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Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Tour #8: A Handmaid's Tale

Alright readers. Time again for the next book in our book tour. This month we read A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Very disturbing book, in my opinion. I think I read this book ages ago, but I didn't remember much about it at all, so I was anxious to read it again. The book takes place in a future society that is no longer the US, its called Gilead. In this new society, woman's place is in the home, literally. They can not hold jobs, positions, or have their own money. Somehow (they claim due to enviroment reasons) a lot of people are barren. Thus, the handmaids exist. These are woman who have been proven to have children, or are young and healthy enough that they should be able to have them. They are given to men called Commanders, whose wives are unable to have children. The handmaids are purely for reproduction. They are supposed to get pregnant, have the baby, give it to the commander and his wife. And move on to a new Commander. Disturbing to say the least. The book is told by Offred, one of the handmaids. Because her Commander is named Fred, her name becomes Offred. It would have changed, had she gone to another Commander. Before Gilead, she was married and had a young daughter. Because it was a second marriage, it was not honored, her daughter was taken away and given to a commander and his wife, and she had no idea where her husband was.

Here are the questions I choose to answer.

The structure of the civilization in the book seemed really eerie to me (and quite difficult to figure out). Even though the copyright in my book was 1985 and set in the 21st century, it seems to reflect some of the fears we have today. I found myself wondering if our country could really be in for a drastic "take-over" as represented in the book. What are your feelings about the society described in the book and do you think it is possible to have something like that happen in our country?
I was trying to figure this out too. Trying to figure out when this was supposed to be. This was such a disturbing book. It made me think about how after 9/11, I was so willing to give up certain freedoms so I could feel safer. It doesn't work that way though, does it? It's that mob mentality. People get so scared, that they become irrational trying to keep themselves safe. Like when the Aunt explains how there are "freedoms to" and "freedoms from". The old society (like our current one) the handmaid's had "freedom to". "Freedom to" work and live and marry and reproduce or not reproduce. The new society (Gilead) no longer offers woman "freedom to", but it does offer them "freedom from". "Freedom from" rape and murder and other unspeakable acts. Yes, of course those things are frightening and you wouldn't wish them on anyone, but at what cost would you go to protect yourself? Would you give up all your "freedom to's"?

Even though the rampant infertility is acknowledged to be largely due to environmental pollution, Gilead refuses to acknowledge the possibility of male infertility; if a Handmaid is unable to conceive with three Commanders, it is assumed that she is at fault and she is reassigned to the Colonies. How did this double standard resonate with you, if at all?

Frustrating. So frustrating. Even in our society I think this exists. Don't you think that most people assume if a couple can't get pregnant there is something wrong with the woman? I'm not sure why that is, but I feel like that is an assumption that is made. Gilead is a misogynistic society, so everything is the woman's fault in some way. They made the women admit that if they were raped, it was their fault. So being that was how the society was, it only made sense that they blamed the woman for the inability to become pregnant, not the man.

For all that the Handmaids are supposed to be serving the society's greater good and should be honored for that, they are looked down upon by just about everyone. Wives resent that the Handmaids do what they cannot, Marthas resent the time spent caring for them, Econowives resent them for the ease of existence they feel the Handmaids must enjoy. And the reverse is true as well, Handmaids resent the other women for having little freedoms they do not enjoy, whether it's control over a household, the ability to hold a knife and make radish roses, or to simply not be a possession without a name. Does this mutual resentment exist in the world of infertility? Do "fertiles" resent "infertiles" and vice versa? If so, in what way?
I think so. I'm not sure if fertiles resent infertiles, but I would be lying if I said I didn't resent it to some extent when people get pregnant on a whim. I don't blame them, I realize that fertiles don't get pregnant to spite me, but it certainly doesn't make it any easier. I guess I resent the ease that it takes for some people to have a family, versus how hard it is for some other people. And I resent the insensitivity. I feel like sometimes fertile people will wear like a badge of honor the fact that they fell on top of each other and got pregnant. Now, I don't think fertiles shouldn't be able to talk about how easy it was for them, but I guess it's one of those "consider your audience" type of things. If you are talking to a friend who is dealing with infertility, or miscarried recently maybe you could leave how the fact of how "easy" it was for you. Now to be fair, not everyone shares there story of infertility, so fertiles don't realize they should be sensitive. But going through infertility has stopped me from asking people "When are you going to have kids?" cause for a lot of people it's not a matter of just saying "Now" and getting knocked up. Now as far as fertiles resenting infertiles, I have seen comments on blogs about how fertiles love and appreciate their kids just as much as us infertiles do. This was due to a post about how much the woman appreciated her new baby, maybe more than a fertile would, because of how tough the journey to get to parenthood was. And the fertile commenter was pissed. So maybe fertiles resent the fact that we infertiles feel like we love our kids more, because we had to fight so damn hard to have them. That's just a guess though, cause I've never lived in the "fertile" camp.

The Handmaid's Tale is set against the backdrop of a dystopian society wherein religion and feminism has combined to lay down a strict set of roles for women. In what ways are your reproductive choices shaped by religion and/or feminism? In what way do you think religion and/or feminism shapes the way society views infertility? Is it plausible to you that religion and feminism could ever produce the type of society described in The Handmaid's Tale? Why/why not?
Oh, here is a question that could lead to some harsh commenters. But I still choose to answer it. First of all, I was raised Roman Catholic. I am certainly not practicing. According to

Reproductive Technologies in Disagreement with Catholic Teachings:
-- Obtaining a semen sample by means of masturbation
-- Artificial insemination using sperm from a donor (AID) or even the husband (AIH) if obtained by masturbation
-- In-vitro fertilization (IVF), zygote intra-fallopian transfer (ZIFT), and intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), ovum donation, "surrogate" uterus

So see, I'm a bad Catholic. I had issue when it came time to baptize. My mother really wanted me to baptize the twins. My husband and I could care less. It's not like we are going to raise these kids in the church. Hell, the church doesn't even think they should exist! I had a really hard time paying money to a church to have a baptism for two kids that God doesn't even think should be alive. I think that organized religion was created out of fear and the need to create guidelines to control society. So yes, I can see how religion could lead to a ridiculously scary society like the one in the book.

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)?
Oh, I'm a sap. I knew it wouldn't be in the book, but in my mind I wanted a nice happy ending all tied up with a bow. I wanted to believe that Offred got away. That she did work underground. More than anything I wanted to believe that she was reunited with her love and her child. And I really wanted to believe that she lived to see this misogynistic and repressive society collapse.

Intrigued by the idea of a book tour and want to read more about The Handmaid's Tale? Hop along to more stops on the Barren Bitches Book Tour by visiting the master list at The next book for book tour #9 is a non-Infertility book (otherwise known as a pepper book by the Barren Bitches) The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. The next 7 book tours (including The Jane Austen Book Club) all have author participation, so you'll be able to interact online with the authors, and ask questions about their books. All are welcome to join along. All you need is a book and blog.


Malky B. said...

The Jewish religion does allow ART with the guidance of our Rabbi's. Just so you know any children born through ART as long as guidelines are followed are wanted and approved by God in the Jewish religion.

Samantha said...

I wonder, with the fertile/infertile dichotomy, is there even such as group as "fertiles?" The people I know who have children don't think of themselves that way. They think of themselves as parents. Fertility was not something that ever needed to enter their routine, so they have no need to label themselves or for others to label them. It doesn't define them. I think that may be one reason why the idea of "interfiles" is so foreign. There is no counterpart for people to relate to.

While I'm not Catholic, or frankly much of anything, I can understand your reluctance to be involved with the Church, given their stance on your twins' beginnings.

Delenn said...

Nice answers. I especially liked your answers on the resentment of infertiles v. fertiles (and visa versa). Being a secondary infertile, I often feel like I am in both camps getting shunned by one (for not having MORE children) and resented by the other (for having my one). And I remember going to the stores and looking at pregnant women and wishing I was not so jealous.

I also agree with your answer about religion and children.

Lori said...

I'm a sap, too :).

"I think that organized religion was created out of fear and the need to create guidelines to control society. So yes, I can see how religion could lead to a ridiculously scary society like the one in the book."

I agree with you. We can see examples of this all over the globe. There's such a tribal mentality that is steeped in tradition. Anything that bucks the tradition is seen as threatening and must be eradicated.

Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.

The Town Criers said...

Oooh, Samantha's point is really interesting. We define another woman as fertile. But they probably don't think of themselves as "fertile" vs. "infertile." Hmmm...

I thought your point about the timing of the book was chilling. Isn't it bizarre to think it was written prior to 9/11 et al?

Pamela Jeanne said...

From one recovering Catholic to another, thanks for your comments today on my post. I feel a definite connection with your answers. This sentence really jumped out at me: "I realize that fertiles don't get pregnant to spite me, but it certainly doesn't make it any easier." Rationally I totally agree, but there are some days when emotions get the better of me.

You're a truly kind person to look out for those who are having difficulties or feel like they're on the outside looking in because we can't have children. Thank you for that continued empathy and understanding. It means a great deal.

loribeth said...

I too found it scary how quickly people (here in Canada too) were willing to sign away certain freedoms after 9-11, in order to feel "safer." Do we really feel any safer than we did six years ago?

Good point about resenting the insensitivity of fertiles as much or more than their fertility itself.

Re: who loves/appreciates their kids more, fertiles or infertiles -- I know several women who now have children after losses & infertility. Many of them tell me they feel incredibly guilty about complaining about sleep problems, teething, colic... after all, they wanted these kids so badly! I think we all need to cut each other some slack -- we're only human!

deanna said...

I really enjoyed your honest answers! (and, thanks for posting info from the catholic site. I knew they were anti-IVF, but I had no idea it extended as far as restricting collection of the sample! Dang.)

Though envy of fertile women isn't a newsflash to us, I can say that I have experienced envy FROM fertile women. It's those women who never wanted children, but ended up with several anyway, who say crap like, "You're so lucky to have so much free time" or "I would have gone to college if I didn't have the kids," etc. There are definitely women out there who are reluctant mothers, and sometimes their terrible behavior toward their children conveys their evny for them. It's those encounters that make me think maybe I'm not appreciating my lot in life enough. True, I don't want to be infertile, but neither do I want to resent my life forever. It's frustrating to hear statements like the above, but on my more optimistic days, I agree that there really are some benefits to my infertile lifestyle.

Bea said...

You really had a passionate response to the question about religion. Not being a Catholic, those items don't offend me so personally, and I tend to think of them as just kind of nonsensical. But your bit about paying money to a church to baptise children they didn't think should exist really got me.

Of course, a whole lot of protestants share similar views. They just don't seem to "gel" with my ideas of what worship is all about.


Ms. Infertile said...

I really liked your answer about infertility and religion. I too was raised Catholic - don't practice much anymore.
I've found that I now separate my God from the church. I don't believe that my God wouldn't recognize any children I may have from ART - I believe it is the church, and the men who run it, that say it is wrong.
Thanks for your thoughts.

Duchess said...

Great thoughts!