Monday, January 5, 2009
The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" was part of an on-line round-robin postal letterboxing book club. Phew. As I started reading this I said to myself, "I know this. Why do I know this?"
Because I had already seen the 1990 film adaptation of it featuring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duval and Faye Dunaway.
Well, poo! Now I know the end, I thought.
The book is another dystopian future where a horrendous attack on the U. S. kills the president and every member of Congress. Marshall law takes into effect, and then slowly, the law becomes very "religious, " and women start to lose their rights. Their bank accounts are frozen, turned over to their husbands, fathers, brothers to manage. Then, they can't work. Then, they canot be educated and are not allowed to read. Slowly, they lose everything. This I did not understand. I did not understand the logic of it, nor how the U.S. ever got to that point.
We meet Offred, one of the Handmaids. Offred's not her name. She just belongs to a Commander, a high-ranking official in the new regime, Fred. She's "Of Fred." She's a handmaid because she is fertile. She can have babies. Woman who can babies, who are not married for the first time (if you are married a second time, it's a sin and therefore not a valid marriage), who are not married to high-ranking officials, are taken to a training facility. They are covered from head to toe in red. Their faces are covered with...wings, a whimple? Their faces are covered from the rest of society. They leave the facility once they are assigned to a high-ranking official. The Handmaids' job? To procreate.
If you are not a wife, or a Handmaid, you're an Aunt (a training facility matron), a Martha (an older, sterile house servant/cook, etc) or an Econowife, a wife to the lower-class men. If you are sterile, a lesbian, a rebel, a femenist, you are an Unwoman, and are captured and either killed or sent away to the colonies, usually work in radioactive facilities, or cotton or fruit picking.
A very large part of society is sterile. Several things are to blame; radiation and pollution are some of the reasons. Some of the high-ranking officials' wives cannot have children. They are given a handmaid. There is a rape ritual where the wife will grasp the wrists of the handmaid, lay above her, if you will, while the husband has sex with the handmaid. All so that the husband and wife can take the handmaid's child as their own.
It's a pretty creepy book. We get disjointed stories from Offred. She was married (for a second time), she had a daughter. She and her husband and daughter tried to escape to Canada but failed. She never sees them again. Her Commander is possibly sterile, as she is the second handmaid to be called Offred. The first one hung herself.
There's an underground movement, there are special club for Commanders and other officials to secretly flaunt the new religious was of life. There are spies, there are double-spies. Who can she trust?
The movie ends differently from the book. I liked them both.