From Part X on, I could not shake a great sense of disappointment that this book was not going in the direction I thought it would. It hardly needs to go in any particular direction. I don’t believe that this book, or any, is supposed to be written in any specific way.
One feature that preoccupied me during this journey was all of the descriptions of great violence, particularly violence done towards woman and children. This is a theme throughout the book that we readers are warned about in the story’s first epigraph and the theme does not relent. I could not help but to see the systems that Iris was compelled to participate in as parallel to the Sakiel-Norn sacrifices, which were also socially-mandated. Iris’s coercion and that of the sacrificed virgins came across as strongly related stories, as if one was an allegory of the other. Upon realizing, however, that Alex Thomas’s stories were immense exaggerations of historical events, that his stories took far more literary license than I first thought, I could not help but to feel that I had been duped.
Of course, upon retrospection, I can more readily observe that reaction and not get so swept up by it. Of course, so many of the expectations are coming from me, not that the writer doesn’t have a hand in what they are preparing for me to interpret, but it is I who does the interpreting, of course. And so, surely I’ll have very different interpretations than other readers and the writer.
The kind of parallel relation I saw in Thomas’s stories of virgin sacrifices and Iris sacrificing herself to Richard is surely seen by others. Men readily give their first daughter to be sacrificed to the Temple and Iris’s father, though reluctantly, also gives her daughter to Richard to save what little of his company and reputation remain. Iris is de-virginized by Richard, an act that is described in what I would think most readers would consider horrific terms—that is, terms that evoke horror for us, which I partially quoted in the previous post.
The horror that Richard brings to Iris is also realized by Laura, and slowly revealed to us. The events that led to Laura’s suicide are very slowly, painfully, and reluctantly revealed, which mirrors Iris’s experience unfolding these events while she lived with Winifred and Richard. It is clear that they tried to obstruct the truth from her in order to cover for Richard’s…perversity, we’ll say.
They cover up the real reason for Laura’s stay at Bella Vista in a believable way, so that just like Iris, I too was initially greatly disappointed in Laura. But my disappointment continued even up to Iris’s discovery of a message Laura wrote that took me some time to interpret:
Avilion, no. No. No. Sunnyside. No. Xanadu, no. No. Queen Mary, no no. New York, no. Avilion. No at first.
Water Nixie, X. “Besotted.”
Tornoto again. X.
X. X. X. X.
And so, as I’m sure so many other readers picked up, this would appear to be some kind of record of the times when Richard accosted Laura, where she was quite resistant at first but then gave into him.
Is Laura truly so helpless? Would we have done the same thing in her situation? Well, I guess that kind of inquiry may not be too helpful, because people are so vastly different that I suppose we can already assume that if Laura was a different person she would have done something different. So, let’s take Laura as she’s been described to us. Yes, Laura is a character in a story, but as Iris consistently reminds us, these things really do happen. People are really like this. And so, I discuss such people.
When I read Laura’s message, I can’t help but to wonder if other women agree that these are slightly better times for people who may be in Laura’s kind of distress. There are simply more jobs available now than there were in the 40s, even with the recession and job-losses. When Laura inspires Iris to get some crap job with her, like waiting, I can’t help but to view that as a better scenario than… you know… literally getting fucked. Crap jobs are indeed shit, but if the alternative is to get raped on a regular basis… I can’t help but to see Laura’s waffle house aspirations as slightly more noble than grinning and bearing it… Now, I know Iris had no idea what was happening, and I understand that she trusted that Richard would keep his word and not take everything of the Chase legacy for his own. Why couldn’t Laura tell her what was happening?
Because she was sure she’d ruin everything. She was sure that many a bridge would be burned. I suppose that Laura was mostly afraid of upsetting Iris… she would ruin her… um… yeah, it’s actually not too clear to me… Laura was already convinced that they were in a crap-deal with Richard. I am sure that Iris’s reluctance to believe Mr. Erskine’s perversity made Laura hesitant as well. But didn’t Iris eventually believe her? And didn’t Reenie believe her pretty much immediately? But Reenie was under the care of Richard. Maybe Laura didn’t want to ruin all of that. But the thing is that Reenie and her husband eventually got themselves fired from Richard’s service for neglecting to do their tasks. It is unclear whether or not they intended to stay under Richard’s care in the first place. Well, what a perfect trap… of Laura’s own design. Surely Laura was not under the impression that Iris was content with Richard, but maybe Laura did not want to so independently wrench her sister from her… comfort… She did not want to be the catalyst of their downfall. However, I can’t help but to see that they were doomed from the beginning.
The thing is that women DO NOT have to grin and bear it, as we all know, I’m sure. Iris clearly sees this truth in her sex with Alex Thomas, which is totally consensual at this point, unlike the time when he accosted her in the Avilion attic. I am slightly thrown off by this, by the way… if not totally thrown off. I bet anything that if we engaged Iris today and asked her how she perceived being attacked at that time compared to now, Iris would not characterize that attack as an attack. That is, she would not maintain that she wanted nothing to do with that interaction. She does want the antagonistic interaction, but in a safer environment, I suppose you could say. She wants such antagonism with him in a scenario where she is assured that he does not want to do her in and where the bashing and perversity is performed by someone who she syncs up with more mentally. They are sparring, as I spoke of earlier.
