In Cold Type by Leonard Shatzkin From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne – Drink Tank The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells – Drink Tank Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin – Literary Theory The Hugo Winners Volume 3 – edited by Isaac Asimov – Drink Tank Challengers of the Unknown by Ron Goulart – Drink Tank ~ read The Lady From the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara Feminisms and Womanisms edited by Susan Silva-Wayne and Althea Prince ~ read In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker
Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.
“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.” (p. 144)
“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)
This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government. The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.
When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum. The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament. But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.
All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences. Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough. Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.
The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.
The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts. The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her. This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.
And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well. Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.
And what of the misattributions? If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical. One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.
And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.” Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament. It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.
The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working. A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.
The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s. Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.
Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste. While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.
There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.” Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam. Women are not allowed such a diversion. Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation. Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.
All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies. It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife. It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.
The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions. Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers. Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet. Let the mob sort it out.
Rigidity leads to rebellion. Gilead is no different. A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety. The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh. “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.
For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun. Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history. That should terrify us all.
Wendy Lower focuses on the women in Eastern Poland serving the Nazi regime during World War II.
While narrow, this exploration of women’s roles in the bureaucracy of the Third Reich is grimly fascinating. All roles from civilians through low-level administrators to those with access to the powerful men who made the decisions are covered.
What was it like to live during this horrific period of time in Europe? And what was it like for women whose roles were limited both by the Nazis, and their gender? 70 years after the end of World War II, a multi-disciplinary list of researchers and readers are still trying to come to grips with the horror of the Holocaust. I find myself strangely fascinated by it and, like so many others, keep asking the question, “How could this happen?”
Despite the sometimes salacious, gossipy nature of the narrative, Wendy Lower offers a look at women in history that has only begun to be researched. Most women who served the Nazis were looked over or not taken seriously because of their gender. Yet, here are more examples than I could care for of women who were closely involved in the banal bureaucracy which kept the camps running.
As with all books having to do with atrocities, the sheer horror described can be nightmare inducing. There’s no getting around that if one wants to know what happened.
Hitler’s Furies is not for everyone. But I do believe it covers an important, often overlooked, facet of Nazi bureaucracy. The world needs to know what happened then, because something like is happening now.