Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Club: A Handmaid's Tale

by Sara N., Meghan B., Laurie K., and Megan S.

Time to break out the bubbly 'cause it's our first ever book club meeting.  This month, we're reading the classic speculative fiction novel, The Handmaid's Tale.  Find out what we thought of the novel and weigh in on the conversation in the comments. 


Megan S:  I hate Offred.  She's worthless.  She didn't fight to save herself, her daughter, or the countless other handmaids being held captive as breeding stock.  You can't even argue that her spirit was broken by the system.  Offred was the same spineless embarrassment before the takeover.  That's what the parallel between waiting in the hotel rooms to cheat with her would-be husband and waiting to cheat with the Commander was about.  In the end, she chose having regular sex with a cute guy over taking down the system and freeing the enslaved.


Sara: But la la la sex makes everything better! Just not gross senior citizen sex. I'll be honest, I read the whole book in cringing horror at every single thing that was being described. The world Atwood created was so terrifying that I couldn't focus as much on my reaction to the people in it, if that makes sense. That said, I was shocked at how easily Offred knuckled under to the new world order. If she was umpty-generations removed from the repressive regime's takeover, it would make sense. But wow, did she (and everybody, really) fall in line extremely quickly. Seriously, we're a fairly heavily armed society. Wouldn't there be more fighting back?

Meghan B: Yeah, the book is... complicated. Offred, to me, is supposed to be an unreliable narrator. This is one of those books where you just absolutely hate everyone involved. I don't think you're supposed to like Offred or even feel sorry for her. She's your window to how messed up everything is. 

Laurie: What can't be changed must be endured. Offred's tale is a litany of things she has to do to keep living. When your options are "do this or die" 99 out of 100 people are going to go with 'do.' The way Offred reacts is the way almost everyone would react in the same situation - ignorance, disbelief, and finally acceptance when the only other option is to die. We don't like to admit it but it's true. As for the sex, Offred has been so disenfranchised that she wasn't even allowed to keep her own name. When she sees the chance to make a decision - any decision, even a bad one - she does so to feel some kind of semblance of power and control over her life.


Megan S: Ofglen was the only decent one in the bunch and that's probably because we saw so little of her.  No doubt she would have turned out as bad as everyone else.  

Atwood paints all of her characters with the same broad brushstrokes. Women are catty bitches and men one-dimensional idiots.  The female characters on both sides of the issue relish in watching women get beaten down.  The main drive of the male characters seems to be having sex and none show any real concern about forcing women in to subservient positions.  Even Offred's husband Luke wasn't too concerned by his wife's new reduced status in society.

Meghan B: I feel the same way. Again, this is one of those books where you hate everyone. I think the characters act more as a vehicle for the message of the story and less so as dynamic people. Atwood has a story to tell and she isn't going to let a silly thing like non-static characters get in her way. I do admit I find the idea of Serena Joy fascinating. I hate her so fully, I know she has the blood of womenkind of her hands, and yet she is curious to me. She's an anti-feminist harpy who basically helped enslave all women and somehow has the gall to be unhappy. This is what you wanted, Serena Joy. You made your bed, now lie in it (with, uh, your husband having sex with another woman...). She is the epitome of every female politician and religious leader who wants to send her own sex back to the kitchen and conveniently forgets that her own status would also be forfeit if her dream world of traditional values became reality.

Sara: I had a hard time getting a bead on most of the secondary characters. What did the Commander want from Offred, really? Was playing Scrabble with her all a power trip for him? And I was frustrated that Moira seemed resigned to her fate by the end of the book. I wanted her to keep fighting to the end; instead, she willingly dressed like a Playboy bunny and waited to be all used up and thrown away. This obviously isn't a book that gets a sequel, but if such an unwise act were to occur, I'd want to read about Moira struggling to break free (again) and fleeing to Canada. She had the most spark of anyone in the book.

Laurie: Serena Joy was my favorite secondary character. She was the change she wanted to see in the world, and it was bitter. (I want to hand this book to Michelle Bachmann and ask her how she'd feel about really being submissive to her husband, not just paying it lip-service. I hope she enjoys knitting.) The Commander was also great. Like his wife, he got what he wanted - however, unlike his wife, he didn't have to live the life he imposed on everyone else.  He's the equivalent of the minister that damns homosexuals, then gets caught snorting cocaine off a male hooker's ass. 


Megan S: Yes.  I completely understand that this is a cautionary tale, meant to show us how easy it is for a nation like the US to slip into a world like the one here.  It's especially poignant now with the attacks on women's rights in the real world.  We could lose our citizen status so easily, especially with so few women in elected federal leadership roles.  I think it didn't have the chilling impact for me as it did other readers because I read this much later than most people and I've seen the same ideas brought to life in other stories.

