|30 years old, this copy. So creased, so loved.|
I love Margaret Atwood. I've read her since high school, and was fortunate enough to see her at a local university this fall, reading aloud from The Handmaid's Tale.
I've read the book (which has never been my favorite by her) probably five times, but the only thing that stuck in my mind after probably 10 years since last reading it was the butter -- the handmaids steal the butter from dinner to use as a lotion of sorts, since they are not allowed any kind of vanity.
I didn't remember one of the most famous quotes, a sort of Latin: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum ("don't let the bastards grind you down") until a friend showed me his tattoo that he got when the current administration was elected, on his bicep, of those words in his friends' handwriting.
So I thought I should reread it, given that there have been so many protest signs reading things like "The Handmaid's Tale isn't a guidebook" at the Women's Marches, and with all the reproductive rights regression talk it seemed a bit scary prophetic. I was also embarrassed to have forgotten that quote that appears no less than ten times in the book, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Let me tell you, it is a different experience reading the book as an infertile 40-year-old than it was the last time I read it, probably as a 20-something. My copy is creased and yellowed and cost me $5.99, with a copyright date of 1985 and a printing date of 1986. I was 10 when that came out, so I would guess I read it first as a high schooler.
It is interesting to read about a world where women are controlled and prized/imprisoned by their reproductive capability. Where handmaids are hired to live in households so that Commanders and Wives can have children, and the Ceremony has the handmaid lying staggered on top of the Wife so that it's all one and the same, sort of. Where you are condemned if you are not able to have children and don't have the status of Wife, determined by socioeconomic status and esteem.
I would not last long in this world. Maybe I would be a Martha, relegated to the kitchen or other domestic household duties. I would not survive the constant poking and prodding of the reproductive systems. They would find me lacking. I was especially disturbed by the historical notes at the end, which blame STDs and environmental factors on widespread infertility which necessitated the use of handmaids (although left out that it was only women who could be infertile in this society, heaven forbid a man be deemed deficient in this way in this particular world, only women could be fruitful or barren). It said: "The need for what I may call birth services was already recognized in the pre-Gilead period, where it was being inadequately met by 'artificial insemination,' fertility clinics,' and the use of 'surrogate mothers,' who were hired for the purpose. Gilead outlawed the first two as irreligious but legitimized and enforced the third, which was considered to have Biblical precedents; they thus replaced the serial polygamy common in the pre-Gilead period with the older form of simultaneous polygamy practiced both in early Old Testament times and in the former state of Utah in the nineteenth century."
Ouch. Interesting though to see the Bible interpreted literally (and also twisted a bit) to justify the complete subjugation of women disguised as doing an important duty for the state. Doctors who had done abortions hung on a wall for all to see, punished severely for their transgressions against the birth rate. Yet babies born with any kind of "defect" were deemed Shredders, and taken away, deemed unfit. Hmm.
It is an interesting perspective, looking at this world through the eyes of someone who will never carry a pregnancy to term and isn't capable of even getting pregnant anymore, who is dependent on someone else in order to attempt to have a child at all. Which sort of makes me feel a bit like a Wife, even though the arrangement is different, clearly.
I was excited to see the trailer for the miniseries on H.ulu during the Superbo.wl. I hope it does the book justice. I'm glad I reread it, so I can think on where we are headed, and watch the TV series with a critical eye for the differences I'm sure to catch now that I remember more than butter.
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