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Boss B*tch Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale, Week Two

Thanks to those of you who chimed in last week—a lot of interesting thoughts. TKDgirl91 did an amazing job breaking down all the factors that allowed for the creation of society as restricted as Gilead to emerge, and pointed out the (scary!) fact that it’s not impossible to imagine a similar thing happening today. I think what’s even scarier, perhaps, is that, while it’s unlikely to happen in the U.S., societies like Gilead do exist in the world today—in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and parts of Pakistan (think of Malala, who was shot trying to get an education)—which take extreme forms of Islam as the main source of legislation and law, just as Gilead takes an extreme form of Christianity for its laws. What’s more, the way women are viewed—as secondary citizens, property, domestic servants—used to be the norm across the world (yes, even in the “Western World”!) until the 20th century. So, while Atwood’s world takes it a bit farther, her “invented” world is not, in fact, so far from reality. What scariest to me is how crazy it seems reading it our from the comfort of the 21st century.

I also want to pick up on AvatarKyoshi’s insightful comment on what distinguishes this novel, so far, from other dystopian books:  “With [Offred], I can feel the fear and distress and curiosity in every word, because it’s not based on the action of the plot so much as how the characters handle the new world they’re living in.” In other words, it’s Atwood’s focus on the characters and their development. This is a gripping novel, a suspenseful and thrilling one, and yet it is also a literary novel that is highly concerned with language in a way that—as much as I love it!—Hunger Games is not.

I. Characterization

Those who did comment picked up on the fact that we know very little about Offred. She’s our heroine and yet we don’t get a basic physical description or age until Chapter 24 and have yet to get a real name—and in that way it’s the opposite of most novels, which often start with these facts we’ve come to see as essential. Why do you think Atwood might have chosen to withhold these details for so long? How does her refusal to give them effect you as a reader?

II. The Ceremony

Um…so. Can someone please just break down “the ceremony” for us? What exactly happens? What’s it’s purpose? What “makes it bearable” to Offred? Also can I get some…reactions??? I mean, this is some seriously racy stuff, this is part of the reason Atwood’s novel has been so loudly opposed at many schools. Why even include such a detailed description of the actual, erm, “act”? Do you think it’s pornographic? Does it feel sexy? Also—one last q—Offred asks, at the end, “Which of us is it worse for, [Serena Joy] or me?” —what do you think? Who is it worse for?

III. Nick.

Oh, Nick, you sexy, whistling chauffeur. Predictions? Swoons?IV. … and The Commander.

Ugh. I hate him, and it seems to me what we have here is a pretty age-old story (man bored and lonely with wife seeks out mistress) but with Scrabble non-euphemistically played…or is it an age-old story?? Is his need for a mistress—his stressed because he’s important and should have everything!—somehow revealing

IV. Nolite te bastardes carborundum. 

These are the words Offred found carved into her closet. Later, before the ceremony:

“I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundum. I don’t what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t what else I can say to God.” (Ch. 15)

Then, later: “It sounds less like a prayer, more like a command.” (Ch. 24)

OK—WITHOUT GOOGLING or rather, if googling wasn’t the first thing you did when you came across a weird phrase you didn’t know—what do you think these words mean? And why, why, if Offred has no idea what they mean, why have these words become so important to her? What does it mean that their meaning to her seems to shift—from prayer to command?

V. Flashbacks

We get a lot more about Offred’s past—about her mother, Moira, Aunt Lydia and the Red Center—in this section. Why do you think Atwood includes so many flashbacks to Offred’s life, to the “time before”? Doesn’t all of the “real action” exist in Gilead?

On a related note: What does Offred mean when she calls her story a “reconstruction” (134)?

For next week, read up to Chapter 36.