In Which I Finally Read The Handmaid’s Tale

There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.

I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.

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Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.

Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.

I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.

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Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole

I have read relatively little on feminism and gender since I left university, and so to that end I ordered myself a copy of Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole after seeing positive things about it on Twitter and various other blogs. It’s a very appealing book – written by an academic but not an ‘academic book’, accessible and likeable, and with a sense of humour.

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O’Toole is indeed a very likeable writer and her chatty style engages you straight away. She uses humour and lots of her own personal stories to explain what she is talking about, and most importantly to apply feminist and gender theory to real life. I loved that she wrote about discovering the importance of feminism and the reality of gender inequality as a teenager, and how this made her rethink her own attitudes and actions. She charts the progression of her Halloween costumes as a way to demonstrate how she chose to present herself when given the chance to dress up and be different; after all this is a book about performance. The subtitle is Dressing Up, Playing Parts, and Daring to Act Differently. O’Toole’s choice to do these things, partly through her own life and also through her theatre studies, greatly affected her views on gender and its performativity. And this is the focus of the book: the performative nature of gender, something theorised by Judith Butler.

Emer O’Toole goes into a great discussion about the difference between biological gender and psychological and performative gender. Butler does not deny biological gender but argues that almost everything else about it is performative. While I agree with this to some degree, O’Toole unpacks this a bit more and explains the details of what performative gender really is. This is undoubtedly fascinating, and makes us think a bit more about why we are the way we are. She also discusses Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and a handful of other philosophers and experts on gender and sexuality.

This is all great, but there were times when I wondered if I was really the target audience for this book. It is explicitly aimed at women but I think perhaps it is aimed at a woman who is younger than me (though I’m only 28), less sure of her own opinion on gender and feminism, and who doesn’t know as much of the theory. I’m no expert in gender theory, but the material examined here is base-covering rather than exploratory, and a good deal of it was familiar.

There is also the question of how to apply the theory here. Early in the book I wondered if we were just overloaded with theory and we needed more action in our lives to try and resolve these problems with gender and sexism; but as I progressed through the book O’Toole offered more and more advice about how women can change the way they choose to be women. She discussed choice in great detail and whether we really choose to act and dress as we do or whether this is just ‘conditioned’ throughout our lives. For me, I kept wanting to point out that there is also a question of taste – I realise that liking pink is a thing that little girls are taught, but what if you just happen to like pink? So what? My only problem was my thought that you don’t have to perform gender equality blatantly – surely the most important thing is that you believe in it. In my experience the most effective way of demonstrating that gender inequality exists and is bullshit is to call people out on it in discussions, and enter into a debate. If people are not challenged then they will just carry on as they are.

But the point here for O’Toole is that she personally needed to try on new costumes to figure out her own position, and to explore those of others. I have always been taught that men and women are equal, but Emer O’Toole came from a traditional Catholic household in the Republic of Ireland – she had more to fight against. This coupled with her interest and studies in performance meant that it was very natural for her to experiment with gender performativity. This book is really about Emer O’Toole’s own relationship with her gender and her own adventures in breaking down barriers and fighting sexism, rather than a new manual for feminism.

As I said above I think the ideal reader for Girls Will Be Girls is a young woman, under 25, who perhaps is not so sure about how to deal with the gender inequality and sexism that she encounters. Perhaps she is not so sure of her own self. I would have loved to read this book when I was in my late teens, so I think I would recommend it to that age group. Nonetheless Girls Will Be Girls is a great book that deserves lots of praise and attention, and I would recommend it not only to teenage girls but to boys as well, and anyone particularly interested in experimenting with gender performativity.

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Published by Orion in 2015.

Purchase from Foyles and Wordery.

I Need Recommendations!

I do indeed. Specifically for my feminism/women reading list. I have recently compiled reading lists of the books I most want to read out of the huge list I have on GoodReads, and realised that I actually don’t have that many on feminism/women/gender. This is an area that I find fascinating and I feel like I haven’t read enough on it.

Here is the list I have so far:

  • Animal by Sara Pascoe
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates
  • I Call Myself a Feminist by Victoria Pepe
  • Girls Will be Girls by Emer O’Toole
  • Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
  • The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (own a copy)
  • Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic after Thirty Years by Annette R. Federico and Sandra M. Gilbert (own a copy)
  • The Second Sex by Simone du Beauvoir (own a copy)

As you can see I’ve got a mix of classics and more modern stuff. Honestly I’d rather read more modern stuff (say, since 1980) so recommendations in that bracket would be very much appreciated!

Also I must ask that no one recommend Caitlin Moran to me – I have read two of her books and didn’t really get along with them… sorry.

I look forward to hearing about some amazing books!

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(image: urbantabloid.com)

‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman

Any reader of Victorian literature, or any student of the history of the period, will be aware of the concept of the fallen woman. If not, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It’s a depressingly detailed page. For an era in which society began to move away from the government of Christianity (thank you Darwin and your fellow evolutionists!), the 19th century was one that made a national phenomenon out of the concept of a woman fallen from God’s Grace.

Grace Marks, the protagonist of Alias Grace, was a real person. In 1843 she was convicted of murdering her employer, Mr Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. This brought her to the public attention, and eventually, to that of Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace is a fictional account of Grace’s life, the murders, and her time in prison afterwards. Her supposed accomplice is James McDermott, who also worked for Mr Kinnear. He was hanged, but she was spared that sentence at the last moment, and sent to prison. She became a momentary celebrity, with the trial being covered widely in the media.

