on April 19, 2001
This is quite possibly the best-written book I've ever hated to read. Ms. Atwood's writing skills are superb and she takes an otherwise dreadfully slow paced and hideous book of man- and woman-bashing and makes it quite a good read. Her writing skills not withstanding, the book is entirely without a single good point. One expects from feminist literature something new and interesting in the examination of the relationship between the sexes. Amy Tan in The Joy Luck Club brought us an interesting look at what feminism means to Asian-American women. It doesn't happen in this book, which is filled with trite stereotypes and two-dimensional figures. One expects strong female role models, characters worthy of emulation. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave us both villainous and heroic women who were nevertheless fascinating studies as strong female characters. This novel, sad to say, lacks even a single female worthy of a moment's consideration. More disappointingly, it falls back on trite and overworked male bashing in lieu of actually having anything original to say on the subject of male-female relationships.
Misandry is sadly to be expected from many types of feminist literature, and this novel is a good example of this trend. Ms. Atwood didn't feel it good enough to simply make a few of the male characters in her novel lacking in merit, nor did she feel it good enough to make most of the male characters poor examples of their kind. No, for Ms. Atwood nothing less than the total male population of her novel had to be self-serving, ill defined, and quite flat models for her venomous attacks.
The kindest male character in the book, the one character that Offred truly cares for, is her lost husband Luke. Even this character, under scrutiny, boils down to loathsome traits of which not all men, despite Ms. Atwood's beliefs, are predisposed. Luke, for one thing, began dating Offred while he was still married to his first wife. Moira "disapproved of Luke, back then. Not of Luke but of the fact that he was married." (171). Offred's great love, it appears, left his first wife for a "newer model," or so it would appear, as Luke is described as being older than Offred. Offred later describes him as being rather taken with the idea of her new legally enforced servility. After finding out that his wife has no legal rights to property under the new regime, he seems to take it in stride with aplomb. "He doesn't mind this,..." Offred thinks, "He doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his." (182). Yes, this woman's great love, the man she pines for throughout the entire novel, kinda likes the idea of having his wife as property.
Offred's mother is perhaps the guiltiest party in the book to carry on misandristic demagoguery. "What do I need [men] for, I don't want a man around, what use are they except for ten seconds' worth of half babies. A man is just a woman's strategy for making other women." (121) Many of the Aunts are good for a line or two, as well. "Men are sex machines, said Aunt Lydia, and not much more. They only want one thing." (144). Elsewhere she warns her charges that "Modesty is invisibility ... Never forget it. To be seen -- to be seen -- is to be -- her voice trembled -- penetrated." (28) Even Andrea Dworkin never went that far.
Perhaps this stereotyping wouldn't be quite so bad, on it's own. It would definitely make for flat reading and an uninteresting cast of characters, if not for the outright violation, albeit mentally, of the Commander by Offred. In quite the vilest simile I have ever read in my life, Offred daydreams of knifing the Commander, of slipping a shiv between his ribs, "I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands." (140) Had this passage been written by a male author, or had this passage been a man thinking this about a woman, the entire feminine press, and much of the left wing press as well, would have immediately risen in outraged indignity over the equation of this act of violence with a sexual act. Andrea Dworkin would have risen into the air and bellowed that this was just the sort of outrageous misogynistic rape that the male culture perpetually pressed on women. Since it wasn't, not a peep. It seems this type of violent sexual assault is only wrong when perpetuated by men against women, the reverse does not seem to hold true.
Far more confusing than the rather trite use of male bashing by the book's author is the author's clear misogynistic attitudes, as well. Male bashing may well be expected in a feminist novel, but the woman bashing seems intuitively counterproductive to the apparent aims of the novel. There seems, in fact, to be an utter lack of strong female characters in this novel, at least ones who aren't simultaneously misogynistic themselves. Serena Joy, the Commander's wife, certainly seems like a fairly strong character, but then she helped to create the world she currently lives in, though she may not bee too happy about the results (46). The Aunt's are certainly strong characters, but they're bad guys, no doubt about it. They are responsible for the indoctrination and enslavement of women to the purposes of the Gileadean regime. Which leaves us with Moira and Offred herself.
First, let me dispatch with Offred. While in the Red center, while still fresh from the outside, she takes readily to the indoctrination of the Aunts and actively participates on tearing down Janine, who has suffered a rape in the past, by blaming her for the rape, by claiming it was her fault. "For a moment ... we despised her." (72) Later, while holding the dirty little secret of her affair with her Commander in mind, she thinks of Serena thusly, "I now had power over her, of a kind, although she didn't know it. And I enjoyed that. Why pretend? I enjoyed it a lot." (162) Let us not forget that this isn't her first affair, either. In regards to Offred's relationship with Luke "[Moira] said I was poaching, on another woman's ground." She later becomes so self-absorbed and wrapped up in her little affair with Nick that she refuses to help the resistance when asked.
