Good afternoon, dear pond readers! Thanks for joining me at the pond on this Summer day. At last, I’m giving myself permission to sit down and write out my thoughts on the first books I’ve finished reading from my Engaging Books list. I will post these thoughts over on the Goodreads discussion as well so please feel free to chime in at either forum with your own thoughts, the more the merrier. I am breaking up my thoughts into separate posts so that you won’t be scrolling for days. Enjoy!
I read this book over the course of the first week in October 2016. I tell you this because I believe that reading this book during the tumultuous 2016 U.S. presidential election added an extra layer of poignancy to a book that is perennially relevant. It’s also a page-turner. My thoughts on this are extensive, kinda ramble-y, and hopefully spoiler-free.
Handmaid’s Tale makes me feel so grateful for my life and so hyper-aware of how easily the right set of things could go wrong to take it all away. This book feels real in many ways as good genre should. So much of Gilead reminds me of ISIS and how they treat women there. The misogyny makes me think of Trump and his loathsome ilk. The rhetoric of certain feminists in the book and their longing for a world of no babies and no men also struck a familiar note; it’s something I’ve heard before. The best part of the story is its small, human scale. I like that Offred never tries to be a hero. I like that she is a flawed, petty human just trying to survive in horrific circumstances while feeling incredibly guilty about surviving. The comments that Offred makes about forgetting loved ones, grief, loneliness, waiting, and mourning for the past are beautiful and relatable. As I read, I found myself rooting for Offred to be able to escape to safety to finish living a small life with flowers and cats, but, it is okay if she didn’t, because she told her story and that helps all of us better understand our own. My husband got extra hugs during the week I read this, and afterwards, to thank him for being an incredible man as far from awful as can be.
I told my mom extra thank-yous for being such a wonderful, fierce role-model. Offred’s mom reminded me of mine in some ways. The outspoken passion for equality coupled to maternal devotion struck home. My mom stayed home but I never saw her as idle; she was a community advocate, volunteer, amazing seamstress, cook, and was always shoulder to shoulder with my dad fighting for us no matter what it was. Mom also made sure that I had feminist trading cards, made me a Nellie Bly costume (I still have it in my closet!), and made sure that as a family we went to Seneca Falls New York to walk through the entire Declaration of Sentiments monument together. It was awesome. My parents to this day resent me calling them dynamic super-heroes; I think they see this as an unrealistic pedestal, but, they are, and reading books like this kinda just reinforces that image. Sorry, Parental Units, but, you’ll always be my superheroes.
Reading this book also made me feel more grateful for my job, the fact of its existence, and that I work with so many amazing people, most of them women, every day, even if we’re facing some hard, scary economic realities. The ease with which technology was leveraged to force women out of the workplace to create Gilead chilled me to the bone with its plausibility. The following thoughts flirt with spoilers so you might want to skip to past the cave picture. The Scrabble scenes and the Jezebel’s scenes also got to me. The Commander’s craving for the mundane pleasure of Scrabble with a woman when it was illicit provided some dark comedy in the story. It was ridiculous and plausible; much will always want more just as the oppressed will relish any small pleasure when they have none. Why did men only enjoy the company and conversation of educated, formerly powerful women when they were overtly sexual objects as prostitutes? The women threatened the poor little men with their achievements; putting them in fishnets and corsets kept things “balanced,” with the men where they wanted to be.
Another thing I appreciated in Handmaid’s Tale is the fact that religion isn’t the bad guy in the story. Atwood made that clear with the number of Christians and people of faith resisting the Gilead powers in their different, beautiful ways. As a devout Christian, I am deeply grateful. I was a little afraid to read Handmaid’s Tale because I wince at seeing media that portrays religious people, especially Christians, in a negative light. Don’t get me wrong, I still see these things, it’s just nice when the media turns out to be more compassionate than I expect. The bad guys in Handmaid’s Tale are all the people who use religion as a stick to maintain power and exert control while doing phone-in robo-prayers and ridiculous rape ceremonies with a bowdlerized, blasphemous bible. In real life, it sickens me to see my holy book leveraged to bully others, for people to cherry-pick convenient parts of the Bible to prop up their views while thumbing their noses at all those pesky passages about “blessed be the poor,” or “love thy neighbor,” or “giving the thief your shirt as well if he takes your cloak,” or “turn the other cheek,” or any of the other dozens of exhortations that challenge Earthly material culture.
