Thursday, July 10

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

Offred remembers her life before, when women had parity, could do what they wanted, own things, and dress the way they chose. But in the Republic of Gilead none of that exists any more - in a devastating and coordinated coup the President was shot dead and Congress was machine-gunned. Blaming Islamic fundamentalists, the army suspended the constitution and began eroding rights that the populace was too stunned to resist, beginning with freezing women's bank accounts (authority was then transferred to husbands and fathers). A mother, Offred has proven fertility and is retrained - her new role is as a surrogate for a senior member of the military: his wife, like so many others, can not bear a child herself. She cannot trust anyone - Gilead is highly regimented and anyone who defies the law is not only hung but their bodies are strung up in full view of the populace - but she knows that the rest of the world is out there, and perhaps her husband and daughter are still alive, somewhere.
I found some interesting parallels between this novel and some of Tepper's work, and am once again interested in what makes one book Acclaimed Literature and another 'merely' fantasy/science fiction. The Handmaid's Tale is written as a first person narrative, and details about how the Republic of Gilead came to exist are sparingly woven through the text, alongside post-Republic events and details about Offred's training and day-to-day life (including her name). I'd be particularly interested in knowing how men read A Handmaid's Tale, as much of the power of the writing for me comes from the systematic subjugation of women. The initial days of the Republic, and Offred's husband's response to curtailments of her rights, was significantly interesting to me.
The final chapter was a particularly powerful element - the journal entries (which, it transpires, were transcribed from audiotape) have been found some centuries later, and are being treated as an historical text, presented at a social sciences gathering. As a social sciences student this approach caused me to reflect on the techniques my colleagues, lecturers and I use - having engaged strongly with Offred, the contrast is (deliberately) jarring and provocative.
This is my third re-read of The Handmaid's Tale, the first in a decade. I was so impressed when reading it the first time that I promptly bought three other Atwood novels only to discover, to my distress, that this is not like her usual writing style and the others left me cold. I was intrigued by what I remembered and, more interestingly, what I'd forgotten - this included a whole slab of deviant behaviour on the part of Offred's 'master', her friend, the claustrophobic atmosphere, and the post-script in its entirety. I haven't seen the film and am thinking now about borrowing it just to see if and how this aspect (which is what's resonating most strongly still, almost a month after reading the novel again) was handled. A truly powerful work. - Alex

No comments: