I participated in a book tour this month for The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, coordinated by Mel at Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. I read this book back in high school (which I didn’t realize until after I started reading it again), and I’m glad I got a chance to read it again. The setting is in the society of Gilead, where women are now basically slaves to men. They are not allowed to earn money, read, write, or have any of the basic freedoms that we have become accustomed to. The main character, Offred (Of-fred), is a Handmaid, her primary purpose to produce a child to a couple that she is assigned to because the wife is infertile. She is moved around from house to house, trying to get pregnant for the Commander and his wife, taking on a new name based on the name of the Commander. If she is unable to have a child, it is considered her fault – never the males – and she will be banished from the society to work in a wasteland where she would die because of exposure to toxic substances. The book is written from Offred’s perspective, like a journal, and she discusses her past life, where she had a husband and child, which were taken away from her. The book is written with some interesting perspectives, and makes you think about how fragile freedom truly is if we take it for granted.
Even though the rampant infertility is acknowledged to be largely due to environmental pollution, Gilead refuses to acknowledge the possibility of male infertility; if a Handmaid is unable to conceive with three Commanders, it is assumed that she is at fault and she is reassigned to the Colonies. How did this double standard resonate with you, if at all?
I think that because of the way the society had been formed, with males being the dominant figures, they felt like they could not afford to question the “manhood” of men by allowing them to be the problem with infertility. This would demonstrate to them a weakness, while in the society of Gilead, all weaknesses belonged to women. I also think that the author was trying to demonstrate the common belief in our own society that when a couple is infertile, it is generally a problem with the woman.
For all that the Handmaids are supposed to be serving the society’s greater good and should be honored for that, they are looked down upon by just about everyone. Wives resent that the Handmaids do what they cannot, Marthas resent the time spent caring for them, Econowives resent them for the ease of existence they feel the Handmaids must enjoy. And the reverse is true as well, Handmaids resent the other women for having little freedoms they do not enjoy, whether it’s control over a household, the ability to hold a knife and make radish roses, or to simply not be a possession without a name. Does this mutual resentment exist in the world of infertility? Do “fertiles” resent “infertiles” and vice versa? If so, in what way?
I don’t think that there is a mutual resentment between fertiles and infertiles. I do think that many infertile women feel resentment towards both fertile and “less” infertile women. Infertility feels like a betrayal of the body, like something is broken and it cannot be “fixed”. Even though there are ways to become pregnant for most infertile women, it is expensive, time consuming, and a very emotional roller coaster. Fertile women have something that we infertile do not have, and we are jealous of that. I don’t think it starts out as resentment. After time, and many failed attempts, and hearing one too many time “just relax”, that’s when the resentment starts.
I have often wondered what happened to Offred after the events in the book. There was speculation in the lecture notes, but if you were to add to that speculation—what happened to her after she was taken away? Did she work with the underground? Was she pregnant? Did she try to find out what happened to Luke and her daughter? What would you want for her to accomplish (if anything)?
I generally have a dislike of books that have unanswered endings, but I thought it was appropriate for this book. It was not the author’s purpose to lead us to an end, rather to tell the story from Offred’s perspective, which ended upon her escape. My hope is that she would gain courage and strength from her escape, and join the underground, but based on how she dealt with the situation while in Gilead, I did not see her as a strong person with the courage to fight against what was happening in Gilead. She was a survivor. She would do anything to survive because she was afraid of dying. I imagine she probably escaped to Canada, most likely trying to get word on her daughter and Luke. She may have even tried to enlist help to rescue her daughter. As far as what I would like for her to have accomplished, I would like to think that she gained courage and strength to join whatever fight there was against the society of Gilead.
Intrigued by the idea of a book tour and want to read more about The Handmaid’s Tale? Hop along to more stops on the Barren Bitches Book Brigade by visiting the master list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. Want to come along for the next tour? Sign up begins today for tour #9 (The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler with author participation!) and all are welcome to join along . All you need is a book and blog.