Girl, Deconstructed

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

We live as usual by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.


I had to scrap the review I wrote because between writing that review and this one, I went to church. I am Catholic, and today is the Feast of Christ the King. Lots of frankincense smoke, lots of ritualistic movement going on in the altar executed by men dressed in white robes, lots of responsorial hymns. The ladies who do the collection right after the homily were wearing white starched blouses, white veil caps and red skirts. 

They were carrying baskets.

I didn't check their shoes but suffice to say, it was an effort on my part to not think about these things while celebrating mass. This is the kind of book that you don't leave in the shelf when you're done with it. It moves you, offers you a perspective you'd have to carry to the next day and probably the next. You will never be just somewhere, you will always be somewhere with this book after reading it.


We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.


In an unspecified time in the future (relative to the mid-80s that is), the US government has ceased to exist and the constitution has been suspended. The Sons of Jacob, a group of religious fundamentalists, has seized and reformed society into one that is militarized, ultra-conservative and integrated some Old Testament values into the general pubic's belief system. Women have been stripped of their rights, their names, their full view of the daytime sky. The government has deconstructed the functions of a woman in society and segregated them into a class system of wives, aunts, Marthas and Handmaids.


Offred is one such handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, her function is to bear children for the elite few couple who has been rendered sterile by toxic wastes, radiation exposures and mutant STD strains. Since according to this book's premise sterility can only be faulted to women, there's a great deal of pressure on Offred to bear old Commander Fred a child (I seriously pity the Handmaid who got Commander Barney O.O) through a disturbing monthly ritual called The Ceremony which usually involves the active participation of the Commander's wife Serena Joy. Failure to perform her function is punishable by banishment into the colonies' labor camps as an Unwoman where she'd await her certain death.


I'm going to stop there because a great deal of this novel's brilliance is in how the reader gradually pieces together Offred's character: as a Handmaid, before she was one and how she was indoctrinated to be. You're pretty much left in a strange and sinister dystopian setting in the beginning of her tale and there's not one simplistic plot device or character that will explain the whys and the hows of that society in one lecturing chapter. You have to wait for the proper piece to reconstruct each aspect of Offred's story. And it was truly an amazing experience to be held under the spell of Atwood's enthralling prose as it echoes the harrowing sentiments of a woman stripped down to become a mere "two-legged womb", an "ambulatory chalice". I'm not usually a fan of disjointed storytelling, bridged by purply prose, because I am an impatient audience. But in this case it works because each fragment of Offred's personality, be it in the past or her present, was compelling independent of each other. 


I think more important than the disturbing premises of this story (in that the actualization of such nightmares is not so far from reality), what held my interest better was Offred's hope. It digs its claws to the bone, tethers you to this unreliable heroine, dragging you to hope along with her. To win the fight and not be grounded by the bastards. She's an interesting character caught in interesting times.


The world Atwood created was fully-formed and complex though I feel a lot of the emotions suffered because the temporal progression of events isn't as solidly presented.The  events leading to the radical shift in societal norms was quite shaky as well. Couldn't we have started with the New Testament first before everybody went Deuteronomy-ing everyone? A considerable stretch of one's imagination felt necessary to buy into people being able to collectively turn their backs from the existing norms and fully accept what this extremists had to offer as an alternative. It felt too fast too furious to fit in the realism of this speculative world.


In a time where the feminist discourse has evolved from gender equality, bodily integrity and autonomy to embracing ones femininity and the power that comes with in popular literature, it was quite refreshing for me to revisit these rudimentary themes. I am by no means a feminist scholar but certainly the concept of feminism has evolved from the 1980s to what it is now, making Offred's accounts cautionary more than anything else.


How many heroines do have we read about in the past year? The kick-ass assassins, the slut-shamed, the quintessential virgin, the independent single mother, the awkward college freshman, Amy Dunne (because I don't know how to categorize her). They all show us snippets, fragments of a woman, her strengths, her weaknesses, her hopes and faults. The Handmaid's Tale creatively repositions the microscope by removing the possibility of any of these heroines, so that we may appreciate each better.


Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe its about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.