Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Read: 2 March to 5 March 2012
4 / 5 stars

I'm really at a loss regarding how to approach this review. There was so much going on in the plot, the storytelling, the writing, the editing-stage polish and the way everything's framed that I don't know where to start (not that being overwhelmed by a reading experience's array of awesome is ever a problem). What I CAN say for sure is that every inch of my inner English major was thrilled by the book's treasure trove of masterfully handled literary devices while the rest of me was downright horrified by the novel's goings-on.

I guess I have read a number of dystopian tales at this point but I can't recall an instance of seeing the removal of women's sexual power over men (and, consequently, the oppression/negation of women themselves) as the foundation upon which a misguided society has been built. It took about 20 pages for me to pick up on the naming convention employed in the handmaids' identification, which is roughly where the Republic of Gilead's approach to women's liberties started to truly frighten me.

Of course any society that desperately sticks to a literal (and conveniently revised) interpretation of the Bible* is going to treat women as subservient breeders, domestic servants, weapons against themselves, or nonthreatening, sexless entities (or, you know, will corral those who just won't fall in line into a hush-hush location that The World's Oldest Profession built). And of course such things will feed into latent female jealousies because the grass will always always ALWAYS be greener on every other side. What better way to keep women under control by installing other women -- and therefore removing the weapon of sexuality that men denied the freedom of getting their rocks off can't help but fall powerless to -- to do the dirty work?

Did things get any better for the ladies of the future as I read on? NOPE. But one can't expect much from a society that hoists the burden of a low birthrate on infertile women because there's no such thing as a dude shooting blanks ("sterile," in fact, seems to be more dangerous for a woman to utter than any combination of profanities). It didn't help that the Orwellian approach to the powerful elite's innuendos and directionless double-speak was starting to sound more and more like Mitt Romney's campaign-- er, Rush Limbaugh spewing hatespeech like clockwork-- uh, let's just call it the political back-and-forth of election-year America. I almost choked on all the carefully doctored biblical passages that the Gileadean higher-ups wielded like armor and clung to like magical, mechanical spells. The familiarity of my reaction to such deliberately manipulative speech? Doubleplusungood, yo.

Even with all the painfully relevant correlations between reality's current injustices and this book's fictional ones, I had such a hard time remembering that this was a tale about the future. All the justifications for the horrible things that went on here rang so hollow and seemed so outdated that I couldn't wrap my head around such backward thinking being the way of the future. But at least Scrabble's still around, right?

The novel's less gut-wrenching elements were just as realistic and capable of eliciting some hot-blooded reactions from the reader, though. Atwood's understanding of human nature is simply incredible. The characters' believability was one of the strongest assets in a book that's chock-full of admirable stuff. Like most utilitarian societies, a sexually repressed nation might have looked good on paper to those who were behind its conception and implementation, but the plan fails to factor in how the controlled underlings feel about their unenviable positions: Chaos will inevitably ensue.

This book is a shining example of how superior showing is to telling, too. I'm a sucker for a writer who can adeptly introduce key points early on while letting their scary-as-hell implications slowly reveal themselves. The gradual revelation of Offred's back story -- especially as her loss of identity and imminent capture collide with the present -- was one of the most effective and honest ways I've ever seen a first-person narrative create a fully realized protagonist.

What really made this book for me was the use of "historical notes" as the lens through which the whole story ought to be viewed. Even the lack of proof that Offred really existed and the efforts to authenticate her story supported the notion that a society that removes all traces of what it considers dangerous or unimportant is an oppressive one. Offering an historical perspective propels the book's ominous prophetic voice into stark reality, as it's an unsettling reminder of how history has a nasty habit of repeating itself: The revelation that the Gileadean society had a tendency to delete all kinds of records, combined with the previously illustrated fact that this was a society where only those in power were allowed to read, smacked of The Dark Ages.

The message I took away from all this? We'll only avoid the mistakes of the past by making ourselves aware of them and arming ourselves with the knowledge to avoid those same pitfalls, which seems to be an early warning about the war on education that's so in-vogue almost 30 years after the book's publication.

*I had a whole rant about the dangers of mindlessly adhering to organized religion but realized that there are fresher dead horses in need of a good beating. I'm just gonna say that allowing the particide to become ritualistic was dripping with Pagan ceremony, which I'm sure was the exact opposite of what this Bible-humping society was aiming for. Sometimes, there's dark humor in coming full circle.

No comments:

Post a Comment