Thursday, January 10, 2013
Opinion: The Handmaid's Tale
I have given myself several days to absorb and reflect on my reaction to my Classics Club Readathon novel, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. This modern dystopian classic published in 1985 tells of a future where women are no longer allowed to hold property, jobs, or money, but are instead assigned to designated roles within society. Women can be Wives (counterparts to their husbands), Marthas (domestic help), or Handmaids (for producing children). Men are also subject to societal roles as either Commanders (highest echelon holding Wives, Marthas, and Handmaids), Angels (military / law enforcement), or serve as drivers or merchants.
It would be possible to write pages and pages about the political, religious, and gender issues raised by The Handmaid's Tale. (Atwood clearly has a pretty dim view of all three.) As this blog is intended to be neither religious nor political, nor do I consider myself a feminist, I will limit myself to my reactions to a couple of scenes and issues that particularly resonated with me.
First, the society of The Handmaid's Tale has taken a religious text and spun it to serve a particular ends. (In the novel, the text in question was the Bible, but you could insert any religious text.) The party of power uses the text as justification for societal norms in a way that is startlingly similar to the rhetoric used in political debate today. As in modern society, there are some true believers, some fence sitters, some opposition, and some who support the social order because it in some way serves or profits them.
Second, the separation of women into "roles" of either Wife, Martha, or Handmaid, begs an examination of which aspect of a woman's existence is most valuable or prized by society. Is it better to be a Wife -- one who is a recognized partner somewhat equal to her husband -- or a Handmaid -- a woman with no other function than to produce children? In what has to be the most bizarre menage a trois in literature, the Commander, Wife, and Handmaid participate in a Ceremony in which the Commander is trying to impregnate his handmaid. I do not say "having sex" because that might indicate that there was some amount of enjoyment in the act by any of the participants. The act is completed by the three while mostly clothed, with no kissing or unnecessary touching, the handmaid being held in the wife's lap in a kind of symbolic synthesis of the two into one woman (both wife and sex partner). Like I said, bizarre.
The Handmaid's Tale is the misogynistic vulgar line about "Women are only good for one thing" taken to the extreme. In the novel, men control society politically and militarily, and women have allowed themselves to be relegated to specific gender roles, even cooperating (and sometimes benefiting) from them. Atwood creates a cautionary tale of a possible future where the few control the many and where women are the losers. Not for the easily offended, The Handmaid's Tale is highly recommended.