Following in Jesus’ footsteps is not supposed to be a profitable endeavor from a material perspective. Christians are supposed to be in the world but not of the world, forsaking earthly pleasures to be lights in the world of God’s infinite love through the ministry of Jesus, helping our neighbor in every way we can. Beating people up, verbally, physically, emotionally, or otherwise being a bully, is not part of that mission. Of course, Gilead doesn’t care about that because they don’t actually care about Christianity. The corrupt women-hating men high on their own power to make the world and its riches theirs are just villainously using the religion-stick to craft their sandbox of material delight. I liked that Atwood described women who were complicit in making Gilead, like Serena Joy, the Wives, and Aunts, giving up their own agency and selling out their fellow human beings so they can be in on the power trip. Such a betrayal rings true. Someone will always be a traitor to their own kind for a small advantage. So many women are awful to fellow women in the hopes that they will get ahead, particularly with men. Canny men exploit this to make and maintain Gilead; Atwood is wonderfully clever about this in the story. I particularly liked how Offred not only questioned if the complicit women were actually happy with how things turned out, but that we never quite get an answer.
The following sentences are a bit of a spoiler, you might consider skipping past the ice picture. The legendary tone of the prose as it shifts perspective makes sense when we come to find out that it was told aloud into cassette tapes after the fact in a hidden corner of an out of the way room. In the great tradition of Utopian stories, The Handmaid’s Tale is a found text studied by scholars of the future seeking to understand the strange society of Gilead that re-shaped the world map. Offred keeps her own name a secret. This is a good thing for a storyteller to keep some details off page and to keep that air of mystery that helps highlight Offred as an unreliable narrator. Scholars will always wonder who she was and what happened to her while readers can’t help but engage with her story.
In my Reader’s Journal in October 2016 I wrote: “I hope Hilary Clinton wins. I hope we make a world as unlike Gilead as possible without over-compensating.” Reading this now, I’m struck with the naiveté of these sentences. We have always lived in a world where misogyny, avarice for money, and greed for power can run rampant. No one election, no one leader, can make us “safe” from these risks. Constant vigilance is the true cost of self-governance. One reason I find Handmaid’s Tale so compelling is the fact that Gilead not only comes to pass but persists as long as it does because people let it happen. Offred talks about this alongside all the little details of regime life while shopping for groceries with pictures of food and walking around town past bodies crucified on walls. Things normalize. Life goes on.
I was afraid to write about this book. I was afraid of the feelings it triggered in my heart. I was afraid of my own anger, my own unhappiness with the world, and my own fear of my neighbors. Good genre books start conversations and those conversations can be scary. I’m afraid you won’t like me because of my opinions and I’m afraid that I won’t like you because of yours. I’m afraid and ashamed of my own prejudices; of the fact that I too live in a bubble I built myself and I can see its shimmery outline tinting the world around me. I thought about keeping all of these things to myself. I thought about continuing to keep my mouth shut about my family, my faith, and my political ideas. But if I did that, what would be the point of this endeavor? Vulnerability and honesty matter in building community and dialogue. Rather than listing my ideas, I’m going to turn them into questions. Do you think Gilead as written is likely to happen? Do you think that there can be different kinds of Gilead given current events? I’m thinking of something with the same functional effect of a world filled with toxic pollution and oppressed people (women, minorities, disabled, LGBTQ+, etc.) serving the interests of a privileged few white men but there can certainly be other kinds of Gilead that I can’t see and I sincerely want to see what other people are thinking. What did the book leave you thinking about? What kinds of conversations and questions and fears are you grappling with after finishing Offred’s narrative?
Like Offred I would like to live a small life, only with dogs and family dinners instead of cats and flowers. I don’t write to my elected officials enough or call them enough or go to enough town hall meetings. I’m one person in a red county with a job, relationships, health issues, and commitments. Being a human being is a big ask; being an engaged citizen on top of that is an even bigger ask. Yet, if we want to keep Gilead from being realized in any form, under any veneer or lack of veneer, it is incumbent upon all of us to ask ourselves, and each other, to participate however we can. This blog and these beautiful books are part of this for me. I hope it inspires you, too. I will close my thoughts on Handmaid’s Tale with my favorite quote from the book and I invite you to leave your thoughts below in the comments. Thanks for stopping by the pond today, dear reader.
By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.” –page 344 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood