Slaughterhouse-Five and The Handmaid’s Tale: Things to Like

Reading can show our lives reflected in a myriad of ways.

I have this allergy to classics.

Most books written before the 1950’s that is. I find sleep creeping up on me like an unfulfilled need. That’s after having a full seven hours sleep and not feeling tired at all. Something about them is dull enough to put me to sleep, and it’s just me. Unlike some, a book before 1950 takes me to sleep quicker than anything else.

Slaughterhouse-Five

I whizzed through the first chapter or two. Those chapters were Vonnegut trying to remember what happened in the war and preparing to write. There was this great exchange that setup the themes to come.

“You were just babies then!” she said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true…

“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation…

So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry.¹

Then the story started. Throughout I was confused about what was going on. The non-linearity threw me off.

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.²

I ended up grouping the events of the story into parallel stories.

One was the war. The other was after the war. And the third was being abducted by non-linear aliens. That reminded me of Arrival. The movie is two parallel stories that each follows a linear progression. It’s much easier to follow than the leaping Vonnegut did. That makes me believe I didn’t get everything out of reading Slaughterhouse 5. A whole bunch of symbolism was lost on me.

I kept trying to find a rationale reason for this time hopping.

Maybe he’s in the POW camp imaging his possible future. The more likely scenario is he’s an old man looking back on his life. That distracted me from looking at other more important things. The skipping around was a way to give the reader moments away from the conditions suffered in the POW camp.

A few comical moments made me laugh in the beginning.

But lost their humor. Now, I suspect that was intentional. The dark humor came when some thing dies, and Billy thinks So it goes. It speaks to the universality of death, whether it be fleas, cows, or people.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s about an alternate divergence of history in the 1970’s.

Society regresses to an ancient state. Woman became a possession of men again has it hadn’t been in a while. The pressure on the society was great enough to allow it to happen. The story looked almost prophetic seeing the way history progressed from 2001 onward. The adoption of the Patriot Act in a time of intense pressure from the outside.

Some things in the book made me angry.

Like the way anything could be used to further a decrepit political ideology. The subjugation of a weaker group by the numerous and privileged. The impeachablity of the dominant sex and blaming the subordinate sex. The society described in The Handmaid’s Tale annoyed me, like the backwardness espoused by ethnocentric people. The subjugation of woman by other women was disheartening. Though that is actually a fact a lot of the time. Like the installation of a puppet government by a foreign government. The foreign power chooses a native figurehead and puts them in a position of power over their countrymen. The use of a select portion of the Jewish people by the Nazi’s to police the ghettos set up in Nazi Germany. And the symbolic position of people that had no real power.

The Handmaid’s Tale is about surrogacy without modern medicine.

That basically means state sponsored rape of woman with successful pregnancies and multiple marriages. The fact it’s government sponsored and enforced leads to normalization of rape. Reading through those scenes made me confused, because the Handmaid telling the story was so distant all the time. During the trauma that makes sense, but after it’s confusing. I don’t think society as a whole was ready to have an honest discussion about rape when this book was published.

A few passages resonated with my lived experience.

I’ll list those and explain their significance.

In reduced circumstances you have to believe all kinds of things. I believe in thought transference now, vibrations in the ether, that sort of junk. I never used to.³

I see this happening in my life.

Living with a limiting condition like Muscular Dystrophy is another version of reduced circumstances. That probably had some impact on my belief in meditation. And how ready I am to believe things based on very little evidence. I need that illusion of having control more control than I do with meditation and karma, so the situations I find myself in aren’t quite as helpless as they really are. Control is what we want in life, but the only way to get that is controlling what you can and letting the rest go. Holding control over everything means you have a little control over a lot of things. When all we really need is great/er control of the few things that matter, like our view of the world, and the way we move through it.

In reduced circumstances the desire to live attaches itself to strange objects. I would like a pet: a bird, say, or a cat. A familiar. Anything at all familiar. A rat would do, in a pinch, but there’s no chance of that.⁴

I hang on to things I’ve made.

Especially with abilities I no longer possess like drawing, writing with a pencil, or walking. And the projects I devote my limited time to like the stories I’ve written. When people lose a little of the autonomy that those around them have, they cling to the limited things that they have control over.

It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.⁵

I include too much detail.

