You may remember that I undertook to read ten frequently banned books
this year. Progress has been slow, partly because I've had limited library access and partly because I keep forgetting what books I'm after. Book number three has been impressively hard to get hold of: no bookshop carries it, there are few copies in public libraries, and even Usyd has only one copy in the general stack, and it's frequently on loan. I don't understand why this is: I thought The Handmaid's Tale
was Atwood's most famous book, but perhaps not. Oryx and Crake
seems to get much more self space, and The Robber Bride
is apparently popular, but not The Handmaid's Tale
Let's start with why this book interested me: because I wasn't allowed to study it at school. It's on the NSW syllabus - at the time, it was part of a unit called Speculative Fictions
, for Extension 1 English. The unit included The Fellowship of the Ring
, movie, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
, book. So you see why I wanted to study it? Atwood I'd never heard of, but someone in my class had read it, and her description sounded interesting (a dystopic future, where women are breeding slaves).
We studied Crime Fiction instead. Reasons for this definitely included a) the teacher hated sci-fi fantasy (thought it was "trash", don't ask me how that compares to cheap vampire novels, which she loved) b) the teacher thought I and a couple of others needed to be broken out of our diet of consistent fantasy reading. In hindsight, of course, there's absolutely no way she could've served up even Harry Potter on the syllabus at my school, let alone The Handmaid's Tale
. Even LOTR could be suspect - one of my classmates that year burnt his whole collection of LOTR memorabilia because an evangelist inspired him to cast out its evil. (Yet, strangely, Dracula
caused no one any ripples. What is it that people have against sci-fi fantasy in particular?)
I've been looking for this book, in public libraries and second-hand shops, for years, with no luck. Granted, this search wasn't particularly systematic, since the copy I have beside me is from the USyd library, borrowed on my shiny new graduate card. Suffice it to say, it's not the easiest book to get hold of. I don't know if that's because it's old, or because it's a dystopic futuristic novel which doesn't shoehorn into sci-fi tropes and is soundly depressing, or if it's because it's deeply anti-religious, and has a lot to do with sex.
It has a lot to do with sex. But it doesn't have much sex in
it. Two or three scenes, none of them particularly detailed, and with one exception, quite impersonal. But this is a book largely about sex: about what sex means, about how we're afraid of sex, about all the other facets of our culture and our personhood which tie somehow into sex. It's a book about power, and power in sex. It's about men having power over women, but it's also about how that power can be negotiated, and how it can backfire. It's about a society in which women have no independence of any sort, and have been reduced to sexual vessels: and so their power lies in sex. It's about the ways in which women have power over other women, shoehorning them into conformist behaviours and sexual roles. It's about what we miss when sex is taken away; and what we are left with when all we have is sex.
The power dynamics in this book are not simple either. It is not merely a case of "men oppress women", because Atwood shows us women working with and without men to build up Offred's world. There's an ambivalent attitude to classic 70s feminism and the idea of a "women's society" - I'm not sure if we're supposed to come out thinking that such a thing would be good, and nothing like the warped female society of Gilead, or if we're supposed to think that such a thing would be completely fragile and doomed to collapse under outside attack, or if we're supposed to think that Offred's mother's dream of female solidarity was a stupid one, that the only way to safeguard anything of value is to protect it co-operatively across the whole of society. Maybe Atwood's not trying to deliver an opinion but pose a question. I don't know. But I could probably make an argument if you gave me 5000 words and some articles.
So there's one interesting thing about this book. Now, the other interesting thing about it is: I'm deeply disappointed in it.
This is not a dystopia which scares me. Just so we're on the same page, dystopic writing to me is not about the future: it's about the present. It's about highlighting the bad, worrying, frightening, dangerous parts of present society by blowing them up, by creating societies in which those aspects have run riot. They don't have to be believable, but they have to be logical - you have to be able to see how we got from America in the 1980s to Offred's Gilead.
Offred's story doesn't scare me. It tells us that religion, in an extreme conservative form, wants to dominate both its adherents and those outside of it. Religion has the potential to dominate what you dare say, what you dare think. Religion has the potential to dictate what you read, what you wear. Religion has the potential to reduce women to a biological function, while branding sex evil. Religious sects can and will discriminate against anyone and everyone who isn't the "right" kind of believer.
I knew that. Have you got your permission slip to borrow Harry Potter? Wear longer sleeves, girls, shoulders are such a turn on to young men. Oh, the Uniting
Church, you're not really
Christians, you have gay ministers. Sign this chastity pledge, why don't you listen to any Christian music, Catholics aren't Christians, we have to teach you Evolution, but of course you know it isn't true. Don't be frightened by the fact that your friend just fell down convulsing and babbling - one day God might speak to you too
I knew that. I know
how religion works. I know very, very well, how Christianity works. I know how Christian fundamentalism works, and I know what I do in response to it. I also know that's not the only possible way for religions to operate. You can't scare me by telling me that religious groups might try to oppress me. You can't even make me angry, not with a dystopic extrapolation. I've been spending my anger on religious bigotry and stupidity since I was seven or eight, I don't have any to spare for extrapolated futures.
Offred's story doesn't scare me. It doesn't even move me particularly. But here, in Atwood's 'verse, there's a story which could've pressed every one
of my buttons, broke my heart and pulled all my fears out on display. It's not Offred's story. It's Serena Joy's. Serena Joy, once a beautiful religious singer, once a campaigner for the society she's now living in. She fought for a society in which women were home creatures, mothers, protected physically from violence and emotionally from betrayal.1
She must have really believed
in the society she was creating, must have really believed
in its God... and we can see that it's betrayed her. She is barren, she's lost the love of her husband, if she ever had it. She's trapped in her house, defined by a role she can't fulfil. Gilead is as hard on those who adhere strongly to its tenets as those who do not: Offred and Serena Joy are living in the same society. One of them is afraid, numb, lost, robbed of her identity. The other must be afraid, lost, identity-less, and disillusioned
. I would rather hear about the collapse of a flawed Utopia from within, than a Dystopia imposed from without.The Handmaid's Tale
is a smugly atheist
novel, although Offred is not necessarily an athiest herself. She seems to believe in God, either because she did before or because she needs too, now. But, all up, it's a book about religion as an outside threat, something which other people are plotting while you're busy going about your business, something which will come out of nowhere and take away everything you value, take away your value in society.
But, and this is important, you will get to keep your identity
. They can't make you forget your name; you might lose the clarity of your memories but you will still have them. You'll still be able to think irreverent or rebellious thoughts about those who are oppressing you. You'll still be able to plan your own death, even if you never do it, and so you'll always have that escape there. And most of all, as the novel is told first-person, Atwood reassures you: you'll still retain your mind
, your ability to analyse and recognise the ways in which you're being manipulated and repressed. You'll get to go along with the motions, fearing the True believers, and religion will remain an outside oppressor, something faceless above and apart from you.
And society will, apparently, recover. There will be an academic establishment in the future devoted to dissecting this society and making daggy little jokes about the life-and-death struggle. There will be no sign of religion in that epilogue.
Offred's story is not the story I wanted to hear. Give me Serena Joy instead: give me the story of a True Believer, and show me the failure of a society through its strongest advocates.
1. For those who've seen Milk
lately, I have the strong feeling Serena Joy was based on Anita Bryant.