Saturday, October 14, 2017

October's Book: The Handmaid's Tale

Caught up! It feels good. I credit finally reading a short book one of these months.

And now we're back to the 20th century... or are we?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speculative Fiction (1985 - 358 pp.)

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Gilead, a revolutionary post-United States taken over by a cult called the Sons of Jacob that divides everyone into classes. The men are Commanders, Eyes, Angels and Guardians, mostly; the women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives, mostly. Each commander's household has a wife (self-explanatory), a handmaid (for bearing children) and 1-2 Marthas (for housework). Everyone's role is circumscribed, with surveillance and secret police to catch and get rid of dissenters. Any further plot synopsis is located in the thousands of reviews already out there. Any typical review of The Handmaid's Tale can be found in the equally numerous sources confirming that yes, Gilead is a horrible place to live. Offred, our narrator, is a handmaid. She wears red but is a potential dissenter (Off Red), and is in the household of a commander named Fred (Of Fred).

The most striking parts of Atwood's dystopia are the overarching cultural norms that could happen anywhere. At Atwood has said, everything in The Handmaid's Tale is something that has already happened."* The execution of doctors and scientists is eerily reminiscent of WWII-era military occupations. (37) All the surveillance, suffering, and surveillance-induced suffering Offred experiences are directly caused by her upper-class, solid-red-wearing obviousness. In Gilead, living unnoticed is the ultimate prize. Gilead's mantra may well be Nick's warning to Offred late in the book, which could just as easily be advice to a driver with a suspended license or to a stark opposition of technological progress: "Keep on doing everything exactly the way you were before, Nick says. Don't change anything. Otherwise they'll know." (311)

For all the handmaid's internal life is developed, the reader never grasps Gilead's economy or the handmaid's role in it. Offred goes shopping early on, which is performed through tokens stamped with products rather than through any normal currency. (12) Non-pregnant handmaids are shuffled between commanders every two years. For all the purpose of being a handmaid is to bear children via "Ceremony",** though, Offred's commander doesn't appear to be trying very hard to impregnate her:*** "When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later..." (184) No mention is ever made as to what jobs the commanders have, how handmaids are supported financially, why a commander would agree to subsidize a handmaid for the two-year lease, or what Gilead could possibly export. The only conclusion I can make is that handmaids are wards of the state. As a result, the state appears to be draining funds on them^ without giving them any benefit in return: they can't work, they have no means to express themselves, and efforts to get them to bear children appear half-hearted at best.

The best off of any of the women in The Handmaid's Tale are the little-mentioned econowives. They perform the duties of wives, handmaids, and Marthas, and therefore they wear blue, red and green as a result. (48) They wear their colours all at once, in stripes; the stripes aren't mentioned in any further detail, so the reader can only imagine the varieties the econowives can choose. Functioning almost exclusively as a companion, mother and homemaker is similar to being an early 20th-century housewife. They are the only women in Gilead with remotely normal lives and with the ability to wear multiple colours at once. Sadly, they only appear in any prominence on one page, and the reader never gets to feel their experiences. The Handmaid's Tale came out 22 years ago, and The Econowife's Tale just doesn't have much of a ring to it, so I'm not crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Atwood's writing reminded me within the first few pages of how rarely I read books published between 1960 and 1990. The Handmaid's Tale reads somewhat like my dad's old spy novels, which I hadn't expected, but helps it read extremely quickly. The only time this fast pace lets up is during Professor Pieixoto's lecture at the very end. I love fictitious internal reporting, like The Navidson Record in House of Leaves, so the 10+ pages of metafictional academic journal entries make me smile. I would have liked to have known more about Late Gilead, though; the early^^ and middle periods are covered in detail, but we never know how Gilead ends.^^^ We know it's over because the Professor Pieixoto lecture, set in 2195, discusses Gilead as a historical country.

One minor mishap I noticed was the sheer repetition of the phrase "as if" for similes. It generally occurs in the form "<subject><predicate>, as if <comparator>." At one point, it occurs thrice in 3.5 pages. (96, 97, 99) This is why one of the greatest boons of the post-1985 editing world is Ctrl+F. As much as repeating a character's commonly used phrases helps to establish that character's tendencies, when it distracts from the story, it's problematic.

The words Offred makes in Scrabble are also completely improbable: Larynx, Valance, Quince and Zygote all in the same game, or even the same night, for starters. (161) Then Quartz and Quandary appear in rapid succession, in either the same game or two consecutive, when there is only one Q in the entire 100-letter game. (178) Far more often, the Q and Z are used to make the two-letter words Qi and Za on triple letter scores, leading to profanity from the opponent. That said, I'm just glad to see one of my favourite board games mentioned in a book at all.

Given how terrifying living in Gilead must be, and how I've mused on Gilead's lack of exports more than I've mentioned the book's horror, I leave you with the ultimate fridge horror thought: What if Gilead funds itself by exporting handmaids?`

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*Except mandatory red-blue-green Trinitron-style striped clothing. (see the econowives paragraph)

**The Ceremony is described in detail at pages 106-111.

***The Handmaid's role in the Ceremony is so passive that this grammatical structure works fine.

^Who are the taxpayers in this system? Or have these revolutionary United States seized Fort Knox and melted all its gold supplies into the food voucher tokens?

^^For reference, the main part of the book takes place during the early period.

^^^There is one journal entry on civil war in Gilead, but the reader never gets to know when this civil war happens, why it happens, or whether it leads to Gilead's demise. (344)

`Even this is contemplated by ISIS's human trafficking economy.

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