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The frame of the novel consists of meetings, in prison, between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan. He is interested in criminal behaviour and mental health, and aspires to open his own modern asylum with progressive treatments. He meets with Grace and asks her about the murders; during her trial she stated that she could not remember most of what happened, and Dr Jordan spends a lot of his time trying to get her to remember. Even though large sections of the book are narrated by Grace, we are never quite sure exactly how much she does or does not remember. Grace is an unreliable narrator, but so is Margaret Atwood.

One of the things Dr Jordan wants Grace to speak about is the relationship between her and McDermott. In the papers at the time of the trial it is claimed that she is his ‘paramour’, implying they are lovers. This incriminates Grace further by implying she colluded with McDermott entirely, and that they had the same aims. Grace’s version is that they were not lovers, that she did not like him, and that he killed both Kinnear and Nancy. She was there at the time, and tried to convince him not to do it; that was all. During the trial the media, as well as the members of the court, are frankly obsessed by the question of whether or not Grace and McDermott were lovers, and so is Dr Jordan. This is partly to establish their relationship, and how this played a part in the murders; but it also because of the desire for scandal and sensationalism. If it was proved that Grace has slept with McDermott, she would be even more guilty. Even if proved innocent she would still be guilty of premarital sex, and would still be judged by society.

Her apparent lack of memory makes her something of an enigma during the trial, and indeed she is still very enigmatic with Dr Jordan – even in her first person narrative. People want to understand her, to understand the mind of a person who has committed a crime, and they are obsessed with her virtue. She must either be innocent and therefore ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as a woman should be; or she should be guilty and therefore prove the weakness and inherent sin of woman, and be ‘fallen’. Society condemns her to be one or the other, and in my opinion she is somewhere in between, like most people. As with our modern treatment of female murderers, Grace is demonised so much partly because she is a woman, and we find it harder to believe that women can be as evil as men. As soon as they show any sign of wrongdoing, in any way, we are very quick to demonise them. Look at the media portrayals of female murderers, such as Aileen Wournos or Myra Hindley, or even those of non-criminals that are perceived as doing something wrong, such as Teresa May or Katie Hopkins. These women may do things we don’t like (or that are monstrous in case of the two former), but they are always treated differently to men who do similar things. How could a woman kill another person, or a child? How could a woman be tough or vitriolic?

The duality of ‘pure vs fallen’ still exists today, even without the explicitly religious context. In the eyes of the public, and of Dr Jordan, Grace must be one or the other, and there is little room for complexity in her character. The Victorian ignorance of the human psyche is frustrating, but the demonisation of women is infuriating. Mental illness is also demonised to some extent, and as the novel goes on it seems that this may affect Grace too. I’m not going to write about what happens at the end of the novel for those who haven’t read it, but the duality is very clear there as well. Grace must be either an angel or a demon, and nothing in between. Women must be either the angel in the house, or the demon in the asylum.

For anyone to be equal, they should be allowed to show their complexity and humanity rather than conform to a stereotype. Grace is trapped within hers, and it affects her whole life. If she had been a man she would either have been hanged with McDermott, or sent to prison forever and forgotten about. Dr Jordan is so fascinated with her partly because of the ambiguity over her guilt, and also because she is a woman in her particular situation. We are never quite sure whether she is guilty or not, and in some ways that was the right choice on the part of Atwood; how can we ever know the reality of another person, or what really happened? How can we ever know if a person is good or evil – or indeed if it’s possible to just be one or the other?

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Alias Grace was first published in Canada and the UK in 1996 by McLelland & Stewart, and Bloomsbury Publishing. I read the 2001 Virago paperback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles here.

Calling all writers – I need YOU!

I have some very exciting news, and I’m going to get right to the point. I am launching a new blog that will be dedicated to the most important things in life outside of the world of books (I know, hard to believe there is life beyond books). I have a small team of fellow bloggers on board, and we are working on ideas for posts. But I also want YOU to get involved.

The point is that this will be a blog written by book bloggers and bookish people about the rest of life. We know our way around the world of books, but what do we know and think about the other things that matter? About politics, gender, movies, music, our careers? I want to know!

So, what happens next? The blog itself is still being put together, and we have a few weeks until the launch. NOW is the time that I want to hear from you with your ideas, and I want to get several pieces lined up to open with. We have a few things underway already, but there is always room for more content. So this post is really my call to all writers and bloggers (you don’t have to be a book blogger) to submit ideas for the new blog.

You can email me at lizzi@theselittlewords.com and introduce yourself. Tell me who you are, where you’ve written before, and what you’d like to write about. The core will be feminism/media with forays into politics, body image, reviews of music, TV, and film, and a bit of whatever else you fancy. What is important to you? What do you find most or least relatable in the media and why? Who is your idol and why? How do you relate to modern feminism? What do you think of Jeremy Corbyn?  You see what I mean.

It’s time for the internet to hear from us ordinary folk about what really matters to us the most. Our struggles and successes, our triumphs and tribulations.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

If you have any questions, either email me or comment below. Or, you can get in touch on Twitter. I am @lizzi_thom.

 

 

Was Marilyn Monroe a Feminist?

I’ve almost finished a new biography of Marilyn Monroe, to be published in August to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her death. Feminist scholar and historian Lois Banner wrote Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox over a number of years, interviewing an enormous cast of people who knew the beautiful and tragic star. Her approach was to examine Marilyn’s life from a specifically feminist point of view, which has never been done before. Here is an edited extract from the book published in the Guardian newspaper, with the headline asking readers to consider whether Marilyn was a feminist herself. What do you think? Comments below!

Hardback edition

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Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox will be published in August 2012 by Bloomsbury.