I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.
I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.
I finished this book a while ago, but I wanted to let it sink in before I wrote about it. I had been saving it, and I wanted to savour it. Of course, there is risk in this approach: I might have lost all impetus and forgotten what the book was about. Well, I haven’t.
The scenario is that in a world not too far into the future, there has been a religious revolution in the geographical area currently known as the United States. A fundamentalist Christian sect has started running the country and renamed it the Republic of Gilead. Faced with environmental pollution that has caused infertility and birth defects to be common, coupled with a revolutionary fervour for population growth, the men have set about structuring society so as to give population growth (and therefore uterus control) total priority.
Men fall into various groups, all carefully labelled. The Commanders are the most privileged, serviced by Wives, Marthas and Handmaids (see below), living in large comfortable homes, working in comfortable sinecured jobs. The Guardians – called Angels if they are promoted to the highest rank – are the men who do the work and they may be allowed an Econowife if they are lucky but most are forced to be celibate (unregulated sex is strictly forbidden and viciously punished).
Women fall into carefully labelled groups, too.
The “privileged” women form part of the cook-Madonna-whore triumvirate. The blue-robed Wives have the highest status (irrespective of fertililty). The green-robed Marthas – remember Lazarus’ sisters? – are domestic servants who cook and clean and do their work. The red-robed Handmaids have the lowest status, the least dignity, respect or privacy – despite having on the face of it the most “valued” role. They are the women who have been medically screened for fertility and whose role it is to become pregnant and to hand over their children to the Wives.* The Handmaids do not serve the men: they serve the wives. How bitter for them both.
(* Remember the story of Rachel? The jealous, childless wife – give me children or else I die – who in her desperation for a child gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob for the purpose of impregnation. Further reading: The Red Tent)
Aunts are the women who train the Handmaids: their role is indoctrination, they are the circumcisers. Other women must be “Econowives” – women who must be wife and housekeeper, and bear children if they can. The least fortunate are the Unwomen, sent to do dangerous work such as clearing up pollution, without protection – the disposable nonhumans. The final category is the secret one, the unacknowledged one: the prostituted women, working in government-run brothels.
On the upside, rape and pornography have been utterly stamped out.
On the downside – everything else. Freedom from (rape, assault) has been achieved at the expense of Freedom to (live your own life). Nobody has much freedom and women have the least, fertile women least of all. Freedom of speech has ceased. Freedom of religion has ceased. Freedom of association has ceased. Reproductive choice has ceased: indeed, those who carried out abortions in the pre-Gilead days are hunted down and executed. Unwomen are entirely disposable and unprotected: these are the women who do not comply, the feminists and rebels, the worn out prostitutes. Unbabies – those born with some kind of defect – are disposable too: disability is not tolerated.
So much for the set-up.
Fundamentally – although this obviously is a powerful dystopian vision and a feminist masterpiece – what spoke to me most loudly were the words about motherhood.
Clearly, this is a novel about enforced motherhood of the kind that the Handmaids (and, come to mention it, the Wives who must rear another woman’s child and be joyful for the gift) are obliged to undertake.
But it is also about the motherhood that happened before the age of Gilead. It is about the narrator’s motherhood, and about her own mother.
The narrator – whose real name we never learn, although she is referred to as Offred (of Fred) – had a child before Gilead, a little girl. Her marriage is decreed null and void because her husband had previously been divorced; her daughter is thus illegitimated and taken from her. We never find out exactly what has happened to this daughter, although it seems that she has been taken to a “privileged” life, possibly as a future Wife. The narrator’s (I cannot call her Offred) yearning for this daughter is a key element of the story, and indeed is used cynically against her by the Wife she serves. Her yearning for her first daughter is used to overcome her near-indifference to any future child.
But, more, the narrator has a mother. This mother was an ardent second wave feminist (she was sent to be an Unwoman). She was a deliberate single parent – she insists repeatedly that the narrator was a wanted child. A wanted child. And the two of them were often exasperated with one another: the mother wanted a radical feminist daughter, at least a conscious daughter; the daughter wanted to live a life of her own choosing, a postfeminist life. So much for postfeminism. So much for radical parenting.
That’s all I have to say, except –
Are there any questions?
Here is an Amazon link.
I bought my own copy, obviously.