I was visiting a friend recently and she happened to have a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” at her place. I had heard about this book before, and my friend also recommended it, so I decided to read. I finished it surprisingly quickly… Not only because I needed to give the book back 🙂
If you have not read the book, don’t read this post further. Go read it and make your own opinion about it.
The language is easy and the story kept me interested. Not in a Sherlock Holmes kind of way, where we are eager to find out who committed the crime, but in an Alice in Wonderland way, where we just appreciate the surreality of the situation. Except that it is not such a nice and fantastic world, but a scary post-apocalyptic one.
The story takes place in a near-future totalitarian state, which is (apparently) at war with neighbors, and follows a nuclear disaster that left a lot of the land unusable. As with any novel about a totalitarian state (such as 1984 and Brave New World), the lack of individual freedom is the focus here: everyone has their role in society pre-assigned, and no deviation is possible, specially questioning or going against the status quo. Different from the aforementioned books, this one focuses in particular on the role of women in this dystopian society. There are three “classes” of women: the wives, the child-bearing, and the cooks. Men should have at least one of each class (with some exceptions). The story is told from the point of view of one of the child-bearing ones. She contrasts her previous life (not too different from the lives we lead today) with the current one, the training she had to go through, and the struggles to maintain her sanity. She “belongs” to a “commander”, a seemingly high-ranking official, who, at some point, breaks the protocol and starts to have a more personal relationship with the protagonist. This is hardly the main point of the story, but I found one of these interactions particularly interesting. In the excerpt below, the commander attempts to justify the new imposed system on women:
We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.
He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five… This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?Than Handmaid’s Tale (Chapter 34)
Indeed, when put this way, it is almost tempting. What a relief it would be to become suddenly free of all these struggles. Not worrying about looking pretty, having the “right” body, face and behavior… Not worrying about finding someone to start a family with, if it will work out or not, if you would be able to raise your kids properly. Rationally speaking, the system guarantees all basic human needs, for all humans. So we see how this would make sense in the head of very pragmatic people.
But very important things were overlooked.
The main character replies: “love”. To which the commander rightfully argues that love might just be something fabricated and imposed on us, as something we *should* feel and how marriages and families work. He points out the fact that arranged marriages were common, and work out just as well.
But in both situations there is a more fundamental principle which is overlooked: freedom. Whether you choose to get married by love, or because your family has found you a suitable partner, the important part is that you *choose*. You choose your partner, you choose the clothes you wear, whether to use make up, have plastic surgery, go to the gym or on a diet. You choose to go out on a date, or ask someone out. You choose to stay married, or to get a divorce.
Or better, you have the impression that you choose.
This situation has got me thinking about the difference between things we choose, and things we think we choose. Unless you live alone in an island isolated from society (in which case you would not be reading this), there are certain expectations about you. This may come from your upbringing, your peers, your friends, and even yourself. Many times we simply internalize these expectations, and live up to them without ever realizing it. Here is a silly example of how this can come about. I recently reorganized my wardrobe and realized I have a disproportionate amount of pink tops. It is by far the most frequent color. Now, do I like pink more than the other colors in particular? Not really… As a girl, I am of course _supposed_ to like pink, and this is how I suspect these tops came about. Some were gifts, admittedly, but maybe half I bought them myself. Since then, I have been more aware of my behavior when I can choose between different colors of the same item. I noticed that my instinct is to invariably go towards pink/purple. Is this because, deep down, I just really like pink, or is it because I was raised always having a lot of pink stuff? I strongly suspect it is the latter…
My feeling is that many people (including myself) make choices according to what is expected of them, and not according to our true selves. These can be as simple as the color of clothes, or as complicated as your career, relationships, values, religion… The problem is that, if we are not true to ourselves, we end up with clothes we don’t particularly enjoy wearing, or worse. Recognizing what is you and what is imposed on you is not an easy task, but it is one worthwhile spending some time on, as this means a lighter and more authentic life.