Friday, December 07, 2007

Virtual Book Group \

This post is my contribution to the Barren Bitches virtual book tour -- our book this month was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

1. You may have read The Handmaid's Tale before, perhaps for a class or your own pleasure reading. If you did, what was it like reading this book for the second time, specifically thinking about it from an infertility angle? Did your thoughts and feelings about the book's premise or any of the characters change? Did any things strike you differently the second time around?

I first read The Handmaid's Tale somewhere between 1995-1997, when I was a woman's studies minor in undergrad. At the time, while I found it interesting, the book didn't have much resonance with me. Clinton was still in office, and it seemed to me inconceivable (no pun intended) that any of what happened in the book could actually happen in real life. The issues facing women at that time seemed to me to be forward-facing -- what to do with and improve on the rights for which our mothers and grandmothers fought. Things like basic reproductive control and the right of self-determination were water under the bridge.

Reading the book again, two things struck me hardest: First, from a fertility angle, the whole way the handmaid system works seems ridiculous, especially in a society that appears to prize fertility above all. I mean, really -- they expect anyone to get pregnant with no fertility monitoring and only having sex once a month? At first, I thought perhaps Ms. Atwood (or her characters) simply had no realistic knowledge of reproduction works. But now, I think that maybe the powers that were in Gilead knew what was up, after all, and they purposely set the Handmaid system up to fail. After all, there's a huge amount of misogyny in the book -- maybe the leaders were simply looking for a convenient way to deal with a sizable segment of the population. Either the fertile women were slaves, or the government would have an excuse to send them to the colonies to die of hard labor. The wives and Marthas had it relatively better, and so were effectively silenced by the fear of losing what little they had. Either way, the women were under control and, ultimately, quiet or dead.

Second, the political climate in this country has clearly changed a lot, and I no longer find some of the premises of the book so unbelievable. The Gileadians initially seized power by suspending the constitution in the wake of a terrorist attack; and used the threat of continued attacks to justify curtailing (and ultimately eliminating) civil liberties. Sound familiar? Granted, what happened in Gilead was quicker and more drastic, but the underlying attitudes that supported the takeover are startlingly familiar these days.

And then, of course, there's the glorification of "life," (meaning, of course, the "lives" of embryos or fetuses) coupled with a complete disregard for lives of human beings once they've been born, that is present both in the Gilead of the book and in the United States these days. It's near impossible for a Republican to be elected without proving his anti-choice credentials, yet our administration condones torture of anyone alleged to be an enemy, and seems to have no problem with the deaths of countless thousands of Iraqis (not to mention our own soldiers). And given the inflammatory rhetoric on abortion and the tacit support by mainstream conservatives of the fringe lunatics who advocate the murder of abortionists, it's not really that far a stretch to imagine laws on the books criminalizing abortion and even imposing the death penalty on abortionists; a step that the Gileadians took.

Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that HT is a much, much scarier book now than it was then, mostly because it now seems so damn plausible.

I have often wondered what happened to Offred after the events in the book. There was speculation in the lecture notes, but if you were to add to that speculation---what happened to her after she was taken away? Did she work with the underground? Was she pregnant? Did she try to find out what happened to Luke and her daughter? What would you want for her to accomplish (if anything)?

I find myself hoping that Offred finds her daughter and manages to get her back. Of all the cruel things the Gileadian government did, the theft of people's children seems the worst(just the thought of losing M fills me with dread). The lecture notes indicate that Gilead was a short-lived government, so in my mind, people were able to reunite with their families once that period was over.

3. What is the role of infertility in creating the world of the Handmaid's Tale? Is the question of infertility or totalitarianism more central to the story, and does Gilead represent the logical outcome of the fate of women in a religiously dominated society affected by mass infertility, or something else entirely?

I've thought about this a lot as I read the book and since I finished, and I've come to the conclusion that infertility was not actually a central circumstance of the Gilieadian takeover, but rather a cover for the totalitarian, misogynist regime's iron control of all aspects of women's lives. If the problem were simply infertility, there were many others ways the society could have been structured to deal with it. Instead, they chose first to strip women of all rights, then take technology back to the dark ages and set up a "solution" to the infertility issue that basically guarantees a high failure rate (see above, re: sex once a month, and add in the banning of technology and the fact that it's illegal to terminate any pregnancy, even one doomed to failure).

So basically, I think that the founders of Gilead were frightened by the freedoms that women had won, and decided to put women back in their place. The terrorist attack was the catalyst of the change, and the infertility issue was the moral cover. After all, the ability to bear children is the one thing that makes us inarguably different from men, so it's the perfect excuse for limiting women in ways that men are not restricted.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation!)


Lori said...

I am hopeful for the same outcome for Offred, too.

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful answers.

Samantha said...

That's a very depressing viewpoint on both the book and current political outcome. Depressing because it seems so plausible the way you put it! I have also wondered if infertility was a primary driver of the organization of the new regime, or an excuse for it--you make a very compelling argument of it as an excuse.

Ellen K./ said...

Awesome review. Great point about setting up the women for failure.

The Town Criers said...

I literally hadn't thought about that until you said it--but the difference between the way I read the book during the Clinton years vs. now...hmmm...

Pamela Jeanne said...

Interesting how our frame of reference can so significantly influence our response to the book. Like you I once thought that any concerns about women's right were in the history books (thank you suffragettes and feminists for paving the way...) However, the past seven years has made me fear for my two nieces and what type of world they'll inherit. I also just read A Thousand Splendid Suns about women in Afghanistan and shudder to think about how some women are treated in 2007! Thanks for your thoughts ....

The Dunn Family said...

Great responses. I totally agree with you about how scary the book is with the current state of our government. One of the other bloggers commented on how Republicans are all pro-choice, but have no interest in universal healthcare. So they want everyone to have their babies, but once they are born, they aren't going to help take care of them. Scary really.

Ms. Infertile said...

"The Gileadians initially seized power by suspending the constitution in the wake of a terrorist attack; and used the threat of continued attacks to justify curtailing (and ultimately eliminating) civil liberties" - hmmm....interesting.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book.

loribeth said...

Excellent points. I too was struck by the parallels with current events. And I think you're bang on about how women were set up to fail under the new regime.

Bea said...

I love the point you made about how the Handmaid's system wasn't really about fertility, but control. They were people who could be pointed to whilst saying, "I'd better not speak out, or I'll end up like that or worse!"