The Handmaid’s Tale

Ever since I read “1984” and “Brave New World” in high school I’ve been a fan of dystopian novels.  I love recent effort like “The Hunger Games” and I found the movie “Divergent” to be enjoyable even though the novels weren’t very original.  So the buzz around the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” caught my interest.

I borrowed the book from the library and I thought it was pretty interesting.  It was a suspenseful story and it inspired a lot of imagination.  The author Margaret Atwood left a lot of loose ends in her book.  She wrote the novel as if we were familiar with the country of Gilead and details did not need to be explained.

I enjoyed the book enough to watch the TV series because I was hoping it would fill in some blanks for me.  In some ways it did.  Since the book leaves a lot to the imagination the writers of the TV series were given a lot of artistic license.  There are several story lines in the show that weren’t in the novel and there were some aspects of the book that were completely left out of the TV show.  But I’m still left with questions about Gilead and the way society is structured.

While reading the book and watching the TV series I wondered what happened to the handmaids once their child bearing years are over.  Are they sent to the colonies?  If so why not stage an uprising?  There isn’t much to loose if you know you will be exiled and sentenced to a work camp or hanged in your mid forties.

In the TV show there were women that worked as domestic workers.  They looked to be in their late 30s or perhaps 40s and were attractive.  It is unclear if that was the next step after being a handmaid.  The book mentioned a social class of women called econowives which may have been the lot in life of these women.  But I thought the econowives were government issued women to low status men.  It was never made clear.

I also didn’t understand who benefited from the social structure of Gilead.  Everyone was miserable and oppressed.  Even the upper class of society suffered under the rules of the theocracy.  Why did they put up with it?  They were all slaves to the system and I saw no beneficiaries.  No one was above corporal punishment or the wall in Gilead.

The social structure that enslaved women of child bearing age didn’t seem to be very fruitful.  Despite all of the child bearing women being in bondage and having intercourse monthly on their fertile days pregnancies were still rare.  The entire exercise seems futile to me because it wasn’t very productive despite the systematic efforts.  It probably would have been better to harvest the eggs of child women and implant them with embryos.

There was no reward for delivering a healthy child.  Once a woman weened the baby that she birthed she just went on to the next post.  Women that delivered babies weren’t even given high status.  You would think that Gilead would offer some sort of motivation such as a respectable husband or her own income and residence at some point.

The book touched on this more than the show did but a lot of men were celibate in Gilead.  Men were issued women by the government based on status.  Low status men were not issued women at all.  It was hard to tell the status levels of the men in the stories.  The driver in the story was low status and the Commander was high.

I don’t know how men ranked in between and at what point they earned a woman.  There is no way all of those grown celibate men wouldn’t cause some sort of social instability.  The social structure of Gilead really wasn’t sustainable.

In the novel Serena Joy Waterford was a lot older than her handmaid Offred.  I got the impression that all of the wives and commanders were older and past prime child bearing years which was their problem.  In the TV show the actresses that play the wives and handmaids are around the same age.  So I don’t really know what was wrong with all the wives?  You would think one of them would have an unplanned pregnancy at some point.  And how did the government of Gilead know they were infertile?

Some of the wives in the movie were quite young and looked to be healthy.  You don’t really know that you can’t have children until you start having unprotected sex.  It was also unclear to me if the wives and husbands had sex with each other or was sexuality taboo outside of “The Ceremony”.  The Waterfords had a very distant and cold relationship.

There was a baby girl born in the story.  Her handmaid mother called her Angela and her adopted mother and father called her Charlotte (or perhaps vice versa).  I’m sympathetic to the handmaid so I will refer to her as Angela.  What did Gilead do with the baby girls that were born and raised in affluent families that had handmaids.  Would these families really turn their daughter over to the government if she was thought to be fertile?  How would they reconcile that with their conscious?

There are just so many questions left.  There are more seasons of the show and Margaret Atwood is working on a sequel to her novel that was published in 1985.  Perhaps my questions will be answered.  But based on the book and the TV program I don’t think Gilead could survive for more than one generation.  There would be a lot of instability and social strife that would cause upheaval.

 

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