Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I have a clear memory of myself, as a college student who had recently been introduced to feminism and feminist literature, picking this book off of a cart of new stock at the bookstore where I worked and being drawn in by the cover illustration. Why were those nuns wearing red habits? The description on the back cover of a dystopian world intrigued me. The story stayed with me long after I read it. Some books are pure escape, and even if I remember that I read them, I don't always remember what they were about, but this one haunted me. Each time I've read it (this was at least my fouth go round) I've experienced a new realization that the world is growing ever closer to the chilling reality faced by the narrator, Handmaid Offred. In this day of "legitmate rape" arguments as an excuse for the constant picking away at women's rights to birth control and abortion, and "Islamic fanatic" blaming, this books hits dangerously close to home.

My most recent revisit of this work, in honor of banned books week, was prompted by this article which mentions that it has a book burning scene (which I had not remembered) and which, ironically, takes place in the "time before" and, in fact, our narrator actually participated in the destruction herself. It must have been some time since I last read this. Surely I have not read it since my now 16-year-old daughter was born, before I moved to Massachusetts. I don't recall having the same "triggers" I felt while reading it this time around. The loss felt by Offred when her daughter was taken from her, and the realization that the story takes place in Boston, only about 30 miles from where I now live, prompted me to have a lot more to say than I might have.

When I became a mother, I became a "Mom" to the rest of the world. "You're Paloma's Mom" people would say, or "the Moms can wait over there" once our roles of chauffeur to whatever event had been fulfilled. I found out that some foods were "Mom approved" as were some activities, and others weren't. I couldn't quite put my finger on why all of this creeped me out. I didn't mind my daughter calling me "Mom" as an endearment, but I really resented that to others "Mom" was the only thing that identified me. In The Handmaid's Tale I noticed that women were only defined by one role: Wife, Martha, Handmaid, Aunt. Each of these was capitalized no matter where it fell in the sentence, and whether it was being used as a title or not. However, the same was not true of the men. Some of them had multiple roles, so they could be a husband, (with a small "h") as well as a Commander, and have a first name. I guess I saw the use of "Mom" as a stripping away of my other identities: my first name; my profession as a librarian; my roles as wife, daughter, sister, world traveler, beer brewer, recorder player...

Reading this work again in a post-Boston-Marathon-bombing world, a world in which "if you see something, say something" has created at least three different situations on my campus in which an unattended backpack was reported to police within a one-week period, the "you can never be too safe" cry really resonates. Imagine, a backpack on a college campus! Sound the alarm! I, frankly, did not feel especially safe when one of the "non-bombs" prompted my own street to be cordoned off. It is truly disconcerting to have a police officer tell you that you cannot enter your own home. Following these incidents backpacks were banned at my university's graduation ceremony.

Our narrator explains that during the transition from the "time before" to her present that "newspapers were censored and some were closed down for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful." The Handmaids are told by the Aunts there is "freedom to and freedom from". They had experienced "freedom to" before, "in the days of anarchy" now they would experience "freedom from". Of course the Aunts meant they would experience freedom from objectification, and freedom from pornography, but the Handmaids also experienced freedom from ever having to think for themselves again, from getting to read or write, from feeling loved. And they actually didn't get to experience "freedom from" objectification either.

There is also a more surreal aspect to reading the book this time around. Previously, I felt as if I was reading about a time in the not-too-distant future, but this time it felt more like reading about a future-that-was-already-passed. Much like reading Orwell's 1984 now would feel. It is hard to tell what time period for the work is set in. It was written in the 1980s, and references to any decade stop in the 1990s. It is hard to ascertain since the author could not have known about DVDs or cell phones and other technologies that came just after the publication of the work. Are they not mentioned because their time had come and gone, or because Atwood could not have imagined such things? Paper money is not used at all, all commercial transactions are electronic, but Polaroid pictures still exist. The Epilogue, which takes place in the year 2195, refers to the story being found on a cassette tapes, and specifically says such tapes became obsolete in the '80s or '90s, after CDs became popular, and a machine having to be made that could play such devices. This makes reading it a bit more eerie than the first few times I read it.

