Literary Inspiration: The Handmaid’s Tale

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When I was a younger woman (young enough to be an ignorant git, but old enough to know better) I studied The Handmaid’s Tale.  I was assigned Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel across a number of different English classes in both high school and university, and true to the nitwit form I spoke about in relation to Fahrenheit 451, it did not leave much of an impression with me.  Frankly, I don’t think I wanted it to, so fundamentally disturbed was I with the nightmare world that Atwood was presenting – the thought that I could be reduced to nothing more than the functioning of my womb was so utterly incomprehensible, it was not even worth thinking about.

But the times, they have changed.  Part of it is that I’m older now, and infinitely more thoughtful.  Too thoughtful – stories like The Handmaid’s Tale have a knack for burrowing deep into my brain, allowing me plenty of time to ruminate on the all too plausible possibilities of Life on Gilead.  I’m also more engaged with the world around me (not hard; I was, quite shamefully, not the most critical of thinkers in my early teens) and what I’m seeing scares the ever living shit out of me.  Here in North America (predominately south of the Canadian border, but still) hard-won gains in the areas of gender equality, women’s rights and reproductive rights are being walked back every single day.  The president of the United States is an admitted sexual abuser, and the fundamentalist vice president would sooner catapult me into the sun than speak to me directly, lest I tempt him with Satan’s forbidden fruit.  If that doesn’t sound very much like one of the Handmaid’s recollections of what immediately preceded the total collapse of American society, I really don’t know what does.

That horrific bit of anti-mimesis (life imitating art) is at present best demonstrated by the immense popularity of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.  I am beyond curious about this show, would very much like to watch it, but I know I can’t – I don’t care for either misery porn or torture porn in my entertainment, and the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale deals in both areas frequently.

But with The Handmaid’s Tale very much on my mind, and with my friends’ reading challenge prompting me to pick up a secondhand book (this 20-year-old university bookstore-procured novel is definitely on its second, or maybe even third or fourth, hand) the time felt right to read it, really read it, and enjoy both the joy and utter terror that is born of informed reading.  The More You Know.

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The plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale are well known.  It’s the mid-1980s, and following an attack on Congress that claims the lives of most of the upper tiers of government, democratic rule is suspended, and then altogether abolished.  A group of theological extremists known as the Republic of Gilead eagerly step into the power vacuum created by this loss, brazenly reshaping the United States in their murderous, totalitarian image.  Women are separated from their families, rounded up and sorted into various colour-coded castes – baby blue for revered wives of Gilead’s commanders, muddy green for domestic-minded Marthas and blood red for Gilead’s “most precious” of human resources, the child-bearing handmaids.  Unwomen, women unable to bear children due to age or health, are assigned no colour; they’re simply sent off to the nuclear wasteland known as the Colonies to toil alongside other “criminals” until they drop dead from exposure.  Men who aren’t lucky enough to be one of Gilead’s “commanders” fare no better than their female counterparts – it’s very much a “Get in line or be executed” kind of regime – but if they aren’t a liberal or an academic or a scientist or gay or of any denomination other than Gileadean, they might be rewarded with a drafty room in a guest house and a choice new career washing some extremist bastard’s car.  But the women – all of them, no matter their distinguishing hue, or lack thereof – are subjugated, diminished and much, much worse.

In Gilead, everyone has a job – the wives passively alternate between smoking, loathing their husbands and knitting scarves for soldiers on a non-existent front line, the commanders pretend they’re big shots and weren’t entry level managers at some mid-level bank just four years ago (in between balling everything they can get their arthritis-riddled hands on at Jezebel’s) and the handmaids are forcibly raped every 30 days by both.  It’s a cruel indecency delivered on unwilling victims month after month after month in the name of “survival of the species” – everyone knows the bitter, husked-out wives are barren, it’s a fact, just as everyone knows the commanders are testosterone-saturated marvels of virility that could impregnate a marble statue at 10 paces.  Why waste all that human potential?  Simply enslave yourself a walking womb and you, too, can have a shredder in eight and a half to nine months!  Act now and we’ll throw in a free trip to the Colonies; can’t beat that!

Between all of the wild abuses of human rights, corporal punishment, religious hypocrisy, ultra far right extremism, torture and sexual abuse, there isn’t a lot of enjoyment to be derived from reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Yet I enjoyed it very much, now at this time in my life when I can finally appreciate it, although for reasons not entirely related to the story itself.

For me, this one’s all about the writing.  I love Margaret Atwood’s style; it’s spare without being sparse, direct without being pandering, brutal without being sensationalist.  It takes an immensely gifted author to weave such viscerally unpleasant subjects into a compelling, respectful tale.  I can think of very few writers who have pulled off such a delicate balancing act.  There’s nothing about this novel that’s not soul crushingly bleak, but there’s a kind of beauty in the Handmaid’s raw retelling of the life she led “before” versus now, even as you wonder how anyone could continue on in such circumstances.  I really, really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and was alternately delighted AND horrified to learn that I finally now “get it.”  How much I wish I didn’t.

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Because accompanying nail art is sort of the point of this Literary Inspiration series, I had the rather unenviable task of creating a manicure inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale.  Here I ran into a similar problem I faced when reviewing my favourite novel, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  It’s all right there in the title.  So how exactly does one go about creating respectful (?) nail art around such literary unpleasantness?  In that case I went less with a literal interpretation of the novel, eventually creating a manicure that I thought captured the overall feeling of the book, if not the details contained therein.  But for this Handmaid’s manicure, I went with a straight interpretation of the text, eventually landing on this delicate design of dandelion fluff as against a blood red background, inspired by a passage in which the Handmaid thinks of her young daughter Hannah, who she has not seen since they were violently separated trying to flee the United States, playing with dandelions.

“Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean.  I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun.  Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike.  Rings, we would make from them, and crowns and necklaces, stains from the bitter milk on our fingers.  Or I’d hold one under her chin: Do you like butter?  Smelling them, she’d get pollen on her nose.  (Or was that buttercups?)  Or gone to seed: I can see her, running across the lawn, that lawn there just in front of me, at two, three years old, waving one like a sparkler, a small wand of white fire, the air filling with tiny parachutes.  Blow, and you tell the time.  All that time, blowing away in the summer breeze.  It was daisies for love though, and we did that too.”

No daisies, no love, no dandelions, and nothing but time.  The Handmaid’s Tale is too cruel, too devastating, too current, but all the same, it had to be reread, and I’m glad I did.  Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

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