Here’s a quick review of a classic banned book, as well as my thoughts on why it should not be banned and a note on why we must talk about these topics. I encourage you all to comment, whether you want to talk about my thoughts or the issues overall. Whether or not you do, I wish you the best.
Peace and love,
People love censorship almost as much as they claim to hate it. There are plenty of examples to make this case, such as 1984, but Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is among the most interesting, as the censored subject is not art, language, or religion, but the human body. This book has been banned for discussing suicide (and in some cases, characters commit said act), government-sanctioned murder, and rape, all of which are understandably difficult to discuss in schools.
Told from Offred’s perspective, the reader is thrust headlong into the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy in a dystopian world where sterility has crippled the population. Men are given the positions of power, ranging from security guard (Angels) to leaders, such as the Commander. Women are divided into: Wives, who are legally bound to their men, as in contemporary marriage; Marthas, who perform home care and routine chores; Aunts, who run the schools and govern the Handmaids; and the Handmaids, who are fertile women sent to breed with ‘healthy’ (powerful and wealthy) men.
The story slowly builds the sense of cataclysmic oppression, bringing in details on how Gilead formed—seemingly overnight as women were fired across the east coast of the United States, had their bank accounts frozen, and in many cases, were kidnapped. Political dissidents and ‘useless’ women were sent to The Colonies, a wasteland where they’d presumably starve and die. The Handmaids, constrained by the Aunts and the strict, Biblical laws, are put through ‘training,’ which amounts to psychological torture, as seen with Janine.
This particular Handmaid confesses early on that she was raped as a teenager and got an abortion afterward (no doubt another reason this book has been banned). Rather than empathize or try to comfort her, the Aunts condemn her and make the Handmaids-in-training chant that it was her fault. She breaks down in tears but is subjected to this repeatedly, until eventually the Aunts pick a new victim.
The main story follows Offred’s assignment to ‘The Commander’ and his wife, Serena Joy, a former singer who, on numerous occasions, is hostile toward her husband’s breeding partner. This is especially complicated by the breeding ritual, wherein the Handmaid must lie with her head between the Wife’s leg, resting on her pubic bone. All parties remain fully clothed during this (aside from the Handmaid hiking up her dress), indicating how mechanical and loveless the process has become.
There are many compelling reasons to check this out from your local library or, ideally, buy, read, and have on your shelf for future perusal. For one, the first-person narration is done wonderfully, giving a direct insight to this hazardous future. Offred’s voice is insightful, remaining strong in the face on constant attacks against her and women in general, and even as she contemplates suicide, it’s clear she’s only striving for control in a world where women have been stripped of all rights.
The suppression extends to their wardrobe as well, as referenced above in noting the censoring of the human body. Handmaids are forced to wear ankle-length red dresses and ‘wings,’ white caps that prevent them from seeing to the sides, like blinkers, which do the same for horses. Japanese tourists smile and take pictures of these women, further marginalizing and objectifying them.
Throughout, the language and structure of the book is such that as horrifying as it can be to view humans degraded in such ways (and I didn’t even touch on the brothel), there is an entrancing quality to the book. Offred is presented humanly, perhaps as the only human in an inhuman world, and this makes each atrocity hit home a little harder than the last.
This book can be challenging for adults to discuss with other adults. It explores depths of depravity that are only seen on the fringes of contemporary culture, paralleling mail-order brides and human trafficking as well as the diminished status many women face today in America as well as around the world.
I maintain that the difficulty people face when addressing these topics is precisely why we should be discussing them in school. Why let youths handle such difficult topics on their own? Studies suggest that one in six American women are rape victims, with 44% being under the age of 18.3. That means one in twelve high school aged females has been raped, or roughly one victim in every single class. This is unacceptable.
But don’t pretend kids won’t be aware of these topics just because we take a book off their shelves.
Today, more so than ever, we must open a dialogue on these topics. In an internet-based global society where ideas can cross thousands of miles in seconds, all citizens must be aware of and able to discuss these topics. To do otherwise—to choose ignorance, shut out all trace of these ideas, and pretend they won’t happen if we don’t talk about them—will only allow them to continue.