I can't, I say to Ofglen. I'm too afraid. Anyway I'd be no good at that, I'd get caught. I scarcely take the trouble to sound regretful, so lazy have I become. We could get you out, she says. We can get people out if we really have to, if they're in danger. Immediate danger. The fact is I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him. (271)
This total capitulation, this acceptance of her slave state, this total passivity of hers is what makes her most pitiful, and hateful. Even her fantasies of escape revolve around Luke somehow making a miraculous rescue and reuniting her with her husband and daughter (106). But she takes no active role in attempting any escapes, nor an active role in much of anything that I can see. She is utterly passive and lets the world simply roll over her and then bemoans her fate when it does.
What, then, can we make of Moira? She is at least active. She cares for others actively and vehemently. In the Red center when Janine has a nervous breakdown and becomes unresponsive to real world stimuli, it is Moira who takes command of the situation and manages to snap her out of it before the Aunts return (215-17). She even manages to make an escape from the Red center (130-33) and contact the "Underground Frailroad" (another bit of misplaced misogyny) and almost manages to escape the country before she is caught. I had hope that here, finally, I might find a strong character, and I certainly found the strongest in the book. But in the end, even Moira capitulates and chooses a life as a prostitute in "The Club," better known as Jezebel's to the girls that work there. Her life span will be brief, perhaps "three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the boneyard." (249)
So, in the end, even Moira gives up. Pity. The novel would have been far more interesting if it had simply been written about Moira and left Offred as a supporting character.
on March 20, 2001
I have to laugh at the reviews of this book, here and otherwise, whose authors are falling all over themselves declaring that this scenario could easily happen in our culture, that the Religious Right is just slavering over the idea of forcibly suppressing women and free speech. Even if we (yes, we!) *did* want to do that (which we don't), we couldn't, since the left is intent on squashing us like bugs and taking away our freedom to practice our beliefs.
Atwood's Gilead has jackbooted thugs going door-to-door searching for books and destroying them, because reading is illegal. Which is ridiculous in view of the fact that we live in a culture where any desire on the part of parents to have control over what their children can access in their school libraries sets off a hue and cry about BANNED BOOKS.
Also mentioned in the book is the killing of abortion providers. Whereas in reality, abortion doctors are glorified by our culture, women are taught from childhood that a baby inside them is actually part of their body, and any attempt to bring restrictions to a doctor's ability to kill an unborn child for any reason is met with stern opposition and name-calling.
I could go on with examples, but the bottom line is this: if any totalitarian society is on the verge of taking over America (where the jackbooted thugs go door to door looking for guns, not books, laws against racketeering are twisted around to keep women from being told what's *really* going on inside their pregnant bodies, and children are taught in a mandatory government-run propaganda camp called "school" that their parents' beliefs about God and morality are archaic), it will look a lot more leftist than the one depicted in this book.
on January 2, 2001
Whatever one might else say about Margaret Atwood, there is no doubt she's a professional. She is a skillful, cunning manipulative writer. But whereas other writers use modernist techniques to reach a deeper insight, Atwood uses them to evade fundamental questions. Here are two examples. 1) At one point Offred has a meeting with the chauffeur who will impregnate her because Offred's master, Fred, is sterile. Atwood provides three versions of this meeting which introduces a note of fashionable uncertainty while hiding her inability to discuss real intimacy. 2) At the end of the book, Offred is being taken away from Fred's house. It is not clear whether she is being liberated or arrested, and the book concludes with a pompous academic conference that does not clarify the matter. The conference is obviously a joke on Atwood's part. The problem I have is that Offred could not have written the account that concludes her story until after the events took place, and where she would have a reasonable idea of what happened to her. Atwood may find it intriguing to leave the matter in doubt, but a real political prisoner would not play this sort of modernist game.
In general, Atwood's dystopia plays on women's fears, but does not enlighten or elucidate them. She chose an easy target in attacking American fundamentalism, whose illiberalism, parochialism and paranoia make them fair game. But in her account of making women victims she is subtly stacking the deck. She uses analogies from Nazism and slavery which, on second glance, are quite tendentious. For example the regime comes about because Congress and the Cabinet have been assasinated and a military regime claims it was done by foreign terrorists. But are Americans really quite that naive? The imposition of a misogynist state supposedly happens step by step, sort of like the path towards the Holocaust. But it is one thing for Germans to fail to realize the fate of 1% of their countrymen and for Americans to fail to recognize the fate of 50% of their own families. Likewise, it is hard to imagine any modern state that would want to dramatically shrink the workforce and cut the literacy rate in half. In Atwood's Gilead, women are forbidden to read, an idea which Atwood obviously got from slave code prohibitions against literacy. But this ignores the fact that American Evangelicalism prides itself on bringing the bible to the masses. To prevent women from reading the bible goes against their fundamental principles. Indeed, renaming the country is another "off" thing, given the intense patriotism of American Fundamentalists. And why would they rename the country "Gilead," as in "there is no balm in"? I can't help but note that Atwood does not take the demographic crisis Gilead faces with all due seriousness. After all, a 90%-95% sterility rate implies extinction. Most people would support conscription to fight off an enemy that would do that. Is conscripting women's wombs so really out of the question? It is at least an argument that should be taken more seriously. Finally Atwood does not deal with the fact that most churchgoers in Western countries are female. This brings in questions of complicity that Atwood simply ignores. Ultimately, this is middlebrow entertainment.