“Our big mistake was teaching them to read. We won’t do that again.” The Handmaid’s Tale p. 307
I suspected re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood prior to viewing the Tribeca film festival premiere of the new tv series was potentially risky. It is such a great book that this latest adaption – and there have been many – could easily flop accentuated by recent experience with a novel I last read in the late 1980s.
For those not familiar with Atwood’s dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction set in Gilead, a totalitarian and environmentally devastated society ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as chattel. The protagonist, and other handmaids, are forced into the sexual servitude of the barren elites in a bizarre ceremony made even more disturbing, if that is possible, by the naming convention for these women:
“…it was a patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question. Such names were taken by these women their entry into a connection with the household of a specific Commander, and relinquished by them upon leaving it.” (pp. 305-6)
Our narrator is Offred. Her real name, June, a distant memory. To give you another example of this patronymic naming convention, her friend is Ofglen. The other honorifics, although this is hardly the correct word, includes the “Aunts” who train and supervise the handmaids and the domestic servants or “Marthas”. The “Jezebels” are entertainers/prostitutes and “Econowives” perform all duties required of them by men of lower status. “Unwomen” are sterile (a banned word) and doomed to expire working in “The Colonies” which is where the women who fail to bear children for their commanders will also be sent after a 2-3 years. It is all disturbingly misogynistic.
Atwood’s first-person narrative draws us painfully close to a woman holding on to sanity by hoping against hope she will see her daughter and husband again. The rampant misogyny in Gilead is the most disturbing aspect of the story and powerfully rendered in the latest tv adaptation which will impress the most ardent fan. Cerebral, visceral and faithful to the novel, it will be a joy for those who love Atwood (who is an executive producer AND makes a guest appearance in the first episode which will make you gasp).
The show is really well directed and the production values high. The use of light and shadow is particularly noteworthy and often stunning. There are long sequences without dialogue that are particularly moving. The handmaid uniforms are strangely contemporary, repressive and imprint on the viewer’s consciousness. They are already becoming emblematic. The close-ups during “The Ceremony” appropriately disturb rather than titillate. Ann Dowd’s performance as Aunt Lydia is powerfully memorable.
As a result of the Q&A with the cast and team that made the show a minor Twitterstorm erupted over their refusal to acknowledge the “F-word”. I leant over to my partner saying – after Elizabeth Moss rejected the proposition it was a feminist story saying something along the lines of “this a human story because women’s rights are human rights” – they have all been “briefed”. What Moss said is true on one level and Atwood herself has had a paradoxical relationship to the F-word over the years but it certainly would have made sense to say it is a feminist story. As Atwood mentioned on Twitter, “they needed an “only,” an “also,” and a human rights definition of the F word, imho”.
In Atwood’s new introduction to the most recent edition of the novel, published to coincide with the tv series, she responds to the question she has been asked many times in the last four decades:
…is The Handmaid’s Tale a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behaviour that implies —and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure, and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”
When Atwood wrote the book there were obvious parallels with societies around the world, as there is today, where women are not permitted to drive, walk alone, manage their finances, work, gain an education or marry freely. Many would have thought back to the Salem witch trials or before the social revolutions that took place both post-WWI and WWII or in the 1960s. Gilead seemed pretty unlikely in the USA of the 1980s.
I suspect that the new (un)reality of “Trump’s America” has many people – and not just those in the USA or who supported Hillary Clinton – horrified by the sexism and misogyny displayed so shamelessly in the recent election hoping this series will galvanise resistance to fundamentalist Republicans who wish to wind back the clock on a range of personal freedoms, scientific rationalism and environmental protections. They likely also see the show as a warning to women who do not respect the rights of other women to make choices about reproduction. The cast disappointed those people, not with their stellar performances, scripts and production but with their comments in the context of these “pussy-grabbing” times.
The experience of seeing what proved to be a quality, sophisticated production – screening in the most liberal city of “Trump’s America” – was stimulating on numerous levels and I felt all the better for having re-read the novel too.
You should check out the trailer.
Other titles read during April
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (2017) by Bill Hayes
The Americans (1958) by Robert Frank
The Good People (2016) by Hannah Kent
The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonised Jews, Pagans and Heretics (1995) by Elaine Pagels
Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (2016) by James Stourton
Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 (2017) by Michel Houellebecq
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell
Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell
A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) by George Orwell
What have you been reading? BTW You may wish to check out my recent Bookstores in New York City post!