Nothing But Memory
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Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which, as well as being possibly the most well-known novel by perhaps the greatest living Canadian writer, can also reasonably be called a science fiction classic. Released in 1985, it won the Governor General’s Award for English language fiction in Canada. It also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was nominated for the Booker Prize and a Nebula Award, and came in at number 22 on NPR’s recent reader’s choice list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels of all-time.

Despite all the book’s acclaim, I had somehow never read it before. Yes, despite the fact that I’m Canadian, I love Canadian literature, I have two literature degrees in pursuit of which I took multiple Canadian literature courses, and I’m a fan of dystopian novels, I still managed to avoid The Handmaid’s Tale. The first Atwood novel I read was Lady Oracle, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The result was that for years I thought I didn’t like Margaret Atwood. One day I picked up Alias Grace, which I knew my sister had enjoyed, at a used book sale. I thought it was excellent, so I decided I should give Atwood another go. Last month, I read and enjoyed The Robber Bride. I finished that one while I was in London, where I then picked up The Handmaid’s Tale at the British Library’s bookstore after visiting their excellent (but sadly now ended) Out of This World exhibit on the history of science fiction, which featured at least three or four of Atwood’s books and included her as a panel participant, though unfortunately not while I was there. (But I did get to see Neil Gaiman!) Given everything I knew about The Handmaid’s Tale and its status as a highly-regarded piece of Canadian science fiction, I was quite eager to get started on it and learn what the fuss was about.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an imaginary future United States, now called the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is ruled by religion and is extremely patriarchal: women’s behaviour is strictly codified and monitored. The novel’s narrator is a member of a class of women whose sole function is to act as childbearers for upper class couples who can’t or don’t have their own children. These women wear prescribed clothing — the description made it sound something like a nun’s habit, except red — and are only allowed out of their rooms to run certain errands and take part in authorized rituals. The narrator is known only by the name “Offred.” That’s “of Fred,” Fred being the high-ranking official, called “The Commander,” to whom she now belongs. She tells her life story in non-chronological bits and pieces, describing both her monotonous life as a handmaid and her freer life in the pre-Gilead USA.

One of Atwood’s great strengths as a writer, in my opinion, is her ability to give her characters individual voices. In The Robber Bride, for instance, each of the three protagonists’ sections has a distinct tone that seems to flow perfectly with the way the characters think. In Alias Grace, too, Grace and the doctor’s voices could probably not be more dissimilar. The narrator’s voice in The Handmaid’s Tale is also extremely well-drawn. It is the voice of a woman who can’t quite believe the circumstance she finds herself in. Offred’s feelings of helplessness and desperation come across in every word.

This is, to put it mildly, not a cheerful book. Several passages are disturbing. A description of a funeral procession mourning a miscarried fetus stands out, as does a chilling scene at the handmaids’ training centre in which a young woman recounts how she was gang raped at age 14 while the other girls in the group chant that the incident was her fault. The ease and suddenness with which the new government of Gilead revokes women’s rights to property and employment is also frightening. In a very striking passage, the narrator tells of the immediate shift this change in status causes in her relationship with her husband:

But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.

Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.

She’s gone from person to possession in one swift move, and something in her marriage breaks because of it. It is devastating.

I finished the book — which by the way I highly recommend, unless you want to read something happy — earlier today, less than 24 hours after reading that the United States Congress had passed a bill not-so-affectionately nicknamed the “Let Women Die” Act. One of the provisions in this bill allows hospitals to refuse to provide an abortion to a woman who needs it to save her life. Got that? A woman’s pregnancy might be killing her, but this bill would allow medical practitioners to let the mother die rather than aborting the fetus and saving the mother’s life. That the fetus would most likely die too in such a case seems to be irrelevant; what’s important is that the mother should die rather than survive without her unborn child. To me, this says that many American politicians apparently believe that a woman ceases to be a person once she becomes pregnant — heck, maybe just once she hits childbearing age! Her life on its own has absolutely no value; she is nothing more than a vessel, and if she cannot fulfil her biological destiny then she’d might as well die. It’s hard for me to read something like this without wondering whether parts of North America will actually be living The Handmaid’s Tale within my lifetime. As a woman, I’d rather not see this particular vision of the future come to pass.

God Only Knows

Big Love, a show I’ve watched and enjoyed on HBO for five seasons, aired its final episode on Sunday night. I can’t say that Big Love is one of my favourite shows, but I’ve always found it entertaining. The best thing about it for me is the huge number of non-stereotypical female characters it presents. Bill Henrickson’s three wives — Barb (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) — are the three main women on the show, and the most fully-developed. But plenty of other intriguing women have shared the stage with them, notably: Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), Bill and Barb’s teenaged daughter; Bill’s mother Lois (Grace Zabriskie) and Nicki’s mother Adaleen (Mary Kay Place), both of whom were brought up at the polygamist compound, Juniper Creek; other compound-raised women including problem child Rhonda, Nicki’s daughter Cara Lynn, Bill’s unstable sister-in-law Wanda, twins Kathy and Jodeen, the androgynous Selma Greene, and Alby’s wife Laura; and regular Mormon women like Barb’s mother (played by Ellen Burstyn!) and sister, Sarah’s friend Heather,  and the Henricksons’ neighbour Pam. Basically, Big Love was overrun with female characters, most of whom didn’t quite fit into any of the normal roles for women on TV.

The show placed all these women in a highly repressive, male-dominated society, and yet they were the ones who shone; they were, at least in my opinion, generally far more likeable (with a few notable exceptions *cough* Rhonda *cough*) and almost always much more intriguing than their male counterparts. Series creators Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer said in an interview for TVLine that it was always their intention to make the show about the women:

Scheffer: The show has always been a feminist show, which I think people didn’t always understand. And some people were put off by the fact that these women were quote-unquote under the thumb of a patriarchal jerk. But it’s always been a show about the bonds between women, about the way that women subvert power when they’re in [oppressive] situations.

I thought last night’s finale, entitled “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” did an excellent job of bringing this fact home. In the process, it made a few very interesting statements about its lead male character, Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton), and his role in the world and his family. It was a solid finale: less spectacular than many shows’ final episodes (for me, Angel and Six Feet Under are the standard bearers for TV endings), but satisfying nonetheless. I felt the writers succeeded at wrapping up most of the many ongoing story arcs — which is pretty impressive, because after the penultimate episode I couldn’t imagine how they’d possibly tie up the seemingly endless different plot threads in just one episode — and left viewers with some ideas to ponder. The more I think about “Where Men and Mountains Meet,” the more I like it.

For a few of my thoughts on the episode, follow the jump.

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