Loss of information is a definite theme in this work. Reading or writing anything is forbidden for women, so that even playing a game of scrabble becomes an illicit fling.

The Commander has his own library, although the word is not used. It is the place where he summons his Handmaid to come and meet him clandestinely through a signal from his chauffeur, Nick. Offred wonders what Nick gets out of it
How does he feel, pimping in this ambiguous way for the Commander? Does it fill him with disgust, or make him want more of me, want me more? Because he has no idea what really goes on in there, among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint.
The Commander explains to Offred why it is okay for some to read, but not others. His reasoning is something I hear often. Certain materials can fall into the "wrong hands". The censors, however, are able to handle the information.

"'What's dangerous in the hands of the multitudes', he said, with what may or may not have been irony, 'is safe enough for those whose motives are...'

'Beyond reproach' I said."

Even the Bible is edited, and changed.
Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking.
Because, as Offred explains, the Bible in the Commander's home is kept locked up. "It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read."

Offred's mother was a feminist. She was a single mother by choice, protested at anti-abortion rallys,  and gave her daughter a "pop up book of sexual organs by the times [she] was four". She burned porn magazines  and brought her daughter along to the burning. The censorship of pornography is one place where the continuum of liberal and conservative will sometimes come together. Religious Right and Feminist Left make strange bedfellows here.There are those in the religious right who would have burned the pop up books as well. Those who are burning the magazines are described in terms such as "ecstatic","happy", "cheerful". The event is likened to Christmas. A holiday. The Commander allows Offred to read some of the forbidden artifacts from "the time before" during their secret meetings and she tells us that "The Vogue magazine should have been destroyed. There were house-to-house searches, bonfires..." Again, we see both the right and left wings using the same tactic: burning what they don't like.Who gets to decide? What information are we willing to be "free from".

Much of the setting is in and around the area of Harvard Square, which I doubt I would have fully realized on any of the other times I read this book. Harvard University has become some kind of government headquarters. The University Library itself has become a place for a different sort of enlightenment.
We file onto the wide lawn in front of what used to be the library. The white steps going up are the same, the main entrance is unaltered. There's a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for commencement, in the time before....But this stage is not the same after all, because of the three wooden posts that stand on it, with loops of rope.
Offred and her denizens are forced to watch as three of their own become object lessons. Earlier in the book she describes the library as she remembered it from "the time before" as a "temple".

The Handmaid worked in a library in her previous life. She transferred books to computer discs "to cut down on storage space and replacement costs".
Discers, we called oursevles. We called the library a discotheque... After the books were transferred they were supposed to go to the shredder..."
Offred, along with all the other women who worked in the library were dismissed en masse. The Library director had told them "If there's any trouble the books might be lost". Of course all the books were lost anyway.

Again, I have to imagine what Atwood thinks about what all the advances in technology would bring. Today e-books aren't stored on discs, they are in the ether of cyberspace. I even read The Handmaid's Tale in electronic format which I borrowed from my public library. In an expected, yet almost unreal twist, it disappeared from my iPad after seven days.

Those who say libraries don't matter because everything is online do not understand that once everything is online it is easier to control. The Chinese and Cuban governments already know this. Searching Google in China results in many links that are "unavailable". Cubans simply don't have access to the internet.

Like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 the banning of this book is truly ironic. The Handmaid's Tale has been challenged on grounds of being anti-Christian, sexually explicit, and violent. One parent in Guilford County, North Carolina had this to say about the book "I was not happy with what I found because I did not find anything inspirational, anything to help our young people." Find out more here. While I concede that the book does denigrate a certain type of Christian (those who would wield their riches and power over those less fortunate hmmmm.....), and is sexually explicit as well as violent, but un-inspirational? My goodness, it inspired me to write one of my longest blog posts yet! Last week the Guilford County School Board voted to retain the book on the reading list.

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