Meghan B: Personally, this book has sections that scare the bejeezus out of me. Even just the idea of suddenly all women losing control of their bank accounts. That scene has always stuck with me. I never carry cash on me. Why bother? I have a debit card, I can pull up my bank account on my phone. If this ever happened, I would be well and truly screwed. So that really scares me.  In this age of technology, who still carries cash on them? 

I read this book when I was a Freshman in college, many moons ago, when I was really starting to get involved in politics and the idea of women's rights. So I suppose this book hit me at just the right time. The horrors contained within have always stuck with me. I find it a truly uncomfortable book to read, but one that everyone should attempt. I often want to grab my copy of it and smack politician's on the head with it while shouting "This is not a how-to guide!"

Sara: Beyond the women's rights issues, I was shocked at how prescient Atwood was about the potential environmental and biological hazards while writing in the 1980s. I'm specifically referring to this passage: "Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers." Sure, we knew about the dangers of pollutants in the 1980s. But in the last decade, we've become increasingly concerned about the implications of women taking birth control, for example, and those hormones being secreted in urine and mixing with ground water. Studies have found that this process is not responsible for the increased estrogen found in our drinking water. But I'm still gobsmacked that Atwood was predicting this as a problem years before the general public became worried about it.

For me, this is the hallmark of the best speculative fiction. Sure, women aren't popping out un-babies on a regular basis. (Oh, how I'm fighting the urge right now to post pictures of comically unattractive infants!) But we do have a declining birth rate, and we have a movement away from overly medicated hospital births and toward natural, at-home midwife births. Had I not seen the publication date, I would've assumed Atwood was writing this book based on current trends and preoccupations in society right now. This is what made "Handmaid's Tale" such a compelling read for me.

Laurie: More than anything, this book is about the dangers of complacency. Offred had no idea anything was going so wrong until everything was off the rails. Could that happen to us? Consider the Patriot Act. It sliced and diced our Constitution in ways that most people didn't care to pay attention to - or didn't understand. Any objections got rolled up in, "Yes, but terrorists!" Ten years later and that's still the rationale for curtailing a great deal of our privacy. Most people don't even think about it until something truly egregious comes up, like the government demanding (and getting!) your cell phone records without a warrant or the FBI tracking you via a GPS unit slapped to your car, again without a warrant. Note that the FBI won't even say why they tracked the second guy - nor do they have to. That's scary stuff. And despite all of that, there's still a tendency to say, "Well, those people are probably criminals. So what?"

Freedoms that are taken for granted tend to disappear when we're not looking, and what replaces them can be very harsh indeed. Keep your eyes open, speak up when you notice change you don't like, and be mindful of what's going on around you. Offred might have saved her family if she'd taken those actions.


Megan S:  Now that I've had a few days to process the story, it's obvious to me that "Handmaid's Tale" is much more of a long, drawn-out fable than a novel.  I think it would have been easier for me passively read the book had I gone in with that in mind.  Instead, I spent the whole time screaming in my head, "DO SOMETHING, STUPID!"

Atwood's style was odd, especially in the first half of the book.  There was a cadence, a rhythm to it but it was strangely monotone.  I began to really resent the book, like I was the one enslaved.  I have a hard time accepting this was done on purpose because it doesn't mirror Offred's situation; she hadn't been beaten down and broken by her enslavement.  Offred was the same person, more or less, before the takeover. 

Meghan B: I'll say it. I don't think Atwood is a good writer. I think she has fabulous, insane, brilliant ideas and stories that need to be told, but I always thought her use of language left something to be desired. I have heard that this was on purpose, but I'm not so sure. Either way, I feel the story and the cautionary tale transcend the writing. I always feel kind of nervous and messed up after reading it. The core of the story has vividly stuck with me for several years.

Sara: I do agree that some of the writing and plotting were problematic, particular the contrived symmetry. So the clandestine prostitute party took place in the very same hotel where Offred would meet her lover during their affair? O ... kay.

On the other hand, I did love the way Atwood handled the world building. She dribbled out the details of this new society and how it came to be in an effective way. Like Meghan said, the scene that hit me like the biggest punch to the gut was the scene where Offred lost her job and had her bank accounts frozen. It happens later in the book, but I identified with those feelings of rage and confusion and helplessness. It was, strangely, the most powerful "what if?" moment in the book for me. It made me wonder how the dynamic between me and my husband might change if all of my money went into an account under his control.

