The Handmaid's Tale (spoilers likely)

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Jazzy
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The Handmaid's Tale (spoilers likely)

Post by Jazzy » 01 Sep 2006 05:30 pm

Discuss <i>The Handmaid's Tale</i> here :)

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thelonetiel
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Post by thelonetiel » 08 Sep 2006 04:27 am

I've got about 50 pages left in the book and am totally loving it. I'd have finished it by now, but my internet ressurected itself and I can never tell when it will go out again.

The world seems so realistic. So well defined. Captures the human essence, I think. How easily people can adapt to such strange environs. The little details too. The blocking of the Canadian TV station. Nolite te bastardes carbonundorum. I want to see the wings though. I just can't imagine them properly.

I've been in a talkative mood, so have tried to explain this book to some of my friends. At first the guys say (jokingly) "A world ruled by men, cool!" until I mention that there is no love. There is no porn, nothing "naughty". You don't get married until you are of a high rank. Until then, you are stuck alone.

The idea that all these plastics and pesticides and chemicals will eventually decimate the birthrate is also fascinating. I believe it. We use so many strange chemical perservatives, for color, for whatever. There is no telling what it could do. Not of course, as harshly as depicted in the book, but anyday I expect for some scientist to say "Holy crap, this aspartime is worse for you than we thought!".

I'm not sure if I believe that this kind of society could ever occur though. Maybe I'm just too proud, but I don't think it would work. After so much freedom, women wouldn't let their jobs just be taken away with a snap of a finger. The economy would be struck pretty hard, with (presumably, haven't checked stats) 50% of the workforce fired. And to have the Constitution disbanded "temporarily"? I don't think Americans would stand up to it. But that might be too idyllic, to have the majority of politicians killed, far worse than September 11, maybe they would. "Temporarily".

But that is another tangent. Because would losing mostly detached politicians really be as big of a blow as losing civilians? They'd still have family, but those family wouldnt be the common people...

The only thing that really bothers me is all the smoking. The book was published in the mid 80's, was smoking still so popular back then? I thought it was shunned much sooner. I can't imagine smoking these days, not with every third commercial on TV telling you how bad it is, sponsored by Philip Morris and other tabacco companies. In the US at least, I think it is different overseas, correct?


[/babble] I swear, I'm much more talkative than usual...

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Post by AngharadTy » 11 Sep 2006 08:18 am

thelonetiel wrote:I'm not sure if I believe that this kind of society could ever occur though.
I agree that it's unlikely that this would come to pass. Stories of this sort are created by taking a characteristic of society and inflating it beyond all recognition (I think Ursula Le Guin was quoted as saying something along those lines). And also, it was written at a time when there was a significant and vocal number of women who felt that feminist movements had gone too far and we needed to return to more traditional values. That's not so prevalent now, and we've taken things even farther--I was just talking with my dad the other day about how once it was shocking that women could show bra straps, how scandalous; and then it was shocking that they could show the tops of their thongs under jeans or whathaveyou; and now we've come to accept both as fairly common. I don't see the traditional household values as likely to suddenly rise up again and take over. But that doesn't mean that the seeds that Atwood used for her dystopian society are not present. From my point of view, as someone who never wants children, it seems that to feel this way is almost unacceptable, it's taboo; I get incredulous questions from family, even disapproval. And though I haven't sought sterilization myself, many women and even some men report that doctors will turn them down when they ask for it. Of course, too, today there's the issue of abortion, which is hotly debated by many, and hinges on both religious arguments and the definition of a woman's personal freedom.

Even more than the greater message, I really enjoyed this novel. It's written beautifully; I adore the way that Atwood seizes on seemingly inconsequential details, because they truly are important. When Offred is in the kitchen and one of the Marthas calls her attention to a hand towel: "Dishtowels are the same as they always were. Sometimes these flashes of normality come at me from the side, like ambushes." The little things remind her that things of changed, but that some are the same; that things used to be different, and that she used to be different too. Focusing on tangential items and scenes is how Atwood really reveals the society for what it is, rather than wasting space with endless exposition.

Offred's name, I thought, was a brilliant literary strategy. She never tells us her real name, leaving us to guess (I think it's June, because of the beginning, and how all the other women are named later in the book), and also leaving us to fill in her name--her real self--with our own names, and our own selves. It makes it much more personal to us. Though that makes me wonder how it feels to a guy to read it, but probably no more strange than it feels for me to read a first-person story from a man's perspective (which is to say, not really that strange at all). There was a snippet, during Janine's birthing scene, where Offred almost gave her real name to another Handmaid, but was interrupted; I was surprised at how relieved I was not to be told that name.

It was interesting that every other chapter was Offred in bed, thinking and remembering. The beginning of III-7 says, "The night is mine, my own time ... the night is my time out. Where should I go?" So those chapters tend to be about freedom, and memories of freedom; the even-numbered chapters are a return to waking life and to confinement. The constant interruption of the flow makes the whole of it disjointed, at times; the memories are certainly not in order. But that makes it more real as a story, not at all like a history. It definitely makes it more personal, of course; this is just one viewpoint among the masses, and therefore colored with her own perceptions. Also, she often repeated that it was just a "reconstruction," admitting that individual perception is flawed.

Another device Atwood used a lot: she mentioned scents. I've heard that the sense of smell is the sense most linked to memory, so to call it up in this novel so often reinforces the fact that it's all a recollection. And bad smells are associated with negative things, always; of course that's not true in real life (medicine can smell bad, etc.), but in the story it's so. The Commander smells like mothballs during the Ceremony, for instance. I quite liked scent as a literary trick.

Offred often considered the meanings of words (e.g., the different ways "job" was used), which is similar in some ways to 1984, though of course that took the greater step of controlling the population by severely limiting the vocabulary available. The Gileadean society, though, was very new, and it was interesting to see it unfold from the point of view of one who had been alive "before" and was seeing the present with that history affecting her.

Overall, reading the book has made me feel afraid, because it seems so real (if incredibly unlikely). And grateful, because I really do have a good life; the repetition of "how were we to know we were happy?" hits home. Even when I'm unhappy, I recognize that there are things about my life that make me glad; and of course the old saying about how things could always be worse. And Offred's yearning, at night, for her husband's arms around her, makes me realize again how thankful I am that I can have that for myself every night. Sorry, I don't mean to get cheesy. But I try not to take good things for granted, to take Derek for granted; and even reading some book helps me do that.

Sorry I wrote so much. I should have had an essay prompt, and at least then it would have been directed. ^_~
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Post by Wingsrising » 16 Sep 2006 04:11 pm

When I first read The Handmaid's Tale in graduate school, my then bf (who had also read the book) remarked to me that he'd noticed a sharp gender division in reactions. He said that in his experience, men who read it said, "That was really good, but it could never really happen," and women who read said, "Wow, that's so true."

Obviously that's not true of every man and every woman, but I'm curious as to how well that plays out.

I have to say, I'm in the "that's so true" category, especially as the religious right gains further power in the government and we lose more civil liberties with every day that passes. If something bad happened (such as rapidly dropping birthrates among the elite) who knows what sort of shit might hit the fan?

Do I think it could happen that quickly? Who knows? Look how much has changed in the 5 years since Sept 11, and that was minor compared to the sort of disaster suggested here. I have no doubt they would decide to suspend the Constitution temporarily and that people would agree to it to make us "safer." I don't think that many Americans care about the Constituion these days. Tell them it will make their children safer at night and they'll agree to anything.

After I read the book, I remember talking about it with my bf. "I just don't really think it could happen." he told me. "I wonder whether the women in pre-Taliban Afghanistan thought it could happen?" I asked. He had to admit I had a point.

Which I thick also says something about whether or not women would "let" it happen. If they're going to shoot or hang you if you don't, yes, I think most people would let it happen.

As far as falling bithrates go -- I've personally always be interested in what will happen as reproductive technology becomes more and more prevelant. In the past, people who weren't fertile tended not to have children and thus didn't pass the genes responsible on. Now that infertile people can have biological children, will infertility gradually become more common amoung the segments of society rich enough to afford infertility treatments? I wonder.

Although I know it was the point, I do wish I knew what ended up happening to Offred.

As an aside, having recently seen an outdoor play about the role of Quakers in the Underground Railroad, I was interested to see them working on the Underground Femaleroad as well. Go Quakers.

Sorry, this was a very disconnected essay.
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Post by reissue » 16 Sep 2006 08:05 pm

I adore the Handmaid's Tale and have read it a few times over the past few years.

AngharadTy, your post was very interesting to me. I'm childfree as well and have also met with the opposition from family, friends and even religion which cannot comprehend or condone not having children. Its been a major focus of mine throughout my university career and I spend quite a bit of time and energy attempting to educated people on the various reasons and diversity behind being childfree and the positive social implications of those who choose to remain so.

As far as "traditional values" regarding women going "farther" (us-centric) lately, I have to disagree. Why do how women and young girls dress reflect "family values"? Why are women the brunt of the analysis and descrimination and slanderous labels based on such arbitrary and unimportant aspects? If you want to talk about the motivations behind women and girls dressing a certain way, social pressures or insecurities (etc) that is one thing but to put "family values" on the shouldars of women because of how they dress is just ridiculous. I'm not saying you are doing this, just that it is done.

The most important line, to me, in this novel discussed the differences between "freedom TO" and "freedom FROM" which is something very prevalent in both US society and around the world. Reproductive rights are a wonderful example to use in this. Conservative groups claiming to be saving women from elective abortions - freedom FROM their supposed sin vs the freedom TO control their bodies and their lives.

Another very interesting discussion between the Commander and Offred in regards to "why" this all transpired stuck with me. He related how men were "bored" and had little conquest in regards to women. Sexual equality is a HUGE issue todayand many men fear women becoming sexually assertive and powerful because it takes away from their priviledge. When you talk about sex and relations there is a lot of power involved on numerous layers of the activity itself and the mental and emotional responses involved. While steps regarding the "double standard' have improved in some ways theyve taken drastic steps backwards in many other areas. Chastity Balls where girls pledge their virginity to their fathers are among some of the terrifying rising trends in America.

The "law" in the Handmaid's Tale that a woman's story must be collaborated by a man or multiple men (I'm foggy as to the details) to be believable is something that exists today. In Pakistan, the law regarding rape is that a woman must have four male witnesses to collaborate her story that she was raped (her word is not enough) and if she fails to produce these witnesses, she is charged with adultery. There were recently efforts to change this archaic law but they were shot down last week. A revised revision is in the works, of course, but how devestating that the world is still in such terrible states.

I think its very important that the Handmaid's Tale is continued to be read today and I wish it were required reading material in High School. I think its heartbreaking to hear that feminism is dead, or has gone too far, or is unimportant in todays society when there is SO much going on every day that people turn a blind eye of disinterest or ignorance to.

Research the "Global Gag Order" signed by President Bush as one of his first acts as president. Read about sex-based abortions in India and the rampant bride trafficing that exists because of it. Read any conservative literature on women, their role in the household and in relationship to men and you remember who is running this country right now, and what people have positions of awesome power, and you tell me we don't need feminism.

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Post by FaerieInGrey » 23 Sep 2006 09:12 pm

I love, love, love this passage:
"Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at the sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind a cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it's heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Night has fallen, then. I feel it pressing down on me like a stone. ..."

I don't think I can explain why I like it so much.

I also like how open the ending was. Was she caught, or was she being saved? How did they find out about her? I personally want to trust Nick along with her, but why? He has done little to prove trustworthiness, and if he is decieving her, he may well be the reason that she is being caught.

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Post by Anza » 23 Sep 2006 10:05 pm

But if he reported her, wouldn't he get in trouble too?

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Post by FaerieInGrey » 23 Sep 2006 10:34 pm

Not if he were an Eye, I don't think.

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Post by Anza » 23 Sep 2006 10:59 pm

But I thought it was illegal for anyone except the assigned commander to have sex with a Handmaid? Doesn't that include the Eyes? Or are they exempt?

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Post by FaerieInGrey » 23 Sep 2006 11:11 pm

I would assume that they're exempt provided they were doing it in order to catch the Handmaid breaking a law. But that's just a hunch.

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Post by Jazzy » 23 Sep 2006 11:36 pm

Yes- I assumed the same; like people being sent in to do test purchases of alcohol, wait not to be IDed, and then come back with the police to fine the person who served them.

