Wonkette Book Club: Gilead Is Da Bomb
There are a fair number of dream/nightmare/sleepless nght anxieties in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. So it seems fairly appropriate that I woke around three this morning (unlike Offred, I have a clock) after an unsettling dream that involved characters from The Walking Dead comics (but no zombies, go figure), a vague awareness that my cat was sleeping, heavily, on top of one of my legs, and the horrifying realization that I hadn't posted anything on Twitter to remind people to finish reading The Handmaid's Tale for today's Book Cub. I HOPE SOMEONE IS READING THIS! As always, please feel free to jump into the discussion whether you've finished the book or not (but do talk about the book and its ideas; the open thread post will come later.)
Admittedly, that's pretty small potatoes compared to the nightmare of the totalitarian, nominally Christian-ish Republic of Gilead and the terrifying dreams and fragmented memories Atwood's protagonist has to deal with. Also, how did Negan get the ability to levitate anyway?
As I noted last week, I'm really appreciating The Handmaid's Tale a lot more than I did when I read it the first time, when it came out in 1986. That's partly because I'm no longer a 24-year-old know-it-all in grad school (I'm a 57-year-old know-it-all blogger, and that has made all the difference) with a bit of lived experience. And, as we've all noticed, we're living in a bit of a dystopia at the moment, yipes. So here we are, reading about a world where the power of the state is used to control women's lives, to rewrite history and relationships, and to redefine reality itself. That's no surprise, since Atwood takes pains to note that virtually every element of her fictional kakistocracy is a horror that has already existed at some point in human history.
I'm especially struck, as I mentioned last time, by our narrator, Offred's, attempts to cling to a bit of solid reality, to remember that she once had a self, a name, a degree of control over her life, although she has come to question just how much of that was illusory, even in the before times.
Offred remembers the day the new government declared women could no longer hold jobs, and their bank accounts were all transferred to their husbands (or other male family members -- if none, sucks to be you). Her husband, Luke, tries to comfort her, but even as she tries to play along, she reflects:
We still have . . . he said. But he didn't go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn't be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.
We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?
He kissed me then, as if now I'd said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
So much of the novel focuses on similar questions of identity and power differentials Those flashbacks are juxtaposed with the dystopian "now," where the Commander "invites" Offred to meet him in his office, a forbidden personal interaction between him and the woman who's meant to serve no other function but that of a walking womb. While she knows she has no real choice whether to go, Offred sees the merest, indefinable power shift, though she's unsure she can do anything with it:
But there must be something he wants, from me. To want is to have a weakness. It's this weakness, whatever it is, that entices me. It's like a small crack in a wall, before now impenetrable. If I press my eye to it, this weakness of his, I may be able to see my way clear.
I want to know what he wants.
That the Commander's (initial) forbidden desire turns out to be a game of Scrabble is a bit of brilliant dark comedy. Atwood underlines just how powerless Offred is -- she acknowledges that any goods she might have on the Commander can't be used, because who'd listen to a woman anyway? But she clings to the idea that she might find a useful crumb, even if it's merely learning, for her own sake, "what's really going on."
It's a nice contrast to similar scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Orwell builds the backstory for his dystopia through Winston Smith's reading a forbidden secret history of Oceania and his sham recruitment into the "resistance" by top Party official O'Brien. Orwell gives us exposition -- lots and lots of it -- fairly straightforwardly, albeit with Winston suspecting the secret history was actually written by the Party, and worrying, accurately, that O'Brien is drawing him into a trap. Atwood gets the same expository work done through far less exotic means: an old disposable woman's magazine or a game of Scrabble is every bit as subversive as a secret history, in this world where one of the founders said "Our big mistake was teaching [women] to read. We won't do that again."
And for all the awfulness, Offred is a lot more fun to hang out with than mopey old Winston Smith. Orwell would never toss mere wordplay into his dystopia:
The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say[.]
Not that knowing what's really going on -- maybe -- ultimately does neither character any good. The bastards grind Winston down and he comes to love Big Brother, and presumably is then executed. Offred (spoiler alert!) only escapes thanks to the kindness of the underground, not her own use of any knowledge she's gleaned from the Commander.
But words alone remade the world, and became instruments of power, so she tells her story because what else is she going to do? As she tells her unknown future reader, the fact that she's survived long enough to set down a narrative is a species of hope, however tenuous:
By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
And because Atwood knows we've read Orwell she has entirely too much fun dropping bits of Orwelliana into her novel. At the "Soul Scrolls" shop, machines print out made-to order prayers purchased by those with expendable income:
Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again.
It's reminiscent of Orwell's Memory Hole, albeit with a recycling update -- and no illusions anyone will ever check the archives. It also brings to mind Joseph Heller's enigmatic, terrifying Soldier in White in Catch-22, through whom the same jar of clear liquid endlessly cycles.
When the Commander takes Offred to "Jezebel's" the brothel for powerful men, Atwood sure hopes you notice the room numbers as she goes down the hall:
Doors open off it, with numbers on them: a hundred and one, a hundred and two, the way you count during a thunderstorm, to see how close you are to being struck.
