Sunday, July 06, 2008

Questions for Book Tour Eight: The Handmaid's Tale

Group A

1. How close do you think this dystopia is to a possible future reality? The author has written ''In Canada, 'they said, 'Could it happen here?' In England, they said, 'Jolly good yarn.' In the United States, they said, 'How long have we got?' '' British readers almost saw it as a history novel, Canadians saw it as a warning and Americans saw it as an accurate prediction of the future. What's your take?

2. People very often cope with death or uncomfortable situations by resorting to euphemisms. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood quite deliberately chooses instead to refer to infants with disabilities, or infants that have died, through the use of a dysphemism (an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression substituted for a pleasant or inoffensive one) - "shredder." How did this term affect you? Did you even take note of it? Why might Atwood have chosen such a word? How does it reflect or not reflect the contemporary discourse around pregnancy loss, still birth, and infant death as you may have experienced it?

3. Aunt Lydia describes the handmaids as "a transitionalgeneration," that has the especially difficult job of normalizing the new fertility practices(chapter 20.) Do you think that infertile women today can be called a transitional generation? If so, in what ways were things different before, and how do you think things might be different after?

4. On p. 73, Atwood writes, "Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own." Do you believe the narrator wants a child because she knows not having a child will literally be her death, or do you believe the narrator mourns her lack of fertility because she misses her daughter, having a child, being a mother? Becoming pregnant is the only way to get that back--even just for 9 months.

5. Aunt Lydia promises the girls that "Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will be come ordinary." Has infertility ever become ordinary or commonplace to you? Do the shots and procedures and blood draws feel more familiar than life before this time? Can a person truly get accustomed to anything?

6. In chapter 6 (page 33 in my book), Atwood writes a train of thought that runs through the narrator's mind: "I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other." The narrator does this to exercise her mind, maintain the distinctions between things and states "I need to be very clear, in my own mind." In times of crises, it is easy to have things melt together--to see connections where you may not have noticed them if you were not paying close attention to every detail. Do you think people in a crisis see more slights, more rudeness, more insensitivity than is actually there (is a statement merely a statement without a commentary on the other person) or do you think these slights, rudeness, and insensitivity exists, but we are too caught up in the good times to care or notice?

7. One major theme through this book is the role that religion plays in the new society’s “quest for babies” (arguably, it’s a very sinister role, but a role nonetheless). In fertility treatments, you often hear of the religion playing a role in the lives of the men and women who undergo treatments – some won’t reduce as it’s against their views, some won’t undergo certain types of treatments, and others separate their views on religion from their views on the science of fertility treatments and options. What role did/does religion play or not play in your fertility treatments or child-rearing choices?

8. This question comes directly from the book, the last sentence of Chapter 16 (p. 123 in my version) immediately after the Ceremony: "Which of us is it worse for, her [Serena Joy] or me [Offred]?" We've discussed the Pain Olympics in previous book tours, with books told from the infertile perspective. Handmaid's Tale, however, is told from the (supposedly) fertile point of view. So, how would you answer the question? Could you choose either of these wretched creatures as the slightly more wretched?

9. I was quite bothered that the Handmaids took on the names of their Commanders (Ofglen, Ofcharles, Offred). Seems so domineering, de-personalizing -- another tool in taking power away from women in Gilead. So archaic, even. Then I realized that we do the same in our culture, but with last names. Does this make it okay? Even women who keep their maiden name (no pun intended) after marriage tend to refer back to their father's name. Do our customs continue to de-power and de-identify women? What would a culture that values the matrilineal look like?

10. On pg. 70, Offred is discussing her past studies of psychology and at this time she mentions a study done on three pigeons trained to peck at buttons for grain. She states: Three groups of them: the first got one grain per peck, the second one grain every other peck, the third was random. When the man in charge cut off the grain, the first group gave up quite soon, the second group a little later. The third group never gave up. They'd peck themselves to death rather than quit. While reading these lines, I could not help but identify with the third group of pigeons. Sadly, I think I've come to a point where I will never give up, even if it means death before success. How about you? Do you identify with one of these groups? What do you think Atwood's intention was in including this bit of information?

11. On pg. 112, during the birth day while Ofwarren is in labor, Offred is thinking about the baby that is about to be born. At this time she also talks about the unborn babies and the fact that they had no way of telling until birth what type of baby would be born. She states: There's no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but that is now outlawed. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can't have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term. While reading this, I found myself thinking back to my first pregnancy where I wound up with conjoined twins. Then and even now, I wonder if I would've been better off not knowing. I miscarried, so I did not have to make a choice, but in light of that, ignorance may very well have been bliss. How do you feel about the abundance of technology when it comes to reproduction and pregnancy? Do you think that sometimes not knowing so much can be a good thing?

Group B

1. What is the role of infertility in creating the world of the Handmaid's Tale? Is the question of infertility or totalitarianism more central to the story, and does Gilead represent the logical outcome of the fate of women in a religiously dominated society affected by mass infertility, or something else entirely?

2. Handmaid's Tale is a first-person account in which only some aspects of life are illuminated completely or even at all. Is there an aspect of the story, something that perhaps requires factual elucidation, that you wish you could know more about? If yes, what is it and how do you feel that knowledge would add to your understanding of a character, a group of characters, or life in Gilead in general?

