The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 2006)

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Paperback, 311 pages Published March 16th 1998 by Anchor Books (first published 1985)

The Canadian Margaret Atwood, in addition to the vast and diverse career as a writer (exploring the novel, the tale and the poetry), has also taught English language and literature and has long exercised literary criticism, without neglecting activism in environmental causes and humanitarian. The political approach, moreover, is a striking feature in her fictional works, especially with regard to the voice and the feminine representativeness before the patriarchy. His book The Tale of Aia , first published in 1985, rightly reveals the discussion of women’s political rights, place of speech, and freedom of expression in imagining the world’s greatest power, the United States, dominated in the near future by a totalitarian government of extremist Christian orientation: the Republic of Gilead.

The title of this dystopia alludes to the classic collection of stories The Tales of Canter , attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer, of notable paper in the consolidation of the English language in the literature of the end of century XIV, in addition to being related to the famous “fairy tales”, folk narratives / predominantly moral. It is a first-person narrative often tied to science fiction, although Atwood prefers to refer to it as “speculative fiction” because it connects with a social factor that may actually happen, since it has already happened somehow. Indeed, in obscure times of retreat linked to evangelical groups, traditionalist movements and Donald Trump, the reading of the work can even be frightening with the drawing of parallels between the repulsive situations and attitudes shown in the text and the growing conservative oppression of our current reality.

In the novel, the excuse for the coup would have been the fight against Islamic terrorism, with the “common good” also being linked to the control of environmental and health problems. These factors supported the establishment of a completely male-dominated regime in a kind of caste system in which women perform few and certain roles and are differentiated by the color of the clothes they wear: blue for the Wives (high-society daughters oriented to marriage with the Commanders), green for the Marthas (servants of the domestic labor), red for the Aias (young holders of fertility linked only to procreation, with a cap of white flaps around the head) and brown for the Aunts to the instruction of the Aias). There is also the class of the “Econopeople” (daughters of poor families oriented to marrying unowned workers) who wear striped dresses of different colors representing the roles of all women in Gilead, and the so-called Non-Women, those who can not have children, homosexuals, divorcers, widows and feminist ideologists who use gray and are sent to forced labor in colonies where the level of radiation is deadly. The system had also excluded gay men and the entire black and Latino population. who use gray and are sentenced to forced service in colonies where the level of radiation is deadly. The system had also excluded gay men and the entire black and Latino population. who use gray and are sentenced to forced service in colonies where the level of radiation is deadly. The system had also excluded gay men and the entire black and Latino population.

The protagonist is an Aia who tries to survive all this change trying not to forget the previous life to its hard condition. Thus, she tells us (because she can not write, since this activity, like reading, was prohibited for most women) episodes of her past at the same time that she is reporting her daily life in the house where she is staying to comply its pre-established role. It is through his gaze, through his voice, that we know Gilead. She lost her true identity and was given the name of Offred, in a relationship of belonging to who is currently serving: “Of Fred”, in English, or “De Fred”, the leader of whom should become pregnant.

We are for procreation purposes: we are not concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: all that was possible was done to distance us from this category. For all intents and purposes there is no supposition that there is anything amusing about us, no space should be allowed for the flowering of secret lusts; nor should any favors be obtained by persuasion, by them and by us, there should be no opportunities or activities that could give rise to love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred receptacles, traveling chalices. (ATWOOD, 2006, p. 167)

The sexual ritual for this to happen places the Commander’s Wife positioned behind Aia, holding her hands in complete embarrassment, while he violates her, however, without any contact other than penetration. She is but a seminal receiver who will deliver the fruit generated to the woman of superior subtraction who will assume her maternity. The ceremony is related to the biblical passage from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, which is one of the epigraphs of the novel (also appearing in the graphic design of the cover of the Brazilian edition), mentioning the moment when Raquel offers a servant to Jacob so that they have a shoot:

And she said unto him, Behold my handmaid, Bilhah; Enter her that she may have children on my knees,  and I may receive children for her.  (GENESIS, 30: 3)

The astounding reference seems to echo throughout the work, drawing attention to terrible dogmatic aspects that continue to plague Western culture. The “training” of the Aias itself evidences the arbitrariness arising from the sacralization of values ​​of such a code, with decontextualized fragments constantly serving the Tias as an illustration of moral precepts to be judiciously followed. Thus, they learn that they are directly responsible for the failure to conceive babies and for any violence they suffer.

In addition to establishing protection of the order through special sentries, the Guardians and Angels, and the Wall, where those executed by the government are hung to set an example for the passers-by in the street, the new doctrine ends up creating an atmosphere of envy and vigilance among women, also that the small portion that holds some privileges does not wish to lose them. Offred sometimes recounts the feeling of fear in relation to the look of Aia that accompanies it to the market, since some assumed with fervor the principles of that management and could deliver those that demonstrated any slip. In addition, the one who was able to conceive walked triumphantly among the others, as if acquiring a new status, even if the solidarity among many persisted (mainly in the exchange of information and in the reception of postpartum). In this context,

Memory appears as the key to fragmented and non-linear narration. In this sense, it is possible to understand the presence of so many gaps in the blurred speech of Offred, as well as contemplate great beauty in the simplicity of passages as the one that comes in contact with elements that make it feel a little more people and maintain the sanity.  The moments related to the memories of his daughter and of his companion Luke, father of the child, are remarkable. She was forcibly separated from the two in an attempt to escape to Canada and continues to conjecture about her whereabouts, hoping to one day still be able to find them.

Illegal and ambiguous relationships, secret changes in the dynamics of house members, and the discovery of the existence of a group resistant to theocracy lead the plot to a cathartic end, with the book ending in an interesting metafictional epilogue. In conclusion, the tale can be interpreted as an attempt to intimate protest of Aia, to refuse to forget who it was before the new regency. At no time does Atwood trace it as a stereotype of guerrilla heroine that can change the horror scenario in which it is embedded: it seems to try only to remain lucid in the face of chaos, even though there is a dream of freedom. There is no struggle beyond the word, but it is symbolically the talk directed at an unknown person who opens Offred to his own humanity and consequently to insubmitting through the expression of his ramblings, feelings, desires and illusions of power. Above all, it is with her tale that she comes back to belong.

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it’s not really about who can own who, who can do what with whom and go unpunished, even if it is even lead to death. Maybe it’s not about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs open with grin. Maybe it’s about who can do what with whom and be forgiven for it. (ATWOOD, 2006, p.165)

The universe designed by Margaret Atwood, exploring the mystification and burdens of “being a mother,” contemplates the discussion about women’s power over their body and their destiny. More than thirty years after its launch, the novel has already been adapted to the theater (in monologue, opera and ballet), to the cinema and, more recently, to TV, besides to inspire several social campaigns and to be widely adopted as compulsory reading in English-speaking schools, but not without question by many who reject their political bias against social and religious fanaticism.

The choking sensation that runs through most lines makes the reading experience intense and heartbreaking. Here, literature shows itself as a significant tool for the consciousness of the manipulative mechanisms that base the tyranny of dictatorial regimes, always constructed in the surdina, as well as for the reflection about the feminine performance in the society, since, unfortunately, still there are  those who believe that women have already achieved equality with men, caring little for the gradual withdrawal of their rights. Faced as an alert, provoking pessimism or the will to change, The Tale of Aia  is a necessary book that  deserves to be read and debated more and more.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Paperback, 311 pages
Published March 16th 1998 by Anchor Books (first published 1985)

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