I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in the mid-1990s, the summer I met the man who would become my husband. Roger was getting ready to teach it to his high school students, but he never got the opportunity. The book was challenged by a parent, and though Roger won the case, the chance to teach it passed.
On first reading, I thought my life path would be: court, marry, procreate, live happily ever after. On second reading — more than a decade and a well-worn map-to-parenthood later — the book struck very different chords.
In the beginning of the book, the Aunts discuss two facets of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to”. While the old government’s laws provided both types of freedom, the new government limited women’s freedom to “freedom from”. Do you think that “freedom from” is truly a freedom, or is it just the government’s way of subtly taking away rights?
Definitely the latter. This sentiment is commonly credited to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” For more of my thoughts on the coming dystopia and the prescience of Margaret Atwood, see my post from a few days ago.
One thing that struck me was how easily the Gileadean government robbed women of their economic power and, ultimately, freedom. All it took was a few keystrokes and threats to employers to throw women back into chattel status. Where was the opposition? And what about the men? Even Offred’s partner was unbothered by what was happening. How might the citizens in Offred’s culture have fought against the Gileadians’ plans? Or was the takeover inevitable once it began?
When people value more the “freedom from” than the “freedom to,” taking away freedoms will be as easy as the proverbial taking candy from a baby (which, in reality, is a strange simile, if you’ve ever tried doing so).
Life carries risk. The more we want to shift our risk onto others, the more we are willing to let others control us. We trade freedom for security (or the illusion of security, since risk is still there in some form or another). We’re like that doomed frog that is put in a pot of cool water with the heat turned on: because change happens gradually, we don’t jump out of the pot or yell “stop!” Gradualism takes patience if you’re the perpetrator, and vigilance and courage if you’re the frog.
We in the US hail our Constitution as the protector and guarantor of our rights. But without our awareness and willingness to fight to protect our rights, the Constitution is just an old piece of paper.
The Declaration of Independence says, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress were so committed to self-governance that they even declared the right/duty to “throw off” a government that’s become despotic! What citizenry in human history has ever been given by its founders permission — even the imperative — to overthrow a wayward government? (And whether Eyes are reading or not, I must point out I am not suggesting the overthrow of anything.)
When was the last time you read the Constitution? Do you think your elected officials have? How can you (and they) safeguard your freedoms if you don’t know what they are?
**stepping down from soap box**
It was at one time hard for me to put myself in the Wife’s shoes, but having dealt with infertility on a more personal sense, I find that I can sympathize with her and her role in this society. If you had to be in this society, how could you cope with your role in it? Would you be a Wife or a Handmaid? Could you sympathize with your counterpart?
Absolutely. I sympathize with both. If I had my choice (which, of course, I wouldn’t in Gilead), I think I’d be a Wife (as the lessor of two horrors). But I would also sympathize with the Handmaids. Both groups were stripped of the power of self-determination.
I know logically that one needs only food, shelter, air and water for survival. But to live without freedom seems so pathetically bleak, for both Blue and Red.
Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation!)