Thursday, December 01, 2005

Handmaid's Tale

I've recently finished The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and thoroughly reccommend it. I actually picked it up because I'd seen it mentioned on another blog, in a discussion about women and female rights I think, which,ultimately, is what this book is an examination of. Or rather, it's an examination of attitudes about, and to, men and women and their role in society.

The following is a bit of a spoiler which you may want to skip if you haven't read the book. The narrative is a bit like art cinema I suppose. The book is less a linear driven narrative of overcome obstacles andachieved goals and rather more like Fassbinder's films which focus more on the lives of the characters and the way they react to circumstances moreso than actively creating them. As Offred tells her story more and more detail is revealed to piece together a picture of how this society came to be. It is essentially a highly controlled caste society under an essentially militant religious regime. Women are either wives, breeders, cooks or servants - apart from the econowives who have to be all four. Marriages are arranged. In a world where sterility has become a huge problem those who are fertile (in that they bore children before 'the world changed') are relegated to being breeders. They are assigned to a man of status and are obliged to have sex with them (with the wife watching). If the continue to not get pregnant then they get reassigned. If the conceive and manage to bear a healthy child then their future is relatively secure - although the child is taken and reared by the wife as her own. However, three strikes and they're out. They are sent away with the old and infirm to essentially act as clean up crews in contaminated areas. Women are also forbidden to read and are restricted to the property of the man they belong to. If they are lucky they may be permitted to pick up the weekly groceries from shops which now have pictorial signs since reading is forbidden to women. That women belong to men is most clearly emphasised by the breeders. Their own names are forbidden and they are now called 'Offred' or'Ofglen' or 'Ofwarren' - a patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question. Men, apart from a few servants, are in the military. They hope to gain enough status to be allocated a wife and eventually a breeder as well. In the meantime, homosexuality, dating, porn, masturbating etc.... are all illegal and punishable by death or torture. Meanwhile, the rest of the world goes on. There's still a limited tourist trade and to them America's new cultural customs are quaint and merely a curiousity. The scariest thing about the book is that this isn't set far in the future, it's not an alternative reality and this society is restricted to one country. It's described as a society that could occur today given the right circumstances and those are already beginning to come into play (bar the mutated STD causing sterility on a large scale).

America is already nervous about an enemy given to them by the government and the press. It is not an enemy located nearby, there is no war immediate within their neighbourhoods, but, nevertheless, there is an enemy. Think along the lines of the Cold Waror the War on Terror. There is a coup and the old government is dead, replaced by a regime that has 'the good of the nation' at heart and desires to 'protect them from the enemy'. The government then does what Hitler did and declares a perpetual state of emergency. Curfews are gradually introduced, propaganda continues, military recruitment is stepped up, patriotism is hyped. This continues on for some time and the public accepts it. Then, one day, across the nation new legislation is introduced and immediately enforced. All women's passports are cancelled, their bank accounts are closed and transferred to their husband or nearest male relative, they are forbidden to work. Suddenly they have no funds and no way of escaping. Some men try and flee with their families to Mexico or Canada, if they can obtain the passports and visas to get past the heavily armed border patrols. Others simply accept it and women are told not to worry, that women are required to be kept safe and nurture their families for the duration of the war. Gradually society is switched entirely onto a war footing. Subversives - political opponents, those of other religions -are tracked down and executed. A new society is created. The book examines the way that a society can radically alter and the way that there will always be those who will embrace it, those who will passively accept it and those few who will try and actively oppose it - the difficulty being that, as in Germany, there are spies everywhere and everyone is encouraged to report 'deviance from the party line' in the hope of personal promotion or reward.


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