Wonkette Book Club: Reading Margaret Atwood in Trumpland
Margaret Atwood wrote most of The Handmaid's Tale in 1984, when everyone had Orwell and Reagan on their minds. It was just in the air, although unlike most people who noted that Reagan seemed to groove on "Ignorance is Strength," Atwood got a novel out of the juxtaposition of that iconic year and the ascendancy of the Christian Right.
At around the same time (maybe it was 1985), I sat in on several classes at a local fundamentalist Christian school, where I was researching, very clumsily, how its workbook-based curriculum operated. And sure, my hidden agenda involved gawking at the weird fundie content, like the exercise teaching that "facts" are observable truths (the table is made of wood) and truths revealed by God in the Bible (the Universe was created in six 24-hour days). "Opinions" are matters of taste (chocolate is the yummiest flavor) and crazy notions about reality made up by scientists who reject the Word of God (the Earth is "millions" of years old).
During one visit -- and a rare class where all the junior-high-aged kids watched a movie together instead of just working individually in their workbooks -- the topic was the moral degeneracy of rock music. One very distressed girl was near tears at all the depravity and wickedness, and wondered how, in America of all places, such madness could be allowed. "Can't those people just be" -- she struggled with how to delete rock music from the world -- "killed?"
So yes, that came to mind while I was rereading Handmaid.
I also recall reading, sometime before all that (although darned if I can find it now), a column by the theologian Martin E. Marty about a little exercise where students at a fundamentalist school were asked to describe what an ideal Christian America would look like. Marty (the theologian, not Yr Dok Zoom) was horrified by some of the students' visions, which included strict ideological policing, death by stoning for adulterers and homosexuals, and a general tendency toward fascism in the name of enforcing "Biblical" morality.
When Atwood published her own dystopian novel in 1986, she was definitely tapping into a very real zeitgeist, is what we're saying. In fact, my own initial reading of Handmaid was, probably unfairly, colored by a review that faulted Atwood for building her kakistocracy from materials that were all too readily at hand in the mid 1980s. Was it this generally admiring New York Times review? Possibly, I know I subscribed to the NYT Book Review back then -- remember print? Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says, of dystopian fiction generally,
What usually works against this genre of fiction [...] is that what makes the imagined society narrow and oppressive also serves to limit the work in which it is described. This can also be said of ''The Handmaid's Tale''; among other things, it is a political tract deploring nuclear energy, environmental waste, and antifeminist attitudes.
Or it may have been a different, more negative review; Lehmann-Haupt goes on to say Handmaid is
so much more than that - a taut thriller, a psychological study, a play on words. It has a sense of humor about itself, as well as an ambivalence toward even its worst villains, who aren't revealed as such until the very end. Best of all, it holds out the possibility of redemption. After all, the Handmaid is also a writer. She has written this book. She may have survived.
Or perhaps my not being so crazy about the novel in 1986 was simply the first-year-of-grad-school pretentiousness of a 24-year-old white male literature major whose most prized possession was a 1949 first American edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and who tended to look down on what he still thought of as "imitations." What a snob!
Here's an Atwood observation that makes a good counterpoint to such criticism:
It's a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias. Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we've already had.
So let's talk about the first half of Handmaid, shall we? As always, don't feel like you need to have kept up with the assigned reading (through Chapter 24 for this week) to join in. Just grab a cup of coffee or spiked grape-flavored drink and join in!
Here's a thing I noticed in my second reading of The Handmaid's Tale in 34 years: while the Republic of Gilead is a hellish authoritarian place that oppresses women in the name of "biblical" values, the names "Jesus" and "Christ" appear only when used as expletives. Having the searchable e-book (free for nothing if you're in the US and have Amazon Prime -- but just like Offred, it's not free in Canada) helps confirm that -- although "the Lord" appears throughout, underlining that the Republic of Gilead is a patriarchy overlaid with hypocritical trappings of evangelical culture. There are hymns and scraps of Scripture, although our first-person narrator, Offred, distinctly remembers a lot of it has been altered to reinforce women's subjugation, with the meek inheriting the earth edited out of the Beatitudes and "From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs" added to the epistles of Paul.
