The discussion my book club had on The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best ones I can remember. This was a very controversial book not because people disliked it, but because the story Atwood gave us had a lot of elements that evoked strong opinions.
Many of us felt that this dystopian story was more timeless than other dystopian classics such as 1984, Brave New World, or A Clockwork Orange which seemed dated. The problems those novels took to an extreme felt more dated but the religious extremism we witness in Offred’s story is still present around the world. With the publishers’ date on this, it’s likely that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was a big influence on Atwood’s plot. She compares the idea of a religious government takeover to the Puritan roots of the US. “You often hear in North America, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn’t agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume that the seeds are not there (interview with the NY Times). And as with all of Atwood’s other works, she’s brought something that has happened in history and resurrected it to haunt us again. The frightening thing is that some people, extreme fundamentalists, might want this in our nation’s future.
There was one line a woman pointed out in the book that shocked her. This is from page 174 in my copy, “It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.” This book was first published in 1986, 15 years before the September 11th attacks, this seems ominous.
We found it interesting that Harvard, a liberal place of higher learning, was turned into the halls of the Eyes. Many famous political figures (and even Atwood herself) study at Harvard and it’s a hot bed for influential people. One of our members commented that Boston was one of the most liberal places he’d ever lived and that putting the book there was even more ironic.
The commander reminded a lot of us of a modern conservative politician. Many politicians that preach family values and conservative politics are caught up in sex scandals or other scandals that discredit their messages. Look at how fidelity and marriage came into play in the 2012 Republican primary when candidates such as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were brought under the microscope for not following laws or having alternative persona lifestyles. The commander was a high-ranking man who helped form the Republic of Gilead, yet he wasn’t fully in line with what the government was teaching. He thought of himself as above the law, thinking that laws couldn’t touch him because he wrote them.
Offred’s visits with the commander were a clear demonstration of power. The commander slowly let Offred think she had some power when they began meeting alone. Letting her play Scrabble was a terrible trick because it let her remember and think that things could go back to how they had been. The commander knew she wanted something so taboo and was flaunting it in front of her. She would win games of Scrabble and was given small conveniences that made her think she was special to him. Finding out that her predecessor had been given these same privileges made her question any power she had over the commander and her trip to Jezebel’s confirmed that she was at a loss to do anything to defy him.
The woman bore the majority of the oppression in the story, but the men were oppressed in some ways as well. Because of Offred’s narration, we don’t know what the men are doing most of the day, but we can see servants such as Nick who don’t have a lot of power to carry out their own wishes. The men in power, such as the commander, are truly the only ones with any sort of freedom. The Aunts seem to have the most power of any female characters, but their influence is very limited to the Handmaids.
Offred tied herself to a man at every point in the story. We thought about the timeline and she must have been young, in her early 20s, when she and Luke began seeing each other. She was willingly ‘the other woman’ with Luke. She never thought about his wife and was content with their relationship. Then she becomes ‘of-Fred’ and is defined by the commander. This time, she has to think about the man’s wife because she is forced to hold Serena Joy’s hands and walk through her garden each day. And in her ultimate defiance, she defines herself by Nick. She’s waiting for a man to save her.
Moira never defined herself by another person in this way. She wanted to survive by fighting back, not by obeying like Offred did. Granted, Offred had a family to worry about where we see no evidence of Moira’s family. Offred was very passively rebellious because she was worried about how her daughter would be affected. Both were still alive.
There was a similar difference between Ofglen and Offred as well. Ofglen was very involved and passionate about fighting back whereas Offred was interested in fighting back and seemed to want to be a part of the underground movement, but as soon as she started seeing Nick, she almost forgot about the efforts. It’s the difference between signing a petition and leading a march.
Janine was the only Handmaid who had a name. Offred never referred to her as Ofwarren and always used her real name. We figured that this was because Offred knew her before she was Ofwarren, before names were gone and they could whisper them in the night to each other. But it helped make her more human. We could sympathize with her because she could be identified.
Okay, so that historical note. If you read the book and didn’t read that part, go back now. The speaker is still really sexist and makes very demeaning comments about Gilead and it’s culture. However, we’ve seen that whoever wins the war writes the history books so this isn’t very surprising. He seems very dismissive of the transcript because it’s an unidentified woman’s story and he doesn’t even know if it’s true. I pointed out that it’s as valid of an account of life in Gilead as Anne Frank’s diary is of the Nazi prosecution. Just because it only happened to one person doesn’t mean it’s not valid and it’s important because it did happen to that one person. You can’t look for a ‘catch all’ story and anything out of the ‘normal’ can’t be written off because it’s true and did happen. Many times, it’s the exceptions we get to hear about.
So the big question is if Offred made it out. A bigger question to me is where and when her tapes were recorded. Was she on her way out and recorded it as a record for those working on the ‘Underground Railroad,’ or was it even a recording that was made after she was captured and was a form of punishment? Was this a testimony that was meant to be destroyed when the regime ended and it somehow escaped? I kind of like that we don’t know what happened to her because it means I can hope for good things.
The book talked about how there are two types of freedom; freedom to do something and freedom (protection) from a thing. The women gave up the freedom to do many things, but received a lot of freedom from things (pornography, rape, etc.).
Freedom from and freedom to. No longer have freedom to but do have freedom from.
Could this ever happen in the US? There are a lot of topics in Atwood’s book that have been debated for years. Abortion, birth control, rape victim’s rights, sexism, slut shaming, women’s rights in general and a million others. Maybe there are those out there who think Gilead would solve all these problems. There are examples of tragedies that have already taken place throughout Atwood’s book. This book was scary to some of our members who read it upon its release almost 30 years ago and reading it today, it still gave me shivers.
This was a great book for a book club discussion and I hope others can enjoy it as well!
Until next time, write on.
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