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Quick, eat those words

2009 March 19
by Maddie

The story of Gilead to me was comparable to the daunting stories of war I hear from friends overseas in Iraq: It seems like it takes years to get there, and once you do everything is just as it isn’t … or shouldn’t… you stare in disbelief, and are soon ready to get the hell out. Although you’ve experienced the tale, it’s still just a story that’s been told—the society is so far removed from your own, that despite the vivid, haunting images and merciless violence, you can’t even begin to imagine living in it.

It is unfortunate that the stories I hear about Iraq are very much non-fiction, but are unfathomable nonetheless.

In fiction books that construct one possible future dystopia, I feel they have much more of a “threatening” impression if they maintain an essence of applicability to current society. This isn’t to assume that all books of this sort are implying that our society is in the process of spiraling downward toward a hellish parallel of current times, but I like to assume that many of them are implying something. The parts of A Handmaid’s Tale that I absolutely loved were those that illustrated the few remaining ties between our and Offred’s society. Offred commenting that Moira was of interest because she “defied fashion as usual” with her short hair and overalls was awesome. The handmaids’ wings (blinders?) were a reminder of the fact that society sees women as innately social—you need external constraints to control this, and even then, we’ll find a way around it. Zing!

These lovely reminders of our own, gendered society in the society of Gilead are inevitable. It is nearly impossible to write a book… or communicate at all… without your own, socially implanted biases shining through. Despite the fact that this book is about a society far in the future and vastly distinct from our own, the parallels to present times, intentional or otherwise, is what makes it accessible. “Caught in the act, sinfully scrabbling”!? Genius.

These reminders are also a bittersweet reality check concerning the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes—they survived a nuclear war. Like fucking cockroaches.

Initially, I thought this book was almost too mechanical. It seemed to be missing so much of what we call “human nature”, particularly in the ceremony scene, which lacked all the passion, domination and allure of good ol’ sex. References to human nature and current society are both necessary and sufficient ingredients of a great fiction book; without them, it may as well be written in the sand. I could see current society seeping out between the lines, but where was human nature? Where was that evolutionary, animalistic driving force that society is run by and runs from? And then I realized, it was on every page, cover to cover. This book is about unremitting repression—something is perpetually being repressed.

One Response
  1. Michelle Bennett permalink
    March 20, 2009

    I totally agree, Offred’s narrative is repressed, and it’s kind of stifling to read at times. Regarding your take on their sex rituals, I think the human nature or passion or animalistic impulse or whatever is totally missing and it is a little scary to think about. I think there are a lot of concepts at play regarding sex in Gilead. But most interesting for me is the interplay between purity, impurity, sterility, and fertility. The concept of purity corresponds to the concept of sterility: both describe cleanliness, except in the context of sex, they take on very different meanings. Purity pretty much means the absence of sexual activity, and sterility signals the (gendered or sexed) inability to impregnate.

    I think this play on words has a lot to do with the human nature you talk about. Gilead wants to have its cake and eat it, too: they want to encourage purity while avoiding sterility. (On a sidenote, men aren’t punished for or acknowledged as being sterile, but women are punished for being infertile, or unable to conceive. This represents an interesting intersection between the body and the law.) But I think this duality between purity and sterility is really the cause of the awkwardness and of Gilead’s sex practices. By obliterating any personal interactions during sex and encouraging mechanical and pure reproduction, Gilead seeks to destroy visceral passion and pursue a kind of mechanical and calculated sex practice and purity in its place, but as the commander’s sterility shows, this maneuver doesn’t yield successful results.

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