Even all these years later, the novel's central premise is horrifying: after an unspecified environmental disaster has left most humans infertile, the rulers of Gilead kidnap and indoctrinate women with "viable ovaries" to be "handmaids" to high-status men. Offred has no name of her own; she is literally the property Of Fred, the "Commander" she's been assigned to so she can be impregnated in a ritualized monthly rape ceremony. If she gets pregnant, she'll be allowed to live. If not, she'll be declared an "Unwoman" and sent off to die -- but only after two or three assignments to different men. (The system blames women for being "barren," but builds in that unstated acknowledgement that men may have a problem with their mighty seed. No matter, it's the woman's fault.)
Much of the novel's power comes from just how matter-of-factly Offred lets us see this nightmare world -- she remembers the times before this, but wasn't especially political, and in fact found her mother's own second-wave feminism kind of embarrassing. And as things got worse, little details like individual freedom and secularism and women's agency just slipped away, because times were hard and there was a war on, and at first, they only came for the socialists and the abortionists and the unchurched, didn't they?
It's not hard to see why The Handmaid's Tale has been selling like crazy since Donald Trump was elected. The TV series (which I haven't watched yet) helped spread its popularity, but the book would be a bestseller now anyway. Bits that seemed like standard dsytopian novel fare, like Offred's suspicion that much of the news is just made up by the regime, take on new shades of meaning when the "president" tells us the real news is fake, and when his Emissary to Wackyland insists "truth isn't truth."
Maybe it's, Trump, or maybe it's just because I just finished Dorian Lynskey's brilliant The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984, but this time around, I'm far more attuned to Offred's uncertainty about what reality is, or was, and how it clashes with her here and now. Are her husband and her little girl alive or dead? She was told they were both killed when the family tried to escape into Canada, but of course they'd tell her that, wouldn't they? We hadn't noticed before, but in the second half of the novel, Atwood includes a sly play on Orwell's "two plus two equals four" trope, in the form of the Commander telling a "joke" about how women think.
At several points in the novel, Offred reminds us she's reconstructing everything from memory (presumably from some point after escaping, maybe, or perhaps during an interlude of freedom before she's ultimately captured and destroyed), so please be aware that she's not sure of anything. Regardless of whether Offred herself has read Orwell, Atwood sure as hell has, and even if history isn't a boot stamping on a human face forever, it's all about power, isn't it?
But if you happen to be a man, sometime in the future, and you've made it this far, please remember: you will never be subject to the temptation or feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman. It's difficult to resist, believe me. But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.
Well there's a discussion question, huh? What is the difference between it being about power and control and it being about "who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it"?
Here's another discussion topic, from this lovely Atlantic profile (yes, it's assigned reading! everything is!) of Atwood in advance of the recent release of her Handmaid sequel, The Testaments (no spoilers, unless you count knowing being told it's set 15 years after the end of Handmaid and is not a continuation of Offred's story). It's a really nice, self-aware bit of journamalism, in which Atwood comes off as brilliantly prickly toward the journalist, Sophie Gilbert.
The adoption of The Handmaid's Tale as a seminal feminist text has always troubled [Atwood] -- large parts of the novel are a repudiation of the second-wave feminism embodied in Offred's memories of her mother. For similar reasons, Atwood has tended not to identify herself as a feminist, although by most modern interpretations of the term she fits the bill. She wanted to write The Handmaid's Tale, she documents in her 2005 book Moving Targets, as a counterpoint to speculative works such as 1984 that had sidelined women characters—to create "a dystopia from the female point of view." However, she clarifies, "this does not make The Handmaid's Tale a 'feminist dystopia,' except insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered feminist by those who think women ought not to have these things."
Her rejection of "feminist" as a label, then, isn't because she doesn't think women are and should be equal to men in intellect and status and humanity. It seems to be related to the imperfect ways in which her work has been co-opted over the years.
Discuss amongst yourselves!
Next week, we'll finish up our discussion of Handmaid, so in today's comments, please suggest things you think we need to talk about! Then we'll take a week off for Nice Things, and following that, we'll read and talk about the new book. No, you don't have to use the Amazon linky, but if you do, Yr Wonkette gets a little kickback.
Programming Note: 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 will go up in about 45 minutes to an hour. 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.