The Handmaid’s Tale

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/.  You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation!)

Questions:

  • I found it interesting that although Offred would be unable to raise any children she had, she still yearned to be pregnant.  It seemed like more than just the fear of what would happen to her if she wasn’t successful.  Where do you think her desire for a baby stemmed from?

I think she was mourning the loss of her daughter. Even knowing that she would not get to keep any new child, she had a void that needed to be filled. It was particularly cruel for a woman who has lost her child, to be subsumed into the world of enforced fertility. She had no opportunity to forget.

I have had this thought about secondary infertility … you’re forced into the world of second children, babies and pregnant women.

Even without the added pressure of society’s demands, women in the book are still desperate for pregnancy.

“One of (the women) is vastly pregnant, her belly… swells triumphantly. There is a shifting in the room, a murmur, an escape of breath; despite ourselves we turn our heads, blatantly, to see better; our fingers itch to touch her. She’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire…”

but piled on top of this is the fact that women are valued only for their fecundity:

“Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own… “

  • Did you find it conflicting that the book showed a male-dominated culture, even in reference to reproducing, when in our culture it seems that women take the brunt of the responsibility? Even though male
    infertility was ignored in their culture and females were given stints with new commanders (“tours of booty,” as I came to think of it) did you feel the men were still in charge of procreation? How does this
    differ from our reality?

I found the men were rather shadowy figures. Obviously they wanted the babies, to maintain their society, but the yearning came from the women, and lot of the direct control came via the Aunts. Men seemed to recoil slightly from the reality of women’s bodies.

I can see a parallel with the more repressive societies today. Women cannot be allowed to choose their own sexuality or make reproductive choices. Although a male dominated political establishment calls the shots, it’s women, quislings, who often take the lead in knocking down other women.

It’s scary to think how some of the themes in the story are not so far to the reality in some countries today.Margaret Atwood called the novel a ”what-if tale.” The story for ”Handmaid” began to emerge in 1980, she says, as individual images ignited by newspaper items and snippets of conversation. ”I didn’t include anything that had not already happened, was not under way somewhere or that we don’t have the technology to do,” she says.

  • It was at one time hard for me to put myself in the Wife’s shoes, but having dealt with infertility on a more personal sense, I find that I can sympathize with her and her role in this society.  If you had to be in this society, how could you cope with your role in it? Would you be a Wife or a Handmaid?  Could you sympathize with your counterpart?

I wouldn’t be a very desireable Handmaid as I’d keep on miscarrying! I guess as a woman who has benefited from donor eggs from a younger woman, I’d definitely be a Wife, though I hope nowhere near so cruel and uncaring. One of the things I noticed about the book was the way that women’s roles were split off into the extremes, and there was no sense of sisterhood or common interest. Either a womb, a whore or a wife.. and never they shall meet.

An image that stuck in my mind was the Commander doing his duty with the Handmaid while she lay between the legs of the Wife (and ditto with the arrangements for childbirth)

The Handmaid wasn’t acknowledged. The Wife tried to make her invisible.

There is a parallel with some women who embark on egg donation (and possibly surrogacy or adoption?) where the donor is marginalised and the recipient is in denial. I find this painful, because it makes the exchange seem exploitative, in my eyes, and because the pain of the recipient stands out, using this route to motherhood, but unable to admit that she has not conceived naturally.

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~ by drownedgirl on December 10, 2007.

11 Responses to “The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. That’s an interesting observation about how the male-dominated culture managed to retain their power by breaking up women into competing factions. The lack of sisterhood led them into using their energies against each other, instead of toward each other.

    I agree there is the possibility for exploitation in a donor gamete, adoption, or surrogacy role. It can be hard to find the correct line where this is a business transaction, an altruistic endeavor, or a coercive situation.

  2. I also thought about the parallels with donors/surrogates/birth mothers in adoptions when reading this book. I was really struck by how, in the birth scene, the baby was immediately handed over to the Wife & all the other wives started celebrating, while the Handmaid who actually went through the labour & up until then had been the focal point of the scene was sort of abandoned.

  3. This statement in your post really jumped out at me: “I have had this thought about secondary infertility … you’re forced into the world of second children, babies and pregnant women.”

    Being self absorbed (guilty) and thinking when I started my blog that primary infertility was the one true “infertility” I’ve learned in reading yours and other blogs that that’s simply not the case. While I could always hide and decline to be around pregnant women and children in my worst days, a woman with a child wouldn’t have the same escape. The pressure for number two or three must be intense. Thanks for helping me this past year to understand that we’re all in this together.

  4. “One of the things I noticed about the book was the way that women’s roles were split off into the extremes, and there was no sense of sisterhood or common interest. Either a womb, a whore or a wife.. and never they shall meet.”

    I hadn’t noticed this, but it is a great observation.

    “There is a parallel with some women where the [firstmother] is marginalised and the recipient is in denial. I find this painful, because it makes the exchange seem exploitative.”

    I agree, in my adoption situation. I think this is one reason why open adoption made so much sense for me (done ethically) — it doesn’t marginalize or exploit my children’s first parents, and it forces me to see the situation as it really is instead of living in some sort of denial. That would be so unfair to my children.

  5. Your answer to the last question was really well put – the Wives DID seek to make everyone except themselves invisible, I thought.

  6. Your answer to the second question kicked off something for me–the male response in the book didn’t completely ring true for me. I think women discuss their feelings more, but I think there is an equal impulse between men and women to want to reproduce. I found it strange that not one man (except the doctor who was doing it to help because he pitied her) cared if the women got pregnant. It was the Wife who wanted the baby and sent her to Nick, but none of the men particularly cared if she became pregnant or if they got to parent. I’m jumping off of your idea that the yearning came from the women. But I think in the real world, the yearning comes from both sides but is expressed in different ways.

  7. The woman-to-woman exploitation and domination was definitely THE key to enforcing the system that the men initiated. Without the Aunt-lead education, and the dehumanizing treatment from the Wives, the system could never have taken hold. The system needed the handmaids, but it also required their invisibility to thrive. I couldn’t help but wonder: If things had been reversed, would men have been able to subjugate one another in the same way?

    (ps—thanks for “quislings.” What a great word!)

  8. I didn’t really think about it until reading your post, but it does make sense that the woman were so segregated so they couldn’t ban together and retaliate. The woman were so busy envying/hating each other, that they never considered working together to better all of their lives.

    Great answers.

  9. I read this book years and years ago. Before, I think, I even started on the ttc/fertility path. I’m pretty sure it is still on a shelf on my bookcase unless I passed it on. Maybe I’ll dust it off and re-read it. I wonder if I’ll see it differently after my path these last few years. Oddly, the one thing I remember most from the book is that the handmaid wasn’t given lotion and had to use butter or something. I’m sure that stuck with me, because I would have gone crazy with just that deprivation alone. In my small house I have at least 6 bottles of lotion around, keep some in my car and in my bag with me. I’m sure that wasn’t meant to be the biggest take away. LOL. And, not that I consistently have the time to indulge in reading, but maybe I’ll have to check out this online book club.

  10. Very frightening to think that there was nothing in the book that hadn’t been forshadowed in our modern society. Here’s hoping we keep our eyes open and don’t go down that path.

    Bea

  11. Just a reply to your comment on my blog about secondary infertility: people had trouble answering in the light of primary infertility and hypothetical children. Having a child present here and now does add an extra edge to how much the answer is affected by the interests of the children.

    Bea

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