Pur Autre Vie

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Read: The Handmaid's Tale

A few months ago I read The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  It is an interesting book, an in some ways prescient, as it envisions a world of declining fertility and environmental devastation.  In fact the book is downright dystopian.  Essentially, the world is becoming depopulated as ecological contamination reduces women's fertility.  A fundamentalist government has violently seized power and imposed a rigid social order based on Biblical teachings.

The book is narrated by its anti-hero, a woman known as Offred (meaning "of Fred").  Her name reflects the fact that she has been assigned to a household led by a man named Fred.  She is an adjunct to the family—her role is to bear a child for Fred (his wife is no longer fertile).  This sort of arrangement was developed because, as a result of extensive pollution, women's fertility has been reduced to a relatively brief window of time.  The government has developed a complicated social system to replace the sexual anarchy that prevailed during Offred's youth, a sexual anarchy that (in addition to being degrading for women, who were treated as sex objects) would rapidly have led to the extinction of mankind.  Meanwhile the government has launched an ambitious program to clean up the pollution and restore the earth to health.  The government's methods are no doubt ruthless, but they are both necessary and effective.  The best analogy is probably General Sherman's famous march to the sea, which was unflinching and at times cruel, but which was abundantly justified by its clear-eyed focus on a higher moral imperative:  crushing the Confederacy and ending slavery forever.

Atwood's decision to present this struggle for humanity through the jaundiced viewpoint of Offred is an experimental approach that works surprisingly well.  Self-pitying and ungrateful, Offred takes every opportunity to undermine society's efforts at self-preservation.  But because the story adopts her background assumptions and beliefs, her choices are presented as natural, even defensible.  The result is a deep kind of dramatic irony:  intellectually, the reader knows that Offred's self-indulgent behavior is morally unacceptable, but all of the book's emotional force pushes in the other direction.  Imagine a story narrated by a Union soldier who deserts his unit at a crucial moment, making the preservation of slavery more likely—that is essentially the type of story that Atwood is telling.  Offred is a selfish hedonist who arrogates to herself the power to decide whether humanity will survive, but of course she cloaks this disgusting behavior in the language of freedom and autonomy.  It is only at the end of the book, when Offred betrays her family and flees her responsibilities, that we see her for what she is, and the book's logical and sentimental dimensions come into alignment.  (An epilogue reveals that the government's efforts at environmental restoration have been so successful that society has returned to a less regimented structure.  The book, we learn, consists of an oral history recorded by Offred and studied by historians in a future world—a world made possible by the very government that "oppressed" Offred.)

By taking this unusual approach, Atwood forces us to rethink our unexamined beliefs about feminism, freedom, and human dignity.  She so successfully captures the mindset of a parasitic narcissist like Offred that a careless reader might actually view her, perversely, as the book's hero.  Atwood tips her hand, though, in her depiction of Offred's mother, a vocal feminist whose unwillingness to curb her own selfish behavior leaves her lonely and bitter.  In this way, Atwood suggests that true feminism cannot ignore the role of the family and of procreation in creating a good world and a decent society, not just for women but for all of us.

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