Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Handmaid's Tale

Intrigued by a reference in Merold Westphal's Suspicion and Faith, I've just finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Atwood is a prolific Canadian novelist, poet and essayist, critically lauded and much decorated.  This is my first encounter with her writing but I don't think it will be long before I read more.

The Handmaid's Tale is a work of social satire.  Satire operates by highlighting and exaggerating absurd or problematic aspects of an idea, worldview or public personality in order to debunk it or turn it into an object of ridicule.  By far the most common application of this technique is to make us laugh, but laughter is never the main aim.  The main aim is to deflate pretensions, to open up the space for criticism, to bring the powerful or popular down a peg or two.

Less commonly, because it takes much more skill, satire can aim to horrify, to make us weep.  The classic example is George Orwell's 1984, a grim comment on the totalitarian state (whether socialist or capitalist) and the pernicious role of covert surveillance. 

1984 is also a classic example of how easily such satire is misunderstood.  As the real 1984 rolled around, journalists wrote earnest articles cataloguing the predictions Orwell made about this year, how many had been fulfilled and how many had not.  Orwell would have been rolling in his grave.  He wrote the book in 1948 and got its title by reversing the digits, a thinly coded indication to his first readers that he was talking about their own day.

This is the sort of satire to which The Handmaid's Tale belongs.  Atwood's target is gender relations, but to put it so baldly undersells the complexity and nuance of her tale.  Her dystopian republic of Gilead, located somewhere in what we know as the USA, is a military dictatorship built in a world of pollution, war and alarmingly low birth-rates.  Its rulers are a military/religious group called the Sons of Jacob, who impose a rigid caste system on their society based on an odd but superficially plausible interpretation of the Bible. 

In a way, this is a world ruled by men.  Women are to stay home, look after their homes and bear children, except that most of them are unable to do so.  Yet it is not quite that simple.  The whole society is stratified.  Women can be Wives, Daughters, Marthas or Handmaids - or in some cases, for lower caste men, they may be Econowives who have to fulfil all the roles for one man.  Or some few may be Aunts, those whose job is to keep other women in line. 

The men are also stratified - Commanders are in positions of authority, Angels are front-line soldiers who fight Gilead's many wars, Guards perform more menial home duties, the feared Eyes conduct surveillance.  Each caste has its own uniform.

Atwood's story is narrated by a Handmaid, the most peculiar of Atwood's inventions in this strange world.  The fertility problem means many women are unable to have children (fertility is, of course, attributed to the women, even though informally they know men can also be sterile).  To solve the fertility problem, high-caste men whose wives are childless may be assigned a Handmaid, styled on the story of Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah who give their handmaids to Jacob to bear children on their behalf. 

This particular handmaid is known as Offred, a name taken from that of the man to whom she is assigned.  Trained at the Rachel and Leah Centre under the tutelage of the formidable Aunts Lydia and Elizabeth, she is then assigned to a high-ranking commander whose name is presumably Fred but who is only ever referred to as The Commander.  Also in the household are Fred's Wife, who Offred refers to as "Serena Joy" a former morals campaigner now ironically forced to live out the gender roles she advocated but never lived; Rita and Cora, the Marthas who do the household chores; and Nick, a Guard who is the Commander's personal servant and who may also be a covert Eye. 

Dressed in her bright red uniform, Offred is isolated in the household, forbidden to read as all women are, viewed with suspicion and fear by the other women, allowed out once a day to go shopping in company with another Handmaid who she meets on the corner and treats warily, and otherwise confined to her room, tense and bored.  Once a month, she takes part in the Ceremony with the Commander and his Wife, aiming futilely to conceive a child which will be brought up by Serena Joy as her own. 

Told like this it sounds flat and clinical, but this tale is powered by grief.  The social transformation that created Gilead has been rapid and disorienting.  Offred has lost everything - her husband (most likely killed as they try to escape across the border, but she has no way of knowing for sure) her child, assigned to another more "worthy" family, her occupation as a librarian (she is now forbidden even to read), even her own name.  She remembers how it was before, and these memories jar against the official version in which the extremest pornography of the "time before" is portrayed as the everyday reality from which women have now been "freed".

What makes this grief so hard to bear is that there seems no possibility of it ever being resolved, or even acknowledged.  Offred is a mere instrument of reproduction.  The notion that she may be an independent being, with thoughts and feelings of her own, seems anathema to those around her.  The reader enters her inner turmoil as she has nothing to do but mull endlessly over what she has lost, and what she has become.  We, too, feel trapped.

Yet as the story proceeds we are allowed to glimpse the cracks in this totalitarian world.  Even the Commander himself seems trapped, unhappy enough to seek Offred's illicit company - not for sex as she fears, but for secret games of Scrabble and intelligent conversation.  Serena Joy is even less happy with the world she helped create, full of bitterness and resentment which has so few channels in which to flow.  It is in this unhappiness, and the possibilities for rebellion it creates, that we must look for hope.

We can laugh at the absurdity of this tale, exaggerated as it is, but it will be a grim laugh.  How far is Gilead from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia?  How comfortable should we be that our own fundamentalisms would be incapable of similar oppression given the opportunity?  The Bible quotes and passages on which the Sons of Jacob rely are twisted out of shape by the ideology they serve, but are we immune from such twisting ourselves? 

The Handmaid's Tale, like 1984, is a kind of fairground mirror.  The image it gives back is grotesque, distorted, yet it is still recognisably ourselves.  Look carefully, and beware!

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