As regular readers would be aware, I have dubbed 2015 the ‘Year of the Classic’, or YOTC.
I’m trying to read one ‘classic’ per month, as well as at least one book by an Australian female author. I chose ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood as my January classic—I say January, but I finished it slightly into February, and I haven’t started February’s classic yet. I’m not off to a good start …
I want to read the classics to partly correct my ‘classics deficit’. I feel ignorant when it comes to literature— my uni degree wasn’t English or Literature based, and I’ve barely read a classic since I left school—except for the Great Gatsby, which I’ve read at least half-a-dozen times and still feel as desolate as ever at the ending.
I want to read these works to learn—how to structure a good story and how to write a good sentence. I don’t have the ability or time to examine all of the intricacies of these novels, nor to read as many as I’d like, but I’m hoping that by reading some of them I’ll learn a few things, and some of that will carry over into my own writing.
I chose ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as my January classic for a couple of reasons:
1. I feel as if I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t read Margaret Atwood, and she is, I believe, a living legend.
2. I heard her speak a couple of times at the Perth Writers’ Festival in 2013, so I feel as if I know her.
3. My daughter still talks about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ from when their class studied it at school.
4. This novel was first published in 1986 and hasn’t been out of print since, so it must be good.
So, I picked up my daughter’s old copy and read.
The story is told in first person, in the voice of Offred, a handmaid. The handmaids are the fertile women whose role in this society is to bear children for infertile couples, who then raise the baby.
The novel is set in the not-too-distant future in the United States, in a society strictly controlled by a religious regime. When the regime overthrew the government, many of the freedoms its citizens had previously enjoyed were taken from them. Women were no longer permitted to read or write, or hold jobs or have bank accounts. Nor were they permitted sexual freedom. Or to keep their christian names.
Offred and her husband, Luke, attempted to escape with their daughter, but were captured, and Offred was ‘re-educated’ into her role as a handmaid.
The rulers are cruel and the society lives in terror. Crimes, such as criticising the government or sexual infidelity, are punished by public hangings, and the bodies are displayed on a wall for all to see.
There is a resistance, but there are also informants and spies, and no one trusts anyone else.
What I loved about this novel:
1. The story is gripping, unique, and imaginative.
2. The characters are flawed and real and believable. What’s more— you feel for them all being trapped in this cruel and oppressive society.
3. The prose is simple, yet stunning. It’s filled with vivid detail and metaphor, which creates and builds the atmosphere of fear.
‘We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth. We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure.’
4. There’s some humour—like the pig-Latin phrase, ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, which means, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’
And I laughed out loud at the scene involving the store, ‘Soul Scrolls’—a franchise of shops full of printers spewing out the prayers that the Wives have ordered and paid for:
‘There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.
The machines talk as they print out the prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over.’
5. Most of all, I loved this novel for the truths it illuminated about people and humanity, and about society. For me, this was the most unsettling thing about the story, and also the most gripping. It’s not so far removed from things that have happened, or that are currently happening—the Holocaust, and Communist Russia and China, for example, and currently in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan.
Just today, I read that David Hicks’ conviction for aiding acts of terrorism has been overturned. This man was incarcerated and tortured for five and a half years in Guantanamo Bay, and he was innocent. For all that time, our Prime Minister turned a blind eye. Why? I suspect he went along with it because he didn’t want to fall out with the most powerful man in the world, the President of the USA.
People in positions of power can abuse that power, and people will stay silent and obedient if they are frightened. In this story, in the end Offred learned to turn a blind eye to cruelty in order to save herself, and as a reader I wanted her to stay silent because I didn’t want her to die …
‘Right in front of us the van pulls up. Two Eyes, in grey suits, leap from the opening double doors at the back. They grab a man who is walking along, a man with a briefcase, an ordinary-looking man, slam him back against the black side of the van. He’s there a moment, splayed out against the metal as if stuck to it; then one of the Eyes moves in on him, does something sharp and brutal that doubles him over, into a limp cloth bundle. They pick him up and heave him into the back of the van like a sack of mail. Then they are inside also and the doors are closed and the van moves on.
It’s over, in seconds, and the traffic on the street resumes as if nothing has happened.
What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.’
Another poignant thing this novel illustrates is how people in a relative position of power can still be unhappy. The Commander and his wife weren’t happy, even though they were privileged. They’d lost a lot, too, including the normal intimacy that occurs between a husband and wife.
For me, one of the most poignant scenes in the story was when the Commander summoned Offred to his quarters.
‘Hello,’ he says.’ It’s the old form of greeting. I haven’t heard it for a long time, for years. Under the circumstances it seems out of place, comical even, a flip backwards in time, a stunt. I can think of nothing appropriate to say in return.
I think I will cry.’
She doesn’t know what he wants from her:
“I would like—” he says. “This will sound silly.” And he does look embarrassed, sheepish was the word, the way men used to look once. He’s old enough to remember how to look that way, and to remember also how appealing women once found it. The young ones don’t know those tricks. They’ve never had to use them.
“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says.
The game of Scrabble, a simple board game, has been outlawed because women aren’t permitted to read.
“You know how to play?” he says.
We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.’
I found this scene particularly moving as it illustrates how much everyone had lost in this new society.
The book was made into a movie in 1990, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. I’ve only seen the trailer, but it doesn’t appear as if Hollywood quite captured the atmosphere of the novel …
I’m not sure I want to watch it—it looks a bit 50 Shades-ish …
I think the themes of this novel still ring true and will probably do so forever. A true classic, in my view.
I’ve also recently read ‘Mateship With Birds’ by Australian author Carrie Tiffany, and I’ll post my review of that shortly.
I won’t tell you the name of the next book on my classics list, but it’s rather surprising as it’s very different from the usual genres I read. Stay tuned …