Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lit Final

For those of you who are not inclined towards the literary arts, you may want to skip this post. For those of you who are, and who hold high standards for literary arguments, I beg you to be kind, since I had the misfortune to choose a book I hadn't read before for this paper, and one that has so many possibilities for argument that I was hard pressed to keep on subject. This is, of course, only the first draft, and it was written in it's entirety between 6:00 pm and 8:20 pm, but it's the best my poor fried brain can do tonight, especially considering that I will have the ability to revise it after a week of decompression. But, with no further ado, I give you: My Lit Paper.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is the story of one woman in the Republic of Gilead, a country created by a slow religious revolution in the United States. This woman, referred to as “Offred” when she names herself at all, tells of her own experiences in this new theocracy, which separates women into categories, Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives, and Unwomen. As a Handmaid, Offred’s duties are to get the groceries for the household, and to provide, through a monthly ceremonial copulation with the head of the household- the Commander, who by deduction is named Fred- and his wife, Serena Joy, a child. The Ceremony, as this ritual in which the Handmaid actually lays upon the Wife during copulation with the husband is called, comes from a biblical reference in which Rachel circumvents her own infertility.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s Stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she aid, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her (Bible Genesis 30:1-3).

The book rambles and meanders through the thoughts and remembrances of Offred, giving little concrete background on the beginning of the war, or the progress so far. Only that which Offred has personally experienced is mentioned, but even the short forays into Offred’s memories are enough to paint a gory picture of a religious holocaust, and a state of slavery for women.

The religious uprising in New England begins with what appear at the time to be ordinary crimes of the time. Murders, bombings, protests. The slow takeover causes many people to shrug off the insidious changes. Women are no longer allowed to hold jobs, or money in their own names, businesses that cater to the more puerile interests, but which, in the society of the book, have become run of the mill, are shut down. Eventually Offred and her husband, Luke, a divorced man, realize the danger and attempt to escape to Canada with their daughter, who is never named. The escape attempt fails, Luke is likely killed, and their daughter is taken away from Offred, before she herself is placed in a Center, to be taught, and brainwashed into, her new position in society.

Many people have challenged this book in school libraries, due to what they call its anti-religious stand, and its bald-faced approach to sex and sexuality. However, The Handmaid’s Tale is not anti-religious, merely anti-fanatical. Nowhere in the text is the specific religion of Gilead mentioned; only that it is based on the Christian Bible. The Handmaid’s Tale sits at number thirty-seven on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most challenged books (100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-2000).

The controversial nature of the book is made apparent by a quote from the Houston Chronicle on the cover of the 1998 Anchor Books Edition, “Read it while it’s still allowed.”

The holocaust begins with isolated incidents, bodies found in ditches. By the current time in the book, which is fluid in itself, the killing of doctors who performed abortions, or irreversible contraceptive measures on women (and presumably men,) or men who seek sexual satisfaction from each other, are formalized. During a “particicution”, in which the Handmaids are encouraged and required to carry out the execution of a man accused of rape which resulted in the death of an unborn child, Offred describes her own perspective:

There’s a surge forward, like a crowd at a rock concert in the former time, when the doors opened, that urgency coming like a wave through us. The air is bright with adrenaline, we are permitted anything and this is freedom, in my body also, I’m reeling, red spreads everywhere, but before that tide of cloth and bodies hits him Ofglen is shoving through the women in front of us, propelling herself with her elbows, left, right, and running towards him. She pushes him down, sideways, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, three times, sharp painful jabs with the foot, well aimed. Now there are sounds, gasps, a low noise like growling, yells, and the red bodies tumble forward and I can no longer see, he’s obscured by arms, fists, feet. A high scream comes from somewhere, like a horse in terror (Atwood 279-280).

One might say that the so-called particicutions provide an outlet for the frustrations of the Handmaids, frustrations with their daily life and position in society, but the occasions are nothing more than organized murders, used to reinforce the government’s psychological hold over the Handmaids, and also to get rid of those whom the government feels need gotten rid of.

The Handmaids are forced to rely on their wombs, their ability to reproduce, to survive. If a woman is incapable of bearing a child and has no useful household skills, and is unmarried, she is forced to go to the colonies, to hard and often dangerous labor, and worse living conditions. To reproduce the Handmaids must endure daily the indignities of their position, and when the government wants to reinforce their hold over the women, they give them a man, tell the women that he caused one of their own to lose the safety provided by becoming pregnant in a brutal act, and not only allow but encourage them to beat him to death.

The dead, leaders of rival religions, former doctors, men accused of gender treachery- homosexuality- are hung upon a wall for the inhabitants of Gilead to see. Since women are forbidden to read, their crimes are told in pictures, on placards hung around their necks.

Some might say that the display of the executed is the government’s way of reassuring the citizens that they are making the world a better place, but in reality it is no better than the likes of Hitler having lampshades and shoes made of the skins of the Jewish murdered. His government insisted that it was doing the right thing, too.

The government in The Handmaid’s Tale makes a practice of enslaving women, both as Handmaids and Marthas, and in the case of the Unwomen, as menial labor. They kill off anyone that disagrees with them, most especially those who might use their own religious text to point out the fallacies in the framework they have built their tyranny upon. No, there is no balm in Gilead, but only degradation for women, and torture and death for those deemed enemies of the state.


Medic 61 said...

My eyes were kinda blurring because I just got off of a long shift, so I didn't read it completely; but I have to tell you that I love the book with a passion that burns, and from the part I did read, you did a great job :D

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this book, but from what you said about it, it's something we really really don't need to happen here. And don't think it can't happen here. It's been in effect in too many other places under other religions. As a Christian, I say there's still too many whackos who'll twist the Bible to their own purposes. In my part of the country, we have preachers who mis-cite Scripture while railing against alcohol (while ignoring other/bigger problems). Somewhere, some "preacher" wants to spin Scripture to support slavery and despotism too.

Some folks think this country's headed for a civil war. I'm not saying they're right, but they *could* be. History has proven that desperate people will follow some very wierd individuals who'll enact some very drastic policies. Hitler comes to mind as the most noticeable example of someone who enslaved as many as he could and killed anyone he didn't like. In a case like that "Republic of Gilead" (Northeastern U.S.?), I'm thinking what happens depends on who wins in each region.

Well, there's my thoughts on it... for what they're worth.


drc said...

Sounds good...It flows very easily. The only part I saw that needed some work was the paragraph ending "and also to get rid of those whom the government feels need gotten rid of."

Clumsy sentence...and don't end a sentence with a preposition! LOL!