This book commentary will be less technical and more personal as I feel deeply about women’s rights, which are still not universally granted or respected. And let it be clear – this would not be possible without the women’s own permission.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood had been everything I expected it to be and more. It is a stark reminder that freedoms gained with so much sacrifice can be easily lost. All it takes is for us to stop paying attention to the society we live in, too mesmerized by all the capitalist distractions which trick us into believing we are never good enough without them. This story is also a warning, a whispered hint about what we could become if we let it unfold. Let is an important word here (and everywhere) as it could mean the difference between belonging to yourself and belonging to someone else.
All around the world, previously tolerant societies are slowly transforming into a sickening melange of patriarchal elements and acceptance on the part of the oppressed, thus becoming mausoleums for women’s rights. But of course, unlike natural disasters these metamorphoses never come without a clear warning.
The main character narrates:
The novel is set in a not so distant New England, where Christian fundamentalists have overthrown the United States government and formed the Republic of Gilead. The Constitution is suspended and women’s rights are quickly severed in a move to reorganize the society according to the Old Testament. The story is told by Offred, one of the women kept for reproductive purposes because of low fertility rates and referred to as Handmaids. Offred is assigned to the household of Commander Fred due to his wife’s inability to conceive. The main character gives a detailed account of her life as a Handmaid and offers insight into the Gileadean society with flashbacks from her life before the installation of the theocracy.
The Main Character
Offred depicts her bedroom as a “waiting room” where she spends most of her waking hours. In the beginning, she takes a long time to explore every nook and corner of the plain room, stripped of any personal items. This shows that for fundamentalists to subdue someone not already brainwashed they attempt to strangle one’s self and replace it with… nothing, really. Not a single thing in the world can possibly make up for losing one’s freedom to move, speak or choose. While not expecting to find anything to suggest someone has previously lived in that room, Offred stumbles upon the Latin inscription nolite te bastardes carborundorum, which literally means “don’t let the bastards grind you down“. She immediately realizes the previous occupant, another Handmaid, had left the message there for her. By reading these words, Offred committed a grave crime but she becomes fascinated with them despite not yet knowing what they mean.
As other Handmaids, Offred was supposed to wear a white cap referred to as wings which basically covered much of her face from the outside world and prevented her from glancing sideways. This is another attempt of the regime to brainwash the Handmaids by allowing them to see the world through a tunneled vision only.
However, Offred’s profound insight shows that forcing someone to undergo a strict religious brainwashing doesn’t always result in removing their reason and desire for freedom. She often reflects on her past thinking “how were we to know we were happy?“. This simple question gave me a lot to think about. Do we really realize the privilege we have at the moment in perfectly democratic countries? Why do we take it for granted? While we actually enjoy many rights, we as individuals don’t actually have any control over them unless they’re moral rights. Legal entitlements can always be removed by those in power. With these in mind, do you still think politics doesn’t have any impact on your life?
Offred admits “ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it” and proves her morality is still intact. She often remembers Moira, her best friend, who resisted the indoctrination and escaped only to end up at Jezebel’s, resigned to her fate. Seeing her friend broken inside makes Offred lose hope. In the end, the only thing that the Gileadean society couldn’t rob her of was the pace with which she adapted to living in the novus ordo seclorum, which could mean the difference between surviving or not. It is an interesting aspect of human nature how one’s will to survive can remain so strong even in the midst of societies such as the one depicted above.
Acts of Rebellion
Every major character in the novel rebels in some way or another against the strict laws of Gilead, which proves the unnatural rigidity of the society. Moira rebels boldly but her attempt is in vain. This underlines the importance of speaking up and fighting for what’s right before it’s too late. Moira did this in her life before Gilead too but very few have actually rebelled against the absurdities of those early days after the Christian fundamentalists took over the power. In Offred’s numerous flashbacks we can witness their stubbornness to believe that this could happen to them, which was probably on every American woman’s mind and led to mass inaction.
Offred’s shopping partner, Ofglen, is engaged in a different kind of rebellion as she is part of an organized resistance which we don’t learn much about in the book. Also, her resistance is futile and leads to her tragic end.
Despite being one of the creators of Gilead, the Commander also engages in small rebellions by seeking a profound emotional bond with a Handmaid. Or by playing Scrabble. He reveals to Offred the true meaning of the Latin inscription that she found in her room but discards it as a joke from the times before Gilead. Even the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, breaks the law in her attempt to get Offred pregnant. These rebellious acts of people belonging to the most privileged social class in Gilead demonstrate the complexity of these characters and more than anything, their humanity.
The Wives and the Aunts
Atwood highlights the characters of women who so willingly surrendered the freedoms they enjoyed in a democratic nation. Before Gilead Serena Joy used to appear on television, preaching about how women should stay at home, which is ironic as her previous career is unthinkable now in the new regime.
In the Gileadean society, the Wives and the Aunts have the highest social status among women. The Wives are infertile and are forbidden from engaging in sexual relations with their husbands, who can only use a Handmaid for reproductive purposes. The Wives who make an appearance in the book are all utterly bitter women, who have not only lost their freedom and ability to conceive, but also the affections of their husbands. The Aunts, however, despite being infertile as well, have a sense of purpose strengthened by their mission to train obedient Handmaids for the Commanders of Gilead. Aunt Lydia, especially, seems to find pleasure in the physical punishments of the trainees and Offred appears well aware of this, which only makes her despise the Aunt even more.
These two categories of women find their equivalent in the real world as well. I have a particular distaste for televangelists and other exceedingly pious women who play a major role in maintaining gender inequality in theocratic societies or even in the midst of secular countries. None of women’s plights in the world today, including child brides and female genital mutilation, would be possible without other women acting as accomplices.
A Feminist Battle
The struggle for obtaining or maintaining women’s rights is on-going and, I believe, it is not a battle that can be won for as long as every man and boy isn’t a feminist. Of course, many ignorant mothers around the world perpetuate a mentality as old as human societies themselves which depicts women as unequal. Nowadays, feminism often has a negative connotation, but we must not let ourselves become blinded by irrational fears, largely fueled by men who worry about losing their status as the stronger gender and women who ended up hating all men rather than the inequality some of them support.
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