3. The structure of the civilization in the book seemed really eerie to me (and quite difficult to figure out). Even though the copyright in my book was 1985 and set in the 21st century, it seems to reflect some of the fears we have today. I found myself wondering if our country could really be in for a drastic "take-over" as represented in the book. What are your feelings about the society described in the book and do you think it is possible to have something like that happen in our country?

4. At the end of the book, the black van comes for Offred. Nick says it's Mayday, but she is not sure. What do you think happened to her after she was taken away in that van?

5. Even though the rampant infertility is acknowledged to be largely due to environmental pollution, Gilead refuses to acknowledge the possibility of male infertility; if a Handmaid is unable to conceive with three Commanders, it is assumed that she is at fault and she is reassigned to the Colonies. How did this double standard resonate with you, if at all?

6. In an interview, Atwood said that "This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many - such as a woman's place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements - women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens." In your time dealing with infertility, what "casually held attitudes" regarding ART have you encountered? How have you responded, either to the opinion-holder or internally? Is it conceivable (pun not intended) that these opinions will change for future ART patients and what do you think may need to happen to make that possible?

7. For all that the Handmaids are supposed to be serving the society's greater good and should be honored for that, they are looked down upon by just about everyone. Wives resent that the Handmaids do what they cannot, Marthas resent the time spent caring for them, Econowives resent them for the ease of existence they feel the Handmaids must enjoy. And the reverse is true as well, Handmaids resent the other women for having little freedoms they do not enjoy, whether it's control over a household, the ability to hold a knife and make radish roses, or to simply not be a possession without a name. Does this mutual resentment exist in the world of infertility? Do "fertiles" resent "infertiles" and vice versa? If so, in what way?

8. In one scene (it's after midnight and we all have different editions, but you know the one I mean without a page number, right?) Offred observes a funeral procession for a miscarried pregnancy. Comment on the inclusion of this type of ritual in the daily life of the community.

9. The Handmaid's Tale is set against the backdrop of a dystopian society wherein religion and feminism has combined to lay down a strict set of roles for women. In what ways are your reproductive choices shaped by religion and/or feminism? In what way do you think religion and/or feminism shapes the way society views infertility? Is it plausible to you that religion and feminism could ever produce the type of society described in The Handmaid's Tale? Why/why not?

10. You may have read The Handmaid's Tale before, perhaps for a class or your own pleasure reading. If you did, what was it like reading this book for the second time, specifically thinking about it from an infertility angle? Did your thoughts and feelings about the book's premise or any of the characters change? Did any things strike you differently the second time around?

11. I have often wondered what happened to Offred after the events in the book. There was speculation in the lecture notes, but if you were to add to that speculation---what happened to her after she was taken away? Did she work with the underground? Was she pregnant? Did she try to find out what happened to Luke and her daughter? What would you want for her to accomplish (if anything)?

Group C

1. I found it interesting that although Offred would be unable to raise any children she had, she still yearned to be pregnant. It seemed like more than just the fear of what would happen to her if she wasn't successful. Where do you think her desire for a baby stemmed from?

2. Doctors that had performed abortions were now criminals according to the newly formed government, penalized by death. Obviously, infertility had become an epidemic by that time. Do you think that there is a justification for criminalizing abortions if the future of humanity were at risk due to infertility?

3. 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?

4. In Chapter 12, she is talking about her body and states: "I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it's shameful or immodest but because I don't want to see it. I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely." Dealing with infertility we face many challenges, and one is coming to terms with our body's short-comings. How do you view and deal with your body now, compared to pre-IF (or lack of knowledge on IF), does it determine you, and do you except it or avoid it?

5. Did you find it conflicting that the book showed a male-dominated culture, even in reference to reproducing, when in our culture it seems that women take the brunt of the responsibility? Even though male
infertility was ignored in their culture and females were given stints with new commanders ("tours of booty," as I came to think of it) did you feel the men were still in charge of procreation? How does this
differ from our reality?

6. The notes at the end of the book talk about how the fertility "crisis" was caused by environmental things like nuclear power plant accidents. While there are a number of causes of infertility that could not possibly be related to environmental factors, what do you think the likelihood is that some of them (i.e.: ovulatory dysfunction, male factor issues, unexplained) could be caused by things in our environment today? If you have these as your diagnosis have you ever done anything to change any environmental factors in your life to try to affect a change in your fertility?

7. One thing that continually struck me as I was reading was exactly how easily and smoothly the Giliadean government robbed women of their economic power and, ultimately, any semblance of freedom. All it took was a few keystrokes and (implied) threats to their employers to throw women back into chattel status. I kept wondering, where was the opposition? And what about the men? Offred mentions that even her partner was initially unbothered by what was happening to her. One gets the impression that a well of misogyny lingered below the surface of Offred's society, waiting for an excuse to be released. Do you think this aspect of the novel rang true? How might the citizens in Offred's culture have fought against the Gileadians' plans? Or was the takeover inevitable once it began?

8. One of the things that struck me about the book was how the women managed to find ways to express themselves and be creative, even though so much was denied them & their roles were very rigidly defined. For example, Offred improvises pats of butter in lieu of hand cream. In particular, I was struck by Serena Joy, the Commander's Wife -- she (like me) cannot create life (a baby) -- she no longer has a television career as an outlet -- so she knits. Besides your blog, do you have a creative outlet that helps you cope with your infertility and other life stressors?

9. 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?

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