The Handmaid’s Tale (book)

I wrote about
the movie last
April, but now that I’ve reread the
, I thought I’d talk about it again.

I must not have reread the book since before September 2001, or
I’d have noticed and remembered this paragraph:

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

What struck me particularly both this time and in the past, is
the depiction of benign power, and how unimaginative people who
have power are about the plight of the powerless. This happens
at several points but the one that’s always struck me is
when the Commander gives the narrator the hand lotion:

On the fourth evening he gave me the hand lotion, in an un-labeled plastic bottle. It wasn’t very good quality; it smelled faintly of vegetable oil. No Lily of the Valley for me. It may have been something they made up for use in hospitals, on bedsores. But I thanked him anyway.

The trouble is, I said, I don’t have anywhere to keep it.

In your room, he said, as if it were obvious.

They’d find it, I said. Someone would find it.

Why? he asked, as if he really didn’t know. Maybe he didn’t. It wasn’t the first time he gave evidence of being truly ignorant of the real conditions under which we lived.

They look, I said. They look in all our rooms.

What for? he said.

I think I lost control then, a little. Razor blades, I said. Books, writing, black-market stuff. All the things we aren’t supposed to have. Jesus Christ, you ought to know. My voice was angrier than I’d intended, but he didn’t even wince.

Then you’ll have to keep it here, he said.

So that’s what I did.

What this always reminds me of is something that happened when
I was in the fourth grade. I’d been coming home from school and
telling stories with the locution, “So I raised my hand and
said…”, and one day my father said something that made me
realize that he had no idea that after you raised your hand in
school, you then had to wait for the teacher to call on you
before you could say anything. I don’t know what it was like
when he was in school, although I did sit in on classes he
taught (he was an organic chemistry professor) later, and I
don’t remember students contributing uninvited.

There’s also this discussion of a pre-catastrophe interview with the mistress
of a high-up Nazi:

From what they said, the man had been cruel and brutal. The mistress … had once been very beautiful. There was a black-and-white shot of her and another woman, in the two-piece bathing suits and platform shoes and picture hats of the time; they were wearing cat’s-eye sunglasses and sitting in deck chairs by a swimming pool. The swimming pool was beside their house, which was near the camp with the ovens. The woman said she didn’t notice much that she found unusual. She denied knowing about the ovens.

At the time of the interview, forty or fifty years later, she was dying of emphysema. She coughed a lot, and she was very thin, almost emaciated; but she still took pride in her appearance. (Look at that, said my mother, half grudgingly, half admiringly. She still takes pride in her appearance.) She was carefully made up, heavy mascara on her eyelashes, rouge on the bones of her cheeks, over which the skin was stretched like a rubber glove pulled tight. She was wearing pearls.

He was not a monster, she said. People say he was a monster, but he was not one.

What could she have been thinking about? Not much, I guess; not back then, not at the time. She was thinking about how not to think. The times were abnormal. She took pride in her appearance. She did not believe he was a monster. Hw was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, offkey, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation. A big child, she would have said to herself. Her heart would have melted, she’d have smoothed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him on the ear, and not just to get something out of him either. The instinct to soothe, to make it better. There there, she’d say, as he woke from a nightmare. Things are so hard for you. All this she would have believed, because otherwise how could she have kept on living? She was very ordinary, under that beauty. She believed in decency, she was nice to the Jewish maid, or nice enough, nicer than she needed to be.

Another brilliant piece of analysis and description is the way
people who are supposed to be completely controlled are always
forming alliances to get small pieces of information. Here’s
how Atwood introduces the story about her friend Moira escaping
from the training center for the Handmaids:

Part of it I can fill in myself, part of it I heard from Alma, who heard it from Dolores, who heard it from Janine. Janine heard it from Aunt Lydia. There can be alliances even in such places, even under such circumstances. This is something you can depend upon: there will always be alliances, of one kind or another.

Here’s a discussion of how an alliance starts, in a whispered
conversation at the birth of a baby:

I receive a cup, lean to the side to pass it, and the woman next to me says, low in my ear, “Are you looking for anyone?”

“Moira,” I say, just as low. “Dark hair, freckles.”

“No,” the woman says. I don’t know this woman, she wasn’t at the Center with me, though I’ve seen her, shopping. “But I’ll watch for you.”

“Are you?” I say.

“Alma,” she says. “What’s your real name?”

I want to tell her there was an Alma with me at the Center. I want to
tell her my name, but Aunt Elizabeth raises her head, staring
around the room, she must have heard a break in the chant, so
there’s no more time. Sometimes you can find things out, on Birth
Days. But there would be no point in asking about Luke. He
wouldn’t be where any of these women would be likely to see him.

One of the good things about this blog is that it does give me
a chance to tell people what I think is good about my favorite
books. This is one I don’t think I’ve ever managed to discuss
with any of my friends.

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