Monday, October 16, 2017

Reading Group: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was a bit of a whole-group choice, made in the absence of Trevor, who had been meant to  make the next suggestion, and prompted I suppose by the recent MGM/Hulu TV adaptation. Since Ann was next in line to choose, she stepped in and took on the task of kicking off our discussion.

In the past there seems to have been a bit of a reluctance in the group to read books by Margaret Atwood (one of my absolutely favourite writers), I'm not sure why. John has considered her a bit 'long-winded' - he reveres economy above all, and her books do indeed tend to be lengthy, and packed with lush detail (none of which I consider extraneous, however). There is a bit of a resistance in our group to authors who it is felt have been over-hyped, yet we have read several books by male authors you might say would come in that category, and I have suspected there to be a bit of an unconscious prejudice against Atwood as an overtly feminist writer - she was once published by Virago, and her early books deal most pointedly with feminist issues. The one book of hers we did read as a group was the early and shorter Surfacing, but it didn't go down particularly well, being found to be rather feminist-mystical. However, people had clearly been very impressed by the recent TV series of the Handmaid's Tale, and they all wanted to read the book.

Written in 1984, it is set in a dystopian future when pollution and radiation in America have affected fertility and given rise to a fundamentalist-Christian police state, The Republic of Gilead, in which women have been entirely stripped of all rights and autonomy and those few fertile educated women co-opted, after the Biblical Leah, to bear children for barren ruling couples. Such women, of whom our first-person protagonist, Offred, is one, are virtual prisoners in these households, their only tasks to shop for the household once a day with an assigned handmaid partner, in their regulation voluminous red gowns and the white wings that eclipse their view of the world and prevent eye contact and discussion, watched over at various checkpoints by armed guards, and once a month to take part in the 'ceremony', in which, while the wife holds her, the husband performs the task of fertilisation. Reading is forbidden, and communication with others is dangerous - police informers, the 'Eyes', are everywhere. Handmaids are stripped of all identity and given the household patronymic - in this case, 'Of Fred'.

Ann said that she had never read the book before, but was very glad she now had. She said that she had read it in one sitting on a five-and-a-half hour journey, and was immensely impressed, and wanted now to read it again as she felt that there were layers and layers to be mined in the book.
The air of menace is acute and there are sheer horrors - such as the hangings of subversives and renegade women - yet as Ann said there is such a light verbal touch  - Atwood is a mistress of irony - that it is immensely readable. Indeed, it is Offred's intelligence and perception, and her irony and spirit of resistance that promote in the reader an ultimate sense of optimism.

Everyone in the room agreed, and felt the book was a masterpiece. Ann said that most remarkable was the prescience of the book, written in 1984 but resonating so strongly with the rise of right-wing factions today. Mark thought that the book must have been even more striking when it came out in 1985, but I have to say that in fact I found the book much more shocking and urgent this time round. In 1985 I read it much more as a projection and warning, but in the light of recent political events it seems much closer to home. Offred constantly looks back on her life before the Republic of Gilead, so we learn how people's rights were peeled away, and everyone agreed that one of the things they found most frightening in the book was the moment when 'Offred' discovers that her electronic cash card no longer works: everyone with 'F' against their name on the database has been stripped of their financial existence at the press of a button. It is worth noting that in 1985 credit cards were not electronic, nor as essential a part of our daily financial transactions as they are either now or in the book; touch-screen cards, such as Offred had, were undreamt of (except of course by Margaret Atwood). In 1985 I didn't think too much about this detail, but reading the book now and thinking of how all our financial transactions are instantly location-recorded, we all felt a distinct chill. Prescience, indeed.

Any accusations of crude anti-male feminism were roundly dispelled by this book. As Mark pointed out, men as well as women suffer in this patriarchal regime, male subversives rounded up and left to hang as public warnings, and the male members of the ruling class, including the head of Offred's household, the high-up 'Commander', are not immune to slipping up and dire punishment. Offred's view of the Commander is complex, encompassing his humanity, and her sexuality too complicated and subtle for the over-simplistic feminism of her long-lost mother and her feisty friend turned subversive fellow handmaid Moira.

Ann said that the fictional 'Historical Notes' that end the book also contribute to a sense of optimism, as they are the transcript of a conference taking place some hundred and fifty years after the events of Offred's story, and in which the Republic of Gilead is discussed as a long-gone historical phenomenon. The speaker discusses the provenance of 'The Handmaid's Tale' we have just read, which exists in the form of once-subterfuge tape recordings, and speculates on the veracity and significance of the things it describes. Jenny felt that one purpose was to illustrate the contingency and incompleteness of history, and I felt that an important point was to show how difficult it is, from another era or culture, to empathise with the experience of cruel regimes, or see their relevance to ourselves - whereas the searing nature of the tale we have just read shows the urgent necessity of doing so.

So, a book we were all deeply affected by. And as Mark said, Margaret Atwood is very, very clever.
(Also let it be recorded here that I had a signed hardback first edition, which I lent to one of my son's schoolfriends and never got back - not that I begrudge it; I'm pretty pleased for it to have entered his life and mental landscape.)

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here