Also, I'm a sucker for the "centuries-later analysis of the events depicted in the book" ending. Justin Cronin's "The Passage" did it, too, and it hints that things improve and gives a glimpse at that future society's attitude toward what I've just read. I especially liked the throwaway comment about these future academics not being able to judge the Republic of Gilead because that future society isn't operating under the same social constraints as the Gileadeans. How often is that argument brought up when discussing slavery or feudalism or the Holy Wars? It was a sly parallel to our current discussions of history.

Laurie: The way things jumped around was annoying at first, but it made sense to me that it was partly Offred simply not being able to face pieces of the story in the context of her present situation. I think the style suited the character; Offred has internalized her powerlessness and decided she is a coward because she chooses life on their terms instead of death on her own terms.  That kind of person would shy away not only from the present but also from the truth.

One thing I did NOT like is that this book has one hell of a case of 'white makes right' going on. That crack at arranged marriages irked me to no end. Yes, we do it differently in America, but arranged marriages are still practiced in a lot of places and it's not some hellish servitude for the woman. As someone with a great many Indian colleagues, I can say that my perceptions of arranged marriages have changed considerably. It's a viable option for a lot of people, and if it isn't mainstream in the United States, it is undeniably happening here all the time. Arranged marriage is not the death of love. It's not female slavery.  It's not horrific by any means. It's just a different viewpoint about how - and why - you get to the altar. I know a lot of people (male and female) who chose it happily.

So, what did you guys think?  Sound off in the comments!
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  1. OK - Here's my first thoughts (kind of an info-dump)


    This is not one of the books where you like the main character and are rooting for her to succeed because she is awesome. I rooted for her to get the hell out of that situation because I wouldn't wish it on anyone. As a person, she embodies the "everywoman" who goes through life content in her own sphere. You can see a lot of the "me generation" here as she mostly does what she wants (having an affair, for instance), she pretty much ignores what is going on in the world outside until she is directly affected, and by the time she is ready to react and try to change, then it really is too late. She has the example of her mother, the women's rights leader, but she has no interest in her mother's causes.

    As a handmaid, I got her wanting to do the little things that were against the rules, but she really never wants to rock the boat. I usually read strong female characters who stand up and fight back, so this was a real departure for me. It is, though, probably how most people would act in her situation.

    She's also not reliable as a narrator (how many times did she re-tell the encounter with Nick?) so you are also left to question what did/didn't happen.

    Supporting Characters:

    Laurie - you're comment about Bachmann echoes my thoughts completely. Best part of the book for me is how bitter Serena Joy's life is now that she's "won." The day after I read this book I saw an article on the American Pediatrics Association response to Bachmann's comments on the HPV vaccine, and now I will probably always refer to her as "Serena Joy."

    Moira is the most tragic character for me. She is such a fighter, but when we last see her she is beaten down and has accepted her fate. It's more disheartening than a whole sea of red dressed handmaidens, to be honest.

    The men are barely fleshed out, strange at first since they are supposedly the ones with all the power, except that it seems that it's mostly the women enforcing the rules on other women. Without the Aunts, Wives, and other women keeping each other in line, this whole society would be in shambles.

    Cautionary Tale:

    Ignoring is worse than ignorance. That line (I'm paraphrasing here, but it was I think something Moira mentioned or Offred thought about it because of Moira) is what stuck with me. It's scary that the whole revolution, how they destroyed the government and blamed terrorists from another country was something that felt possible. The cutting off the electronic access to money, too. Need to remember my mom's advice to always carry money with you. Of course she meant in the case I needed to get a cab or something, but we are dependent on electronic everything.

    Writing Style:

    The style was different, but not so off-putting that I couldn't finish it. It probably would have taken me a lot longer to read it if I didn't have today as a deadline. :)

    The creativity and the issues that Atwood incorporates are like she had some kind of magic ball to see life 20 years later. There is a lot of forethought in the world-building.

    I guess I saw arranged marriage, the kind in this case, as being abhorrent becuase of the really young age of the girls (14, younger?) and because they aren't really choosing it. If two adults choose to be in an arranged marriage, then more power to them. Although I also think this is a result of the fact that I've been exposed my whole life to different cultures, and know of more than a few Indian couples who went this route. Perhaps that is one area where Atwood was not so forward thinking.

  2. Kindle, I read the book yesterday. The other gals were all talking back and forth in email about their impressions and I was like, "Hey, I should read that..." ;)

  3. Laurie - I wasn't going to read it at first. I saw the movie years ago and it pissed me off and I knew the book would piss me off more. But I did. I have to say, it's another case where the book is better than the movie (although the end of the movie is a lot less vague and you actually like Offred more). And I'm glad that I finally read this one.

  4. Terrifying book, but then I'm a sucker for a good(read bad) dystopia.