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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Handmaid's Tale - A review by an Unwoman

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.  The bare bones of the plot is that after the population of America severely begins to decline (blamed factors are women choosing not to procreate, biological toxins from environmental chemicals and radiation fallout from a nuclear disaster) the government is assassinated and a new order takes over.  The new power wants to focus on re-populating the country and they feel that the best way to do this is to take away all power from women and relegate those that can to procreation.  Those in power are issued Handmaiden's a woman that is used solely to conceive, this concept is taken from Genesis 30:1;

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I shall die!"
Then she said, "Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her."

Women who have proven themselves in motherhood previously, or have been medically declared as fertile are given the choice of becoming Handmaiden's or being sent to the 'colonies' to carry out nuclear clean up - a short lived position.  Marriages of all are arranged and those men that are unmarried are forbidden to lie biblically with anyone else, a crime punishable by death.  The goal for all men is to acheive enough power and status in order to be assigned their own Handmaiden.  All women are powerless, even those married to high ranking 'officers' are wives in name only, they live lives separate to their husbands with all actions being controlled.

The Handmaid's Tale is a reflective account from a Handmaid, the narrative shifts between reflective accounts of the time before the new regime, the time during the initial change and her life as a Handmaiden.  The story is ended in such a way that it is unclear what becomes of the narrator, the author urges the reader to make up their own ending based on the evidence given.

I first read the Handmaid's Tale for my English Literature A Levels  during my late teens in about 2003.  I remember being genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed this story, I was in my first year of sixth form and felt that this was the difference between being a child that was forced to read for schooling and a young adult that wanted to.
In my teens my whole sympathy was directed at the narrator.  I know now from re-reading that the author tried to achieve sympathy for all characters but I managed to over-look this the first time round.  I understand that the characters were not to blame for the Handmaid's situation, they were as much of a victim as she was.

As the book is solely focused on procreation I knew that this time round I may struggle with the theme.  I remembered from my previous read that the book spouts strong slurs against those that are unable to conceive and could remember all too clearly the terms such as Unwoman, barren and withered.  Battling with infertility myself I subconsciously sidled my allegiance from the narrator who I knew would be pregnant towards the end of the book and onto the wife of the commander who was unable to conceive herself.  I knew that the commander's wife was a detestable character with many flaws but re-reading I could empathise more with her.  

The wife is certainly cruel to the Handmaiden, she goes out of her way to assert their different statuses and even manipulates the Handmaid, putting her life at risk to get what she wants; a baby.  I can certainly understand her motives, not only does she have to face being branded as an Unwoman by society but she has to share her house with a woman that can and has conceived.  The wife also has to suffer the greater indignity of having to share her husband biblically with this woman.  The wife has no purpose in life, the Handmaid's are supposed to be vessels for children, their every move geared towards attaining this while the wives have nothing.

The more I read the more I could feel myself re-warming to the narrator.  Men are held in such high esteem that their is no acknowledgement to the possibility of them being sterile.  A Handmaiden is given the chance of 3 households to conceive with, each posting lasting no more then 2 years.  If they fail to conceive a healthy baby then they will be declared Unwoman and sent to the colonies, men are not tested and so the blame will lie solely with the woman even though the nuclear explosion would have rendered both genders with fertility problems.  The Handmaiden is manipulated by both the Officer and the Wife, the Officer wants companionship and 'romantic' sex and the Wife wants the Handmaid to sleep with another man in order for her to conceive.  All are illegal and punishable by certain death for the Handmaiden and wife, the Officer may escape with a lesser punishment depending on his importance.

Many would argue that the Handmaid's Tale is a feminist novel, I however disagree.  Their is a weak attempt to stop the novel being completely feminist in the character of Nick, this man risks his life to save the Handmaid.  It is a small token in comparison to the other male characters in the book.  
Luke the original husband is only ever mentioned in reminiscent passages, we know that he had a wife before the Narrator and that he was having an affair whilst still married which obviously calls his morals into question.  He also seemed slower to react to the significance of the situation when the power struggle first began.  The Narrator secretly believed he may have enjoyed having the sole power in the marriage when it came to finances and important decisions.
The Officer strikes me as a charmer of a man used to getting his own way through manipulation and bribery.  Although the narrator constantly voices that she feels sorry for him and that he isn't a bad man, he clearly is as he uses the situation to his full advantage and was one of the original leaders in implementing the Gilead structure.
The other minor men that may be mentioned are usually patrol men,  all seem to be in their teens and regarded as 'puppies' indicating that the narrator doesn't hold ill will against them even though they are part of the structure that has put her where she is.

I personally believe that the main theme of this novel is Sex and the power that comes with it.  Although this Gilead society has removed all power from women the Handmaiden is revered and although society may claim it is the clinical act of insemination that holds them in high esteem it is in fact for the carnal act of sex.
The Narrator constantly has subtle plays for power towards the men around her.  With the patrol men she would shimmy her hips or position herself in a minor provocatively way, she admits it is petty but relishes the power it brings.  The Officer initially wants her for companionship but this eventually turns into his need for 'normal' sex.  Although minor once the Narrator realises what it is the commander wants she does use this to her advantage to procure certain banned items such as hand lotion and magazines.   We also have the constant flash backs to hotel room sex sessions during the affair with her husband; he betrayed 'God' and his wife in order to have sex with her, this was the power she had over him.

I have been told that this is the best of Margaret Atwood's novels but I can't wait to read some more!

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