Friday, November 17, 2006

Handmaid's Tale, pt. 1

There are right times and wrong times for certain books. I'd planned to start the Stacks challenge with Possession, but it seemed to call for a leisurely reading, antithetical to my current situation -- and then spotted Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, at the back of another shelf. Now I'm halfway through the book and marvelling that it sat so long unread...

Random associations and ramblings on the reading so far:
A conversation with Jill of Individual Take about approaches to reading (based on her gleanings from Well-Educated Mind) prompted me to look for a table of contents with chapter titles. The book's dedication was on the facing page, with one recognizable name -- Perry Miller, whose landmark scholarship redefined our understanding of the Puritans. So far, the Puritan mindset is clearly in evidence in the novel (but more repressive than I remember it in Miller). As for chapter titles, I still haven't figured out why every other chapter is titled "Night". (Is there a time progression I'm missing?)

The middle chapter is called "Birth Day" and is the section I'm reading now. It's filled with references to births:
  • the birth of Ofwarren's daughter (and, as a contrast, Warren's wife's pseudo-birth?)
  • Offred's mother's memories of being pregnant (and, as a contrast, the films of pro-choice rallies?)
  • the opening scene with Offred eating an egg (and describing its shell as "a barren landscape")
  • is Moira's escape another type of birth?
  • or Offred's desire to escape and provide a reconstruction of her history (thus giving birth to a narrative?)
  • and Offred's new relationship with the Commander, via the secret meeting and game of scrabble (during which she spells "zygote", another connection)
Flipping to the front of the book, the first two epigraphs -- the Rachel and Bilbah passage from Genesis and excerpt from Modest Proposal -- deal with too few and too many births (an image repeated in the "Shopping" chapter when the two handmaidens, Offred and Ofglen, look at the doctors executed for having tried to prevent births).

That, in turn, reminded me of one of the earliest Biblical allusions in the book, where Aunt Lydia tells the women "Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted": What was originally a metaphor for faith is now one for fecundity. Aside from the obvious connection with some religions' repression of women and attempt to control their reproductive rights, are there other meanings here? I went to Thomas Cahill's Gift of the Jews, hoping to find a passage about the difference between Abraham's new religion with its one (male) god and the pairing of male and female deities that many earlier religions favored. Instead, the book opened to the section where Sarah gives Abraham her handmaiden, Hagar -- the generation preceding Rachel and Bilbah. And then came the realization that the Virgin Mary is sometimes referred to as God's handmaiden. How much is Atwood implicating an entire religious perspective?

Related to that -- and to the potential importance/weight of names: Is it significant that Moira, currently a symbol of hope, takes her name from a Greek goddess (of fate)? So many of the other names (like the Marthas) are clearly Biblical; Offred even makes a point of noting that her Luke wasn't a physician. (And is Nick, her tempter, supposed to bring up the association with Satan's nickname?)

Unbelievably, it took until midway through writing these notes before I realized that Commander wasn't actually a military title (and periodically I wonder if it's coincidence that Serena Joy, who enjoyed freedom and fame speaking out to curtail other women's rights, has a name that sounds vaguely like Schlafly). (And they're even both blonde...) Atwood's handling of the handmaids' names is deft. The first one, Ofglen, I read as merely foreign, mentally pronouncing it "Aufg-len" -- until Ofwayne and Ofwarren were both introduced four paragraphs later and the impact stopped me in mid-chapter.

Back to the book...


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