Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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