And so, if her first sex had been with Alex, it probably would have still hurt and there would still have been blood, and now that I think of it, there would have still been some grinning and bearing, all taking place in a setting in which she feels safer. The pain is more pleasurable. His assholery is confined, although there’s plenty of play as far as how perverse he may act or speak during sex, how dirty the whole enterprise is, the revenge in the form of sex that occurs due to the antagonism between Alex Thomas and Richard. Hot stuff…
What I’m getting at here is that it more and more looks like one may not be able to so easily point to specific sexual acts and define them as rape, or perversion, etc. It appears that we have to gather the context of the situation. One woman’s rape is another’s bliss. My, can things get tricky out there…
Imagine if Iris was very much turned on by the reluctance, disgust, and vessel-like confinement that her husband subjected her to. Imagine if she was convinced that this is the way it’s supposed to be. Could we then consider such acts as forms of enormity?
Well, consider the sado-masochists. Consider people who willingly undergo enslavement. They do exist. And I’m not just talking about sexual enslavement. Now clearly, there is a strong disparity between the people who are actually enslaved and the people who actually appreciate enslavement. As an über-perceptive Southerner in the hilarious documentary Sherman’s March once explained,
If you want to be a slave, then be a slave! True that, but the good lady misses the point of the Civil War in that it was more to settle the issue of whether or not it should be lawful to force people into slavery, that is, create conditions so that escape is difficult and sic the entire federal apparatus upon you if you do manage to escape.
And so, I am compelled to view the type of sex Iris has with Richard as bad and the type she has with Alex Thomas as good, even though both sexual scenarios are rife with deplorable aspects. It is her content perspective with Alex Thomas that makes me side more with her there, though I can’t really side too strongly with her. I feel she has made a grave mistake… but he seems like a good guy. Aren’t we all subject to impulses? They shouldn’t define us as a person. However, I doubt he would characterize what he did as particularly bad, and I doubt Iris would either, at this point anyway.
This story really has me thinking… as all good stories do. And so, kudos to Atwood for continuing to pump out excellent literature that forces you to gather your thoughts and determine what you think about all of this.
Now, that I’ve said all that, let me just share a few words regarding The Handmaid’s Tale:
I found that book to be a very fantastical and, I’m sorry to say, misguided perception of the most pressing issues of freedom that the US deals with. It is pure fantasy to imagine the US becoming a Christian North Korea. There is nowhere near an organized enough of a mass in this country to coup us into handmaid heaven. Atwood’s atheism could not be more propagandized. Surely the good writer sees that we are more apt to destroy others than ourselves. On top of that, we are a very prude nation. Sex, when publicly expressed, is pretty much always obscene, except in very narrow circumstances— caveats that were hard fought for, let me tell you. To see this country as on any realistic path of delegating sex to a public service can only be seen as a very imaginative scenario. Truly unreal and pure fantasy.
I basically see that book as Atwood plopping the perils of very closed societies like North Korea or Iran (for a more religious-based totalitarian comparison) right on to US society. I can see that she has taken great care to make this move, as all of the good writer’s work is clearly the product of careful attention and patient study, but in doing so she too readily equates the religious fervor that led to Iran’s revolution to the religious fervor one finds in the US.
If Pat Robertson and co. had their way, not even they would advocate a social system that mirrors that of Islamists. The extreme religious right gets their way a lot of the time in the form of much legislation and social norms, but there is far too much resistance from liberals and even conservatives who value our freedoms (i.e. not making it illegal for women to dress in a way so-and-so considers provocative) so that the red burka of the handmaids would not have a snowflake’s chance in heck to rear its ugly head in our legal system.
To account for this, Atwood portrays a story where unknown assailants forcibly take over the government. I insist that there is no force in the country that is so organized. Now, there are surely groups here who long to see an order for this country where oppression in the guise of religious adherence would run rampant if they were in charge, but just look at our independent militias. They are not exactly what you would call intimidating. Even if a group of militiamen forced their way into government offices, they would be immediately repelled by the feds, national guard, etc. and the offending group would be forever branded as a “terrorist organization”. I am not sure what force or spirit would convince the US’s security apparatuses to stand down in the face of armed religious fanatics, or armed fanatics of any kind.
Now again, many in the world already see us as the armed religious fanatics, imposing our will at missile-point. That is the true manifestation of our evil empire. We do make examples out of people by way of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc., but this is popularly viewed as deplorable. A resurgence of interest in those times has sparked investigations, especially with all of this Wikileak-mania. I’m not so zealous as to go ahead and attribute the Arab Spring to Bradley Manning’s bravery, an idea that is gaining some steam, but we can safely say that with more and more info being made available, people are starting to realize that they are not alone.
There are intense divisions in this country, but totalitarianism is far from claiming a victory here. We are eons, if not parallel universes, away from turning into the US described in The Handmaid’s Tale.