or power (utilizing religion and fear of god) or what?
All the women in the book are forced to dress a certain way depending on their station. Wives get blue dresses, I think, the Econowives of the poor/middle class men have to wear stripes, the maids (Marthas) dress in another colour and the handmaids are very visible in the world in their long red dresses with white veils that work something blinders so they can only look at what’s in front of them.
There’s a scene in the book where Japanese tourists are wandering around taking pictures of the women. One of the tourists is a woman dressed “western” with a knee length skirt or something and Offred marvels at the look of it – mostly because she’s surprised at how appalled she is to see someone’s legs. It seems indecent, and yet not very long before that, she herself would have been dressing the same way. Normal is what you get used to, after all. It’s a state of mind and it doesn’t take long to create a new sense of normalcy when everyone’s forced to change their lifestyle to fit new laws (i.e. smoking bans in public places, mandatory seat belts).
We talked about the end of the book, too, since it turns out that Offred managed to record her experience for posterity and people later found the tapes and transcribed them. Some of what got discussed about the end scenes centered around how we view history and what our choices are in terms of how we can interpret it. We’re really bound by the eyes and mind and viewpoints of the historians, all of which will be coming to the history with their own biases and ideologies. Are they able to set any of that aside and be completely objective? They’re limited by the lack of objectivity in the original pieces, too. Offred saw the world a certain way and readily admits in the book that her memory is fallible, prone to re-imagining conversations since it’s impossible to recall word-for-word details months or years later. Same goes for events she describes. Her historians have to trust her to some degree, but they note that she changed some names to protect herself so who knows if they really guessed right when trying to set her story at a particular place in the world? Maybe she wasn’t even Offred but picked that name herself as additional cover. I can’t recall if that occurred to the historians. I think they all assumed she’d been owned by a guy named Frederick and spent all their time trying to uncover which one fit the tale as she told it.
Well anyway, I quite liked the book. It was thought-provoking and intelligent and mildly troubling, especially since Atwood picked bits of actual history to add into this thing, not just early Puritan history but issues that were relevant and timely when she was writing it. It’s good fiction, but it’s also good social commentary for that reason.