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The handmaid's tale.

The Handmaid's Tale.

Margaret Atwood. Houghton Mifflin, $16.95. Are gains in women's rights cumulative or cyclical? Much as one wants to believe in a slow, steady, dependable progression, the evidence makes it hard to be too confident. Women, after all, were doing pretty well with the vote, visibility, and a measure of "liberation' well into the Roaring Twenties, only to see that status crumble along with the economic fortunes of the country. They achieved what seemed like solid respect and independence along with men's jobs during World War II, only to disappear once the war was over into the long eclipse of fifties domesticity. The current bonanza (in relative terms) of equity seems fairly solid too, but for those who expect it to exhibit real staying power, here is Margaret Atwood's sixth and most politically sharp-edged novel to remind us that it could all vanish tomorrow.

Feminism has been the main philosophical influence on a raft of novelists in the last generation or so. As happens with any political movement, many of the novels produced have been position papers. Atwood, by contrast, is a mature artist, and The Handmaid's Tale, though more politically explicit than most of her previous work, is by no means doctrinaire. ("I have never written a trapped housewife novel,' she told an interviewer in 1983.) In its picture of a Bible-based, viciously anti-feminist dictatorship in this country circa 1990, The Handmaid's Tale does explore the eventual implications of current attitudes among religious fundamentalists, certain feminists, and well-meaning but essentially uncaring males. Its main thrust, though, is less philosophical and in the end more grippingly persuasive--to explore not just why women in the Republic of Gilead are so utterly oppressed but, vividly and rendingly, how that oppression feels.

Atwood's effectiveness in this regard, her delicacy of imagination and grimness of detail, shows the influence of her many years of involvement in Amnesty International and human rights issues. The main emotion we get from Offred, the disconsolate narrator, is numb shock. Offred still lives in the same town, passes the same buildings and crosses the same streets, as she did before "they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. . . . They said it would be temporary.' Now, though, fundamentalists are permanently in charge, and women have been sorted by function: the few who still have viable ovaries after the ravages of nuclear and toxic waste are Handmaids, assigned to service Commanders; Marthas cook and clean; Wives oversee households. Only men may read, move about freely or own money or property. Women wear blinkers and floor-length, color-coded habits.

Not much actually happens to Offred in this brave new world, whose sociopolitical details, truth be told, are rather perfunctorily sketched. Plots and details aren't the point. The point is that this diagram of a world run literally according to the precepts of Genesis can illuminate some submerged truths about sexism and power politics in even the most riotously free society. In Gilead it is easy to see the sometimes overlooked relationships between political and sexual power; between cultural determinism (including the idea of a special "women's culture' free of masculine mores, embraced by some feminists today) and dehumanization; between loss of individual identity and loss of will. The most chilling oppressors in the story are not the male guards or the male Eyes, who spy for the central government, but the high-ranking Wives, who regulate the Handmaids' motions, and the training Aunts, who mutilate their hands and feet if they misbehave. The Commander Offred serves, a major architect of the system that torments her, wonders naively "what you think of all this . . . what we've done.' Creepiest of all is the narrator's seemingly unconscious acceptance of some of the new rules. Women have been legally deprived of their own names, for instance, with "Offred' meaning simply that the narrator is "of Fred,' her Commander. The narrator bemoans this but, in her reminiscences of her vanished family, refers by name only to Luke, her husband; the others are "my daughter' and "my mother.'

Watch out, Atwood is saying. Watch out for more than just machine guns or spies or religious fundamentalists. Watch out for our own natures, which we think are humane and progressive. We are much better than we think at dehumanizing and destroying one another.
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Author:Schwartz, Amy E.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1986
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