Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986.

Summary: One woman’s account of life as a “handmaid” in the dystopian society of the Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian religious society organized around the urgent problem of declining birthrates.

Many of you already know the story, either from reading the novel or the TV series or both. In a dystopian future brought on by an eco-disaster or series of disasters, the Republic of Gilead has taken the place of the United States (or at least part of it, at war with other “sects”). It is a world of steeply declining birth rates organized into a religious tyranny centered around the production of children, especially among the power elite. Commanders whose Wives ceased to reproduce were assigned Handmaids whose name became Of+Commander’s first name. This is the story of Offred. She has been trained for this sacred role by the Aunts, a severe group of women who indoctrinated them into the sacred task of child-bearing.

Offred was separated from her husband Luke after their attempt to escape this tyranny. She doesn’t know whether Luke is dead or alive or where her daughter is. Her daughter is the reason she is a Handmaid. She is fertile. Most of her life is lived in her room, or on strictly regulated shopping trips, birth celebrations, and “salvagings” where transgressors are hanged. Once a month is the Celebration, when she lays between the knees of the Wife, (following Genesis 30:1-3), while the Commander has very impersonal intercourse with her in the hope of inseminating her.

Much of the narrative hinges on transgressions, many of which become necessities either because the rigid life, or because the rigidities just don’t work–a house of prostitution where the elite men covertly go, which has become the refuge of Moira, Offred’s rebellious friend who is a survivor, doctors who offer to have sex when the Commanders fail, Wives who arrange surrogates, a Commander who wants to have a real relationship with his Handmaid, and an underground “Mayday” movement helping people escape. Atwood’s narrative explores what happens when tyrannous purity cultures bump up against human nature.

Of course the tyrannous culture has to be maintained, and it does so by “salvagings” that turn lynching into a religious ceremony, not unlike what happened in many parts of the Jim Crow south, with a system of informers, Eyes, as well as any of the people around one. The narrative develops around the choices Offred must make when presented with the demands of the transgressive system, risking life to choose survival for herself, and possibly for her daughter, along with answering to her own longings for intimacy.

As you can see, Atwood raises all kinds of questions for us. Is it possible to employ religion (or a quasi-religion) in the service of a tyranny and its aims? In this narrative, women are both close companions and the arch enemies of other women. What do we make of that? And can this dystopia happen here?

The events of the past year are too close for comfort. We have been threatened with the dissolution of our political and social order. Religion has been coopted for political ends. We are in a country of declining birth rates. We face the possibility of a global eco-disaster that many consider posing an existential threat that warrants drastic action, while others vehemently deny and defy.

Most of all, it seems to me that this is a work of resistance. Some see an illusion in the title to The Canterbury Tales. Many see in these stories subtle resistance to the existing religious and political order, even while on religious pilgrimage. Offred’s tale, a series of daytime narratives punctuated by nights, mostly given to reflection, seems also a tale of resistance, a way of fighting to maintain her identity when her life, indeed her body, is employed against her will to sustain the world order. What I see her is a cautionary tale for us all.

Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Summary: The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.”

There are some books that keep you up at night because you can’t put them down. This was different. This story kept me up at night after I had laid the book down, drawn into the choices faced by the characters, the brutality they suffered, and the profound grief that comes of love and loss. I’ve read other books with “heavy” content, but rarely have I been touched as I was in reading this book.

The book opens in 1995 in the voice of the aged narrator, having lost her husband and been diagnosed with terminal cancer and attended by Julien, her surgeon son. She opens a trunk, comes across an identity card for Juliette Gervaise. We subsequently learn that the narrator has been invited back to a reunion of passeurs in Paris, those who had smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied France. And this leads to a narrative of the lives of two sisters, estranged from each other, and from a father, Julien Rossignol, who had faced the Germans in an earlier war, and whose life was broken because of it.

The two sisters are Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne, the older, had fallen in love, conceived a child out of wedlock, and married her lover, Antoine, making a home and an idyllic life in rural France. Isabelle, the younger and seemingly more-headstrong, moved from finishing school to finishing school, consigned to them by a widower father, living as a bookseller in Paris, who did not want to be involved in bringing up either of his daughters. Yet Isabelle ends up in Paris with her father, expelled from yet another school, and distant from a sister who seems to want nothing to do with her.

Into all their lives comes the Nazi threat to France. Antoine is called up to military service along with the husband of Vianne’s best friend Rachel de Champlain, a Jewish emigre’ to France. The confidence in their fighting men and the defenses of the Maginot Line are shattered as the Nazis invade and approach Paris. Isabelle flees, trying to get to Vianne’s home, survives the brutal strafing of fleeing civilians, and falls into the company of a radical, Gaetan, one of those dedicated to the French resistance. He wins her heart, then leaves her after they arrive at her sister’s.

For a time, Isabelle stays, in a relationship made more tense by the presence of a German officer, Captain Beck, billeted in Vianne’s home. Secretly, Isabelle is already enlisted in the resistance cause, while Vianne is faced with the quandary of living with an enemy, who yet seems a decent man. She errs in reluctantly giving the names of those who are Jews and communists in the school in which she teaches, including, her friend Rachel’s.

From here, the plot unfolds in a series of heroic, and sometimes tragic, choices against the backdrop of increasing German brutality. Isabelle becomes the Nightingale (her last name is Rossignol, the French for “nightingale”), and with the aid of her father, working for the Germans but secretly aiding the resistance, becomes Juliette Gervaise, smuggling downed pilots over the Pyrenees to freedom until finally captured by the Germans in the last months of the war. Meanwhile, Vianne, under the nose of SS officer Von Richter who has taken the place of deceased Captain Beck, is able to rescue 19 Jewish orphans, including Rachel’s son, paying for her work in the end by the violation of her own body.

The succession of tragic events these women and their father face are the history of the Holocaust, and the terrible banality of evil and brutality of act that characterized Nazism. Sometimes we become inured to so much evil, but this story brought that evil to life in the experiences of Isabelle, and Vianne, and their friends and, particularly, the children, that brought it up close and personal once more, a powerful use of fiction to document the fact of the Nazi horror.

The loves of each, including Julien Rossignol, the father, and the terrible exigencies of war do indeed shape and define their characters, and in ways I cannot reveal without giving away the end, result in the healing of estrangements among them. The narrator’s closing words speak of the triumph of love and goodness in the end:

“Wounds heal.
Love lasts.
We remain.”