Hello all. Our book this month has been ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood. A dystopian novel, which is set in the near future, in the American fundamentalist Republic of Gilead. A falling birth rate has led to women being forced to become ‘handmaids’ and bear children for rich commanders and their wives, who cannot have children for themselves. Although a work of fiction, the terror of this dystopian novel is how close it comes to the realms of possibility.
I sit writing this review amidst a national crisis. What is our identity as a country and what do we want it to become? What do we stand for? Do we really have a say? Extinction Rebellion have brought the streets of London to a standstill and our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has described them as “uncooperative crusties.” Instead of engaging with their concerns for the future of our planet, he seeks to undermine them. The word ‘crusties’ setting them up as outside of normal society. Homeless, unconventional and not to be taken seriously. We find ourselves about to plummet out of Europe without a deal. The slogan ‘take back control’ implies that we are somehow being dictated to by a foreign power and sets the EU up as an ‘other’, whom we can blame all the failings of our current government. Leave.EU’s latest post is openly xenophobic. ‘We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut.’ In short, language has become weaponised.
In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the manipulation and censoring of language is a tool used by the Gileadean state to strip away identity. Women’s names are taken away from them and they are defined by their gender roles, ‘Wife’, ‘Martha’, ‘Handmaid’ or ‘Econowife’. Women who don’t conform are declared ‘Unwomen’. A word designed to imply a betrayal of their very gender; uncollaborative, unnatural. Or to borrow a word from Boris Johnson, ‘uncooperative’. The state aims to eradicate the individual. It is their function within the state that is important. Forced events are given names which make them seem biblical. The forced act of sex between a handmaid and commander is called the ‘Ceremony.’ This gives the situation a sense of official importance; it validates it. In reality it is a perversion of a wedding ceremony, which should be an act of love.
Despite this stripping away of identity, our narrator still finds ways to secretly resist the regime. ‘My name isn’t Offred,’ she tells us. ‘I have another name, which nobody uses now, because it’s forbidden.’ She thinks of her name like ‘buried’ ‘treasure’ and describes it as ‘shinning in the dark.’ Offred sings songs in her head like Amazing Grace. She explains that songs like that are now banned, ‘especially the ones that use words like free. They are considered too dangerous.’ The state don’t want its citizens to remember. In remembering her real name and her past life, Offred shows her dissent and just through telling her story she is refusing to accept the patriarchal narrative of Gilead.
This is a novel I think everyone should read. It made me laugh, it made me cry a lot and it made me angry. This is a work of fiction, but it has echoes in our society which should be a cause for concern. Gilead is a form of government where there is authoritarian rule. Where patriotism is considered of the upmost importance. It uses propaganda to play to the crowds and sets up the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Does this ring any bells?