This is a talk back assignment for an Intro to Women’s Studies class where I wrote a personal response to Margaret Atwood and her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” I love that you included this Latin phrase throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. The use of a dead language which was used by one of the most well organized groups of people creates an aura of secrecy and also revolution. It is this secrecy that is the basis of Gilead’s government that makes this novel so poignant and also so possible. As a historian, I read your novel and think of other fanatical governments. Gilead reminds me of Bloody Mary and how she burned almost 300 Protestants in the name of God and tortured so many more so that she could help her people follow “the one true faith.” The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind when I read your novel, and how Spain threw out all the “undesirables,” and those that refused to leave: they killed them. If I look at a more contemporary event, I would have to compare Gilead to Nazi Germany and their forced labor and death camps. You wrote that the leaders of Gilead forced their own “undesirables” to perform forced labor in nuclear waste lands which would inevitably lead to their death. Your creation of Gilead is a perfect caricature of fanatical governments and also a terrifying look into what we as people are capable of. When I read your novel I couldn’t help but wonder what was the basis of Gilead and what is the basis of the society in which I live.
I believe that even though we have definitely moved beyond the Spanish Inquisition and Bloody Mary’s reign of terror we are still living in a society that believes in punishing “the sinner” or those that choose to live a life different from the dominant discourse. Saepe peccāmus, which translates as: we often sin. Would the leaders of Gilead use this to describe the world in which we currently live? Sometimes we sin, not by what we do, but also by what we don’t do. Offred said, “I didn’t go on any of the marches. Luke said it would be futile and I had to think about them, my family, him and her. I did think about my family. I started doing more housework, more baking. I tried not to cry at mealtimes” (180). Isn’t this a sin? Isn’t self denial lying? I was taught that lying is a sin and that in order to reach that divine fairy tale land where all the “good people” go to after we die I could not sin. Wasn’t Offred sinning just by lying there in her red dress and aching for Luke while she was caressed by Nick? Wasn’t it a lie when she allowed the Commander to kiss her?
The ways in which you describe what happens between the Commander, Serena Joy and Offred is so vivid and frightening in its realism. Did you write these scenes believing they were rape? I view them as rape. I know that not everyone agrees with me. There are women I know who view that scene as sex. They think that it is acquiescence when Offred states: “Therefore I lie still and picture the unseen canopy over my head. I remember Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughter: Close your eyes and think of England. But this is not England. I wish he would hurry up” (94). Do you view these scenes of copulation, fornication as sex? Is Offred making the choice to have her body used as an incubator? Offred never describes it as anything resembling a positive experience. She states:
What’s going on in this room, under Serena Joy’s silvery canopy, is not exciting. It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena. Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary… (94).
Arousal and orgasm for women are not thought necessary. I’m certain that the Commander reaches climax and that he achieves some form of arousal. Much like when a woman is being raped, this is only about the man’s needs, wants, and desires. Offred just becomes the hole in which he uses to dispose of his erection. Her body is no longer a body anymore, it is simply a receptacle.
I was intrigued at the lengths that you took to demonstrate how very far the leaders of Gilead went to make the Handmaids’ bodies property, thus making them no longer a human being. Offred states, “I’m taken to the doctor’s once a month, for tests: urine, hormones, cancer smear, blood test; the same as before, except that now it’s obligatory” (59). Offred has no right to decide what will happen to her, her body, herself. How did you know how to write about being so out of control? I understand being out of control and having everyone around me have control over my body and how I and they can use it. You wrote, “I stand up, in the dark, start to unbutton. Then I hear something, inside my body. I’ve broken, something has cracked, that must be it” (146). This line made me weep. I remember that moment in my life when I broke. I remember the moment when it became clear that I would never be able to forget what had happened and that I would never be able to live a day without the memory of them breaking me apart and tearing apart my body and my soul. How were you able to show this moment? I think so many women in our world are forced to know this moment. Are you saying that it is universal? Whether or not we live in society such as our own or in a society structured like Gilead will women always be forced to become possessions of men and to have their “self” ripped from them? Will you write of a world where this doesn’t exist, or is that actually beyond the scope of what we can even imagine because this form of slavery is so ingrained in us?
Cicero once said, “Possumusne, Ō dī, in malīs īnsidiīs et magnō exitō esse salvī?” Translated, it means, “Can we be safe, O gods, in wicked treachery and great destruction?” We can’t be safe, and we aren’t safe.