Atwood even plays off Orwell's insistence that freedom comes down to being able to know for certain that two plus two equals four; just before the Commander reveals the meaning of the fake Latin phrase Nolite te bastardes carborundorum ("don't let the bastards grind you down"), which Offred has been clinging to as a message from the Handmaid who came before her, she recalls a little joke he once told her:
Women can't add, he once said, jokingly. When I asked him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don't make four.
What do they make? I said, expecting five or three.
Just one and one and one and one, he said.
Orwell is concerned with hard facts, Atwood with squishy people; later, Offred thinks,
What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn't equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke or Luke for Nick. Should does not apply.
Also, is that, like "Don't let the bastards grind you down," a joke that's out there in the world, or did Atwood make it up for the novel? I've never seen it elsewhere. Not sure it makes a lot of sense outside the world of the novel, but I'd love to hear what you think.
And then there's the epilogue, the "Historical Notes" from an academic conference over two hundred years after the story. Again, Atwood is having a hell of a lot of double-edged fun here, if fun is even the word. You might be forgiven for thinking Atwood's merely tweaking academic pomposity, and having the researcher advocate a dubious standard of objectivity and detachment:
[We] must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadean. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.
Makes you wonder if there are folks arguing statues of Gileadean generals can't be torn down, because that would mean erasing history.
Atwood is brilliantly devious here. (And I'm borrowing here from this outstanding essay by Charlotte Ahlin). Yes, it's reassuring that the terrible era of Gilead has ended. It's a hoot that the session chair, Professor Maryann Crescent Moon, is a professor "of Caucasian Anthropology" at the " University of Denay, Nunavit" -- in the presumably sunny and warm Canadian Arctic. Things sure have changed!
But goddamn, professor Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Oxford University is enraging, from the moment he opens his mouth and jokes about his female colleague
Thank you. I am sure we all enjoyed our charming Arctic Char last night at dinner, and now we are enjoying an equally charming Arctic Chair. I use the word "enjoy" in two distinct senses, precluding, of course, the obsolete third. (Laughter.)
At least we're not going to fuck her, but we'll all laugh about it. Ain't we civilized? The bad times are over!
Then Pieixoto moves on to his funny little ("I notice that everything this evening is little") puns about the double-entendre of the title he and his colleagues Professor Wade have given Offred's story, because "tail," haw haw, and bone of contention, haw haw.
Yay, Gilead fell, but here's a guy mansplaining it all.
Let's not be too judgmental about systematized rape. They had their reasons, and it was a long time ago. Offred could be lying, or making things up, or exaggerating her trauma. She's certainly gotten some details wrong about Serena Joy's name, so shame on her for not being fair to her captors. Good people on both sides.
Our narrator, with whom we've suffered throughout the book as she mourned her daughter and questioned whether she even matters, is reduced to an unimportant "crumb of history," her identity denied once again because she has no name, is only a woman, a bit player in the greater unfolding of history.
Forget all that squishy identity and power and personhood that we've been reading about, because golly, it turns out that Offred was assigned to one of the top architects of the Republic of Gilead. Let's not get too judgy, because those were complex times, and wow, what an impressive insight into the people who really mattered at the top of Gileadean society.
Atwood, in interviews, is fond of emphasizing that the final thing we read in Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't really that Winston loves Big Brother. There's that essay on Newspeak, written in modern English, not Newspeak, from a perspective that is outside, and presumably after the hell-world of the novel. Again, we're impressed by just what a brilliant trickster Atwood is: She likes to suggest that while the plot of 1984 ends on a downer, it also has a sort of happy ending thanks to the epilogue. Handmaid may be far more depressing: within narrative arc, Offred escapes -- or at least seems to. But even two centuries later, men are still assholes, and still seem to run everything. But hurrah, they let women read again now, so all is well.
Yep, it's a very literary, very smart way of closing with "The End ...?"
You want a picture of the future? Atwood seems to ask. Imagine a male boot stamping on a woman's face, forever. If not hobnails, good sensible Oxford/Cambridge leather will do.
Are there any questions?
Programming Note: On to Atwood's new sequel, The Testaments (buy it with the Wonkette kickbacky link here, or get it from the library -- or used -- if you're lucky.) We'll start in two weeks, on
October 20; let's read through Chapter XV, "Fox and Cat." I like cats. Then we'll finish the book on October 27.
UPDATE: What was I thinking? I need more of a break than that between book club outings! Let's start The Testaments on October 27 (we'll still read through Part -- not chapter -- XV, though), and finish up on November 3, OK?
Also Programming Note: As with As with our other book club posts, please keep the comments, which we do not allow, please save your off-topic comments for the real Open Thread, which is right here.which is right here. Yr Friendly Neighborhood Comments Moderator will be fairly aggressive in flagging off-topic posts and asking you to take 'em to the Open Thread. No malice or marks on your permanent record; we just want to be sure this discussion is about Handmaid's Tale and Margaret Atwood -- and DO feel free to discuss her other works, as well as stuff you think makes good supplementary reading!
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.