I probably read 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood thirty years ago; recent reading of her other books has provoked the desire to reread it, so we decided to have a little Margaret Atwood book group with some friends and get together to chat about the book.
I had very vague memories of the book so it was almost like reading it again for the first time. The Handmaid's Tale is set in some not necessarily very distant future where falling birthrates and a right wing fundamentalist regime has led to a new world order where women have no rights and those that are found to have viable ovaries are conscripted as child bearers for the government elite. We are thrust directly into this new reality, some vague explanations come later. Here Offred meets her partner on their daily shopping trip:
"'Blessed be the fruit,' she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
'May the Lord open,' I answer, the accepted response. We turn and walk together past the large houses, towards the central part of town. We aren't allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.
This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don't know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn't there any more, and this one was there in her place. It isn't the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn't be an answer." (p.29)
We gradually get some background to the events leading to this new theocracy, a violent revolution by christian fundamentalists. Offred gives some information about her past life, and hints at the loss of her husband and child. She does not know what has become of them, but she clings to the old memories and hope, it feels like a sign that her spirit is not broken:
"Any day now there may be a message from him. It will come in the most unexpected way, from the least likely person, someone I would never have suspected. Under my plate, on the dinner tray? Slipped into my hand as I reach the tokens across the counter in All Flesh?
The message will say that I must have patience: sooner or later he will get me out, we will find her, wherever they've put her. She'll remember us and we will be all three of us together. Meanwhile I must endure, keep myself safe for later. What has happened to me, what's happening to me now won't make any difference to him, he loves me anyway, he knows it isn't my fault. The message will say this also. It's this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message.
The things I believe can't all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.
This is also a belief of mine. This also may be untrue." (p.115-6)
But life has become almost too focussed on hopes and beliefs; the women know nothing. Moira, a friend from her former life, escapes from the Handmaid training centre, and becomes another beacon of hope for the women, but as she acknowledges, they are already accustomed to their new life and afraid of what rebellion could mean:
"The story passed among us that night, in the semi-darkness, under our breath, from bed to bed.
Moira was out there somewhere. She was at large, ordeal. What would she do? The thought of what she would do expanded till it filled the room. At any moment there might be a shattering explosion, the glass of the windows would fall inwards, the doors would swing open ... Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.
I think we found this frightening.
Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you'd come apart, you'd vaporise, there would be no pressure holding you together.
Nevertheless Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. In the light of Moira, the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw in it. They could be shanghaied in toilets. The audacity was what we liked.
We expected her to be dragged in at any minute, as she had been before. We could not imagine what they might do to her this time.It would be very bad, whatever it was.
But nothing happened. Moira didn't reappear. She hasn't yet." (p.143)
Offred begins to have these strange, unorthodox meetings with the Commander. They play scrabble. And then he gives her an old copy of Vogue, and I had the best laugh of the book, it shows that along with her other intentions Margaret Atwood certainly does not lack a sense of humour:
"But why show it to me? I said, and then let stupid. What could he possibly say? That he was amusing himself, at my expense? For he must have known how painful it was for me, to be reminded of the former time.
I wasn't prepared for what he actually did say. Who else could I show it to? he said, and there it was again, that sadness.
Should I go further? I thought. I don't want to push him, too far, too fast. I knew I was dispensable. Nevertheless I said, too softly, How about your Wife?
He seemed to think about that. No, he said. she would't understand. Anyway, she won't talk to me much any more. We don't seem to have much in common these days.
So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn't understand him.
That's what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true." (p.166)
This is how it happens, how the world might be turned upside down:
"It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on the television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger one.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting some expression of my mother's, but she wasn't intending to be funny." (p.182-3)
And this, maybe this, is how the men would feel about it (after the women lose their jobs):
"We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?
He kissed me then, as if now I'd said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's any more. Instead, I am his.
Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.
So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn't afford to lose you." (p.191-2)
It is not until Moira reappears that I think Offred realises how important a symbol of resistance she had become; you can feel her courage sinking, her ability to continue, there is no longer an idea of escape:
"'So here I am. They even give you face cream. You should figure out some way of getting here. You'd have three or four good years before your snatch wears our and they send you to the boneyard. the food's not bad and there's drink and drugs, if you want it, and we only work nights.'
'Moira,' I say. 'you don''t mean that.' She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken something away - what? - that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?
I don't want her to be like me, give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack." (p.261)
Amongst the utter horror of her experience she finds hope is some unexpected places, and Atwood gives us something to cling on to at the end, but as she has said, all experiences in the story are from real life, they are all things that have happened, or are happening to women in the world today. Out there, in the real world, there is so much still to be accomplished.
We had a lovely evening munching crackers and hummus and talking round in circles, and getting off the subject. We did use some of the suggested questions from this discussion guide, they seemed less schooly than many of the links I found. Plans are afoot for another book.