I really enjoyed this book. I spent a few too many hours on a train last Wednesday and started and finished it then. I didn't actually like the ending, partly because I didn't like Nick and didn't like to think that he'd controlled how she ended up, be it good or bad, and partly because I'm not fond of open endings in general. I think he did save her, or for at least as long as it took for her to make the recordings, because of what the academics said.

About whether or not this is possible- I think, wingsrising, that you have to add "non-Americans" in with the male category, in that I think it could never happen here. The academics at the end state that it didn't, either: we harboured women smuggled away from Gilead. The right is neither extreme (our leading right-wing party is on par with the Democrats as far as conservatism goes) nor religious as a rule, and the EU wouldn't let us get away with the violent aspects of the regime; they contravene the human rights statutes ;) Whether or not it could happen in America...well.

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Post by Wingsrising » 01 Oct 2006 06:35 pm

I'm assuming in context (since we were sitting in a living room in New Jersey at the time) that when he was discussing whether it could or could not happen he meant in the US, not that it could never happen anywhere. For one thing, obviously things like that can, have and do happen in other parts of the world (Afghanistan being the obvious example), which I doubt he and his male friends would deny. And certainly I and his female friends don't mean to imply that we think it could happen in Antarctica. So, I'm not saying it could happen anywhere. :-)

I agree that particular manifestation is unlikely to happen in a more secular country than the US (which is pretty much every western nation). Whether other countries would be more humane in their initial responses to something like a sudden drop in the birth rates, which was the impression I got from the book as one of the things driving this change in society -- that I don't know. Presumably some would and some would not. I wouldn't assume that Europe is automatically immune: western Europe may not be where rises to facism are happening at the moment, but history suggests that it's as capable of it as the next society.
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Post by KauKrazy » 13 Oct 2006 05:44 pm

I've just finished with the book today and I must say that I also liked the open ending, with the two very different possibilities.

I like how the book displays the effects of a very poor environment, kind of like sensory deprivation to a lesser degree. As you might know, when we reduce the information that a person gets from the outside world (for example, in an isolation tank), at first relaxation follows, but soon strange effects can occur - hallucinations, disturbances in thinking, anxiety. The world of Offred was definitely deprived, she was withheld from a lot of information.
She wore the "wings" to reduce her vision; she was deprived of normal human interactions, normal relationships; she didn't know anything about her family and couldn't communicate with them; she didn't have to work, do any household chores or do much anything besides the food shopping. She was fed and taken care of but not allowed to read, to have any personal items, to have any hobbies, anything at all to occupy her mind. Her room was almost bare, nothing there to look at. I found it interesting how sometimes Atwood would describe how Offred could not think clearly or finish a thought, or how she would have lucid dreams. Or how she would make up events that never happened, different versions of them, and to say that she believed in all of them at once. Or how she would "communicate" with the Handmaid before her, to think of her as if she were there, a real person. There were even passages were she said she was not one, but two, two different persons. It was very fascinating how her mind began to wonder and think of very small details to simply fill the time - like the one sentence in the wardrobe and the one word on the pillow. Abnormal situations clearly change the way the brain works and how the person senses the world and her own self. That was the fascinating part.
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Post by danceu4ia » 17 Jan 2007 08:06 pm

FaerieInGrey wrote:
I also like how open the ending was. Was she caught, or was she being saved? How did they find out about her? I personally want to trust Nick along with her, but why? He has done little to prove trustworthiness, and if he is decieving her, he may well be the reason that she is being caught.
She is saved...You need to read the "Historical Notes" in the back. A future civilization finds her account of her ordeals, left after she was rescued, which they then turned into the book.
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Post by AngharadTy » 17 Jan 2007 08:11 pm

If you reread the Historical Notes, it says that they don't know for certain she was saved. Yes, they turned her account into a book, but it doesn't equate to safety--she could have found a tape recorder in her holding cell and used it, or somesuch. Obviously she didn't take it with her when she left, and if she left for safety, why leave it behind to fall into disrepair?

(As a side note, I would not normally condone bumping a post from October, gracious. But for the sake of discussion, I suppose it's all right. Another mod may disagree with me.)
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