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Monday, February 6, 2017

Rereading The Handmaid's Tale

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.

Want to read more #Microblog Mondays? Go here and enjoy! 

16 comments:

  1. I can't believe you said that the only thing that stuck in your mind was the butter - EXACTLY the same for me; the only thing I recall (after 20-odd years) is that they stole butter (I remember it being margarine) and spread it on their faces like face cream?? Every single time I see the title that pops into my head.
    Is it coming out as a mini series - I thought I read somewhere they are remaking the film? I'd quite like to revisit the book some day. You were lucky to see Atwood reading from it - wow.

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    1. Yes! They stole butter (I don't think they had margarine anymore) and stuffed it in their shoes, and hers melted and created a big mess. But it was like face cream. The Scrabble stuck too. Hmmm, maybe it is a Hulu original movie instead of miniseries? I guess I always assume miniseries. And yeah, hearing and seeing Margaret Atwood in person was amazing. There was just a thing on NPR today about how this book is at the top of bestseller lists again since the election, and she said that when she wrote it British people were like, "jolly good yarn!" and Canadians were like, "that could happen?" and Americans were like, "How long have we got?" Scary, actually. Rereading was a lot of fun, so many books are like that--you read them young and then you gather up all this life experience, and it's a totally different experience later in life. The Great Gatsby was like that, too, not that those two books are at all the same!

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  2. I need to reread the Handmaiden's tale. Given all that has been happening, it's become a must.

    What I do remember is that infertility was blamed on women solely. Even though it was the commander who was Infertile, blaming women was key including having them go so far to seek outside help in order to prevent them from losing their status.

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    1. Seriously. I forgot about another great sign, "Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!" from the rallies. Yes, absolutely -- it was illegal to even suggest that a man might be infertile. Only women. And some doctors would offer to do the deed to save the handmaids. Such a scary look at breaking down reproductive rights.

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  3. Ok I am totally loading it up on my kindle now to re-read. It has been ages since I read it as well. I recall really liking it at the time but don't remember anything specifically that stood out. I love Magaret Atwood's work though. Just finished her Oryx and Crake series this summer. It seems alternative reproductive methods seems to be an ongoing theme for her.

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    1. Woo hoo! It's also interesting to read it after having read through the Oryx and Crake trilogy, because they're both speculative, they have some similarities, but I found them so different, too. I agree, she's definitely interested in the role of reproduction for women and humanity.

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  4. I've never read it; I saw the movie years ago, as a teenager, when I found it something between disturbing and titillating, if I remember correctly. One thing I do wonder about is if it is possible to have an epidemic of infertility. My aunt had sometimes said that there is such a thing in Greece: at least that it is very common. And I wonder what would cause that: social factors? Environmental? And how would it affect people's thinking, in the big picture? I know it affects mine, and sometimes very negatively.

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    1. I feel like that's pretty accurate, disturbing and titillating. The commercial at the big game thing Sunday was interesting, because people I teach with who haven't read it were like, "what's THAT all about?" and had sort of cringy faces on. I could see an epidemic of infertility, absolutely, from environmental factors. I feel like it's not at a point where it's detrimental for the human race or anything, but 1 in 8 couples seems pretty epidemic to me. I always found it interesting that the rates of infertility, breast cancer, and autism seemed to rise at the same time. I wonder how much plastic has contributed, environmentally, especially BPA. And I think about Italy, and their Fertility Days that Different Shores wrote about, the urging couples to have babies because the birth rate is dropping. How much of it is waiting, and how much of it is medical issues that start younger and younger? Interesting thoughts.

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  5. I've never read the book, it definitely sounds interesting! Have you ever seen the film "Children of men?" It's about a world set in the future where everyone is infertile, it's very bleak. But then there is this one woman who is pregnant and needs to be protected from the government/scientists who would just want to do experiments on her or something. Sometimes I think about how I wouldn't be much use on a Mars colony since I wouldn't be able to help expand the human race. Very random! Just as well we (almost) live in a world where women are seen as more than just our ability to procreate.

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    1. I recommend it, definitely! And yes, "Children of Men," man that was a depressing movie. I think about that, too...that if there was an apocalyptic event and there was an "ark" of sorts, I wouldn't be able to help repopulate. Hopefully I'd have other things to add to a new society, right? Too funny we have similar thoughts... :) I am very grateful to be seen as more than my uterus, even if sometimes it seems that the things most valued about women are still physical beauty and pregnancy/motherhood, which is depressing. Hopefully we are moving past that faster and faster.

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  6. I don't think I have my paperback copy anymore, so I may need a trip to the library very soon (too many titles ahead of it on my Amazon wish list to think about replacing it yet). I remembered a little bit more than the butter (how funny that's one of the details that seemed to stick with everyone), but it would be nice to see the series after a recent re-read. I'll keep an eye open for a followup post after the series airs. :D

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    1. Do it! Butter and Scrabble... :) I am so looking forward to the series/movie/whatever it is. The trailer looked really promising...

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  7. Mel at Stirrup Queens used to run what she called the "Barren Bitches Book Brigade" (online book club) & "The Handmaid's Tale" was one of the first books I read & participated in. :) I may have my Canadian citizenship revoked for saying this but it was the first Atwood I ever read. Scared the crap out of me too.

    Someone shared a photo on Facebook (which I reshared) of Margaret Atwood at the women's march in Toronto, walking arm in arm with Adrienne Clarkson, a former journalist, former Governor General of Canada and proud immigrant. Warmed my heart. :)

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  8. It is the first e-book I ever purchased, and I always have it with me on my phone. Though when I'm at home, I like to re-read the paper copy. I think it's one of the most important books ever written. I want to see the series, but we don't have H.ulu. I'll have to see if they release it on DVD. Sniff.

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  9. Loribeth said what I was gonna say. We ALIers read the book together 9+ years ago: http://lavenderluz.com/2007/12/handmaids-tale-book-tour-2.html

    I experienced the same as you. So different reading it in my 30s (before dealing with IF) than in my 40s.

    And you have the same copy I do. This book is brought up often in adoption circles as well as infertility circles. Did you see the 1990 film with Natasha Richardson? I'm eager to watch the series.

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  10. I never cared for Atwood at all until I read that book. Jeez, so long ago now. Long before IF came along. Maybe I should re-read it.

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