We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

[Mk 4:21-25]

If Mark has a way of concealing the messianic identity of Jesus, his parable of the lamp is ironic. He characterizes the disciples at turns clueless, and others dupes to the powerful presence of Jesus the Christ in their midst. Now beginning one of the most sought after of Margaret Atwood's novels, The Handmaid's Tale, I was helpfully advised "You might have to read it twice." For a book that opens without a trace of time or place, the charm of Atwood's storytelling is her ability to make the reader come at odds with the story, gripping it to discern the context and identity of the narrator. So far I have found a few clues:

“Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.” (17)

“Rita sees me…. But the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for.” (19)

The Commander’s Wife smokes. “I looked at the cigarette with longing. For me, like liquor and coffee, cigarettes are forbidden.” (24)

“’She inhaled, blew out the smoke. I’ve read your file. As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction. But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand?” (25)

“They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent.”(26)

The Guardians think “…of being allotted a Handmaid of their own” (32)

“There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me” (32)

That the evidence suggests a world where a woman is made to do a man's bidding is not all that unfamiliar. And unfortunately, neither is it so strange to find the feature of a Madame whose business lucre is her contract of other women. Just the same, it is no stretch of the imagination to source Scripture for the legitimacy of physical abuse.

But what is less depressing than the familiarity of the context is the consciousness of the narrator. She has the self-awareness to name that there are "no more substitutes; only me". At first she gives less value judgment than stark observations. But by the close of chapter five her understanding of power is evident as she perceives the thoughts of Guards--men who are too young to touch women dream "of being allotted a Handmaid of their own."

The question almost becomes a matter of unhinging the powerstructure. Whether she knows the thoughts of the guardians indicates that she may have authority. She may not be in authority, but she may be an authority. Margaret Atwood would suggest that the reader not only accept the credibility of her narrator but also become aware of why we believe her. We might choose to believe the narrator only for the pursuit of pleasure. We could read the novel to escape from our reality. If so, we voyeurists would be no different than the Commander taking advantage of the handmaid. On the other hand, the narrator could be worth believing because we want to recognize the woman for who she really is. The opaque beginnings of Atwood's tale provide the reader with the choice early on whether to commit further, knowingly, seeking clarification. The focus of the character's identity will eventually become clear should we have faith. If we believe that the woman is more than the object of appeasement, we will find a portrait of truth worth gazing upon.


He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or a under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light. Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear.”

He also said to them, “Take care what you hear. The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, and still more will be given to you. To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

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