When I was an undergraduate, at the end of the 80s, feminism was where it was all happening, as far as theory was concerned. After the sterile cleverness of the postmodernists, the feminists seemed to prove that you could harness complex concepts up to the problems and insufficiencies of real social conditions, and start dragging them in a whole new direction. We were taught that the personal is political; that a society can and should be judged on the way it treats its most vulnerable members, and that literary texts often showed the worst crimes of patriarchy by inscribing them on the bodies of their female heroines. All this has been brought vividly back to memory lately, whilst I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in tandem. You wouldn’t think the two had much in common, would you? A 19th century Russian novel about adultery, and a twentieth century feminist depiction of a chilling dystopia, but in both cases it’s all about the women. In both novels the reader is obliged to watch a woman struggling against the impossible constraints of a society that not only forces her take the blame for all desire, but makes her a criminal in her own eyes for her sexuality.
I’ve just finished The Handmaid’s Tale and what an extraordinary piece of writing it is. It’s the uncompromisingly painful and angry story of Offred, a woman caught in a terrifying period of transition in the Republic of Gilead. The world has been irredeemably damaged by disease, pollution and nuclear disaster, leading to a dangerous drop in fertility rates, and Gilead is a society ruthlessly determined to survive. Caught attempting to cross the border to safety, Offred’s husband has been captured and probably killed, her daughter taken away from her, and Offred has become a handmaid, assigned to one of the families of the totalitarian government as nothing more than a breeding mare, a coerced surrogate mother, to produce the babies the republic so desperately needs. Atwood shows brilliantly how a woman’s ability to reproduce, so essential to the continuation of society, has never been rewarded by the culture it serves, only used as a tool of subjugation for women. Offred’s essential role is buried under the weight of controlling regulations that determine her every move, and which seek to govern her every thought. From the winged headdress that limits her view of the world, to the constant surveillance she is placed under, to the severely restricted locations she is allowed to visit, Offred’s existence represents a nightmarish concentration of all the restrictions the world has ever dreamt up to curtail a woman’s freedom. We are not so very far away today from harems and veils, and women not being allowed to work or vote, or decide whether or not they have babies to feel in any way complacent. And Atwood’s tale ensures we do not. It reminds us that any serious threat to the continuation of society will place women and their reproductive capabilities back in chains.
Now, I’m only a couple of hundred pages through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but already the situation does not look good for the unhappily adulterous Anna. The consummation of her affair with Vronsky is described without joy or celebration, but as the result of a compulsion that is both criminal and fatal:
‘Looking at him, she physically felt her humiliation and could say nothing more. And he felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life. This body deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love. There was something horrible and loathsome in his recollections of what had been paid for with this terrible price of shame.’
Any terrible price to be paid, will have to be settled by Anna, I fear. I’ve just passed the scene in which she tells Vronsky she is pregnant – women’s reproductive capabilities again being linked to a woman’s social visibility in negative and damaging ways. And this is succeeded by Vronsky’s disastrous participation in a horse race. Vronsky’s confidence in his own skill, and his adoration of his horse, cannot prevent a foolish, unfortunate accident from occurring, in which the horse’s back is broken. This incident seems to prefigure Anna’s fate. Vronsky’s calm determination to triumph over her will break her in the end, and Vronksy will only be able to stand by and watch helplessly, unable to comprehend what he has done.
In Tolstoy’s novel the criminalisation of the woman’s desire is very obvious. It’s plain to see that society will condemn Anna with every possible means at its disposal. It’s less obvious, but equally pervasive in The Handmaid’s Tale that what society wants to dispense with is a woman’s private, emotional life, her sexual desire, and her freedom to explore them. Near the end of Atwood’s novel, Offred puts herself in terrible danger in order to follow her desire, and her fate is profoundly ambiguous. And this link between a 19th century Russian male author and a modern day Canadian feminist troubled me. Why must women always be represented as needing to pay for their desires? Why are women always the ones represented as having the dangerous desires in the first place? Are there never any men in novels who lose their heads for love and suffer? Surely in reality men must love with the same intensity and scandalous vibrancy as women? I wracked my brains to think of famous novels in which men suffered for love and could only come up with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and Proust’s depiction of the relationship between Marcel and Albertine. Yet in both instances there is something narcissistic about the man’s role, something suggestive of his extraordinary capacity for feeling, something that ennobles him rather than disgraces him. His is not a shameful self-sacrifice to love. And it struck me also in both these books that the woman’s biological capacity to reproduce was entwined in confusingly dependent ways with this perilous and excessive capacity for passion. There are so many ways that biology and culture collide over the woman’s body as it lies prostrate in love, in childbirth, and in undignified submission. I think I find that the most chilling thought of all.