dystopia: n. an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad
There are books that wrestle with your insides. They twist upon themselves, cramping, writhing, peristalsing until a peculiar taste rises into your mouth. It surprises you with its bitter, jagged notes…this doesn’t do it justice. The taste defies description. It is distinct, like a memory, uniquely poised to pounce on you in an unguarded moment. The years pass. The details fade. But the taste of the story you can always recall, recommending it with a shudder, discussing it with other readers in knowing, reverent susurrations. The adjectives communicating little. The tone, volumes. ‘Good’ takes on a different meaning. ‘Well-written’ means you cannot forget: Branded, as you have been, by a master misanthrope.
From my past, Animal Farm, is one such book. 1984 and Brave New World stir similarly. Seven Types of Ambiguity and Rohypnol also rankle. Perhaps you know others? We have seen a vision of humanity that cannot be unread. History lives to warn and life, when it echoes literature, is a little less surprising. We have been educated.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagines the Republic of Gilead in which the social order as we know it has been subjugated to an unknown fundamentalist regime in a forseeable future. The details are fragmented and the chronology is vague but in this time, conception and childbirth have been impaired by radiation exposure and nuclear fallout. Artificial reproduction has been outlawed. Surrogacy, given its biblical history, is sanctioned.
Overnight, women are shut out of their bank accounts and stripped of their rights to independence, employment or office. Women considered to be socially inappropriate – single, divorced, in second marriages, non-matrimonial relationships or homosexual are taken from their homes. Their children are redistributed among the childless couples in the upper eschelons. The women of child-bearing age with demonstrated reproductive success are taken into the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Centre where a group of saddistic “Aunts” in hassocks teach them the ways and means of their new role. As Handmaids, their old identity ceases to exist and their new purpose is to bear children to the Commanders with infertile wives.
Handmaids are allocated to households based on seniority and named according to the Commander who owns them. Our narrator, for instance, is Offred. Their activity, diet and living conditions are dictated by the Centre with a view to optimising fertility. They wear red habits – identifying their position and distinguishing them from other female roles. Intercourse with the Commander is a monthly ceremony, performed according to prescribed standards under household observation and is followed up with rigid medical scrutiny.
The whole household: Commander, Wife, Handmaid and Marthas (cooks and housekeepers, women of even lower status) depend on the conception and birth of a normal child (not an Unbaby) for survival and will covertly break rules to achieve it. And though the life of the Handmaid is preferable to that of a Martha, an Econowife or an Unwoman, shipped to the colonies, it is degrading, demeaning and depressing. Suicide and reproductive failure (a deportable offence) are the two greatest risks. Those who break the rules are “salvaged” by means of ceremonial ‘particicution’ and their bodies are publicly displayed as a warning.
Order is maintained by an omniscient government, known as “The Eye”.
As for every other failed ideology or indoctrination, human nature pervades and therein lies the story. If you or I woke up one day in this reality, would we be Offred? Outwardly accepting our fate while inwardly questioning it? Would we be her best friend Moira, a lesbian who absconds from the Centre and goes underground, holding her own kind of power as a prostitute in a black-market speakeasy. Would we be her mother? A lifelong lobbyist, shipped off to the colonies. Or would we be Ofwarren? Accepting new rules with naive, misguided zeal, desperate to please.
Men are not without their difficulties or nostalgic tendencies. Some miss the chase. Some miss eroticism – intercourse is strictly transactional and perfunctory. Some think fondly about the era in which they could be chivalrous. No-one moreso than Offred’s Commander. And yet, Offred remembers them vigorously burning lingerie, books and women’s magazines from the ‘time before’ with righteous,ecstatic looks upon their faces.
Everybody misses passion. And intimacy. Cracks become apparent in their pristine, practised enamel. Offred suspects these may be exploitable but she too has weaknesses that can be manipulated – a missing husband, daughter and friend and a critical mind that, though under-stimulated, could not be completely ‘re-educated’.
“He even has novels…On these occasions I read quickly,
voraciously, almost skimming,trying to get as much into my
head as possible before the next long starvation. If it
were eating it would be the gluttony of the famished,
if it were sex it would be a swift furtive stand-up
in an alley somewhere.”
The writing in structure, language and phrasing is of course elegant. I would expect no less from this author. Those with a penchant for allegory and satire will not be disappointed. The dystopia is frightening and beautifully contrasted with Offred’s recollection and imagination of a better time. I would have liked a better idea of the proposed Utopia – was it a reaction to circumstance? or was there a ‘desirable’ vision somewhere in the propaganda. If I am to credit the human race with an about-face on feminism and free love, I really need to know how it was sold to them. In this respect, I felt the story was lacking in both Snowball and Napoleon. But then again, what story isn’t improved by a talking pig?
- Friends, readers, tell me of your favourite dystopian fiction!
- If you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, how do you think this new social order came about?
- Have you had a feminist rant lately that you would like to share with the class?