This is something I encountered in the beginning of my writing journey. My stories were too muddled with extraneous description making it completely uninteresting to read. Some blog posts I’ve written were like that a year ago. Choosing specific details, the right details separates first-hand experiences from imagined situations. But choosing that is a mental process so replicable. That’s what using senses in your writing is all about. Choosing the right details to put into writing the transport you there, and make something more real than fiction ought to be.

You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.⁶

We want things we believe we deserve.

When things don’t happen how we like, we fixate on those qualities we hoped to attain but failed at. Then we see it everywhere around where it wasn’t noticed before. Jealousy happens when we want things we can’t have. Other people that have those things become the focus of our jealousy. That reminded me of the rampant jealousy I feel, because there’s so much I can’t do that I ought to be able to do. You can be jealous of anyone if they have something you believe you’re entitled to. The costs of those things are lost, just the object is remembered. Like writing everyday requires giving up other things like reading articles, social media, checking e-mails, listening to music, or responsibilities. People just remember the accomplishment of making progress. The cost is payable, and the benefit is attainable.

The arrival of the tray, carried up the stairs as if for an invalid. An invalid, one who has been invalidated.⁷

People can be invalidated by taking away their autonomy.

But an invalid suffered from an injury or disease. That was a powerful reminder of the fact that people can only take away what you allow them to. I have always been impaired by Muscular Dystrophy. My struggle has been making people see beyond my physical appearance to the stuff inside. I’m like everyone else on the inside. The only thing wrong with me is the external — my muscles are weak. Fighting for what I am, the person inside to be seen has been with me my whole life. What other people think about my ability doesn’t change the facts.

God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total.⁸

Love is a concept that we need to believe in.

It’s a security blanket that we will find this magic person that makes us feel loved the way our parents loved us. It’s like hope. It’s like God. It’s like dreams. Those concepts are what we need to keep living life. They are the promises that keep us going. Without them there is no life — there is on death — there is no meaning. Things that are necessary don’t fade away. They endure. They become justified no matter the circumstances. They grow to meet challenges. They are immune to the wear of time. They don’t fade away. There is no recourse in life but to believe, to have faith that they are always right and pure. Then to see things just right so that the illusion never blinks out of existence, because they are necessary for life.

I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it… I become too maudlin, lose myself. Weep.⁹

Things might change but there is always something left of the old.

Change isn’t to wash clean a chalkboard and write something new. Change is painting over an old masterpiece and leaving bits of the old in place to marry with the new. Things don’t vanish. They are reinvented, tweaked, and damaged, but they never disappear from existence no matter how we cling or try to forget. Things never leave the world. They are remade over and over. Transformation isn’t transient. It’s the constant state of life. Even death isn’t stagnation. It’s a redistribution.

That’s all I have on these two great books.


Hope you enjoyed reading. Please clap if you did.

References

  1. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (pp. 18–19). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
  2. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (p. 29). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
  3. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (p. 105). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  4. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (p. 111). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  5. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (p. 134). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  6. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (p. 161). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  7. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (p. 224). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  8. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (pp. 225–226). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  9. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale (p. 227). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

GK

Published by

Graham Kar

Writer, Reader, Radical Thinker

2 thoughts on “Slaughterhouse-Five and The Handmaid’s Tale: Things to Like”

  1. I haven’t read “The Handmaid’s Tale” because every word I’ve read about it seems so overwhelmingly depressing. Did you finish it?
    I have to bring up this particular quotation that carries footnote #6: “You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.” I’m surprised she found it necessary to put that in the book. It’s far from being an original thought; it’s just the definition of what “jealous” means. It would be like saying, “Your blood can only circulate if you have a heart to circulate it with.” Maybe I’d need to see it in context.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Serena Joy had changed for me, too. Once I’d merely hated her for her part in what was being done to me; and because she hated me too and resented my presence, and because she would be the one to raise my child, should I be able to have one after all. But now, although I still hated her, no more so then when she was gripping my hands so hard that her rings bit my flesh, pulling my hands back as well, which she must have done on purpose to make me as uncomfortable as she could, that hatred was no longer pure and simple. Partly I was jealous of her, but how could I be jealous of a woman so obviously dried-up and unhappy? You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself. Nevertheless, I was jealous.”

      That’s the context.

      I think it brings up the question can you be jealous of someone if they have something you don’t want? I think so if you are jealous of the way it makes them feel and not the object that brings that feeding. The protagonist doesn’t want to be a woman subjecting another woman in this book. But she also doesn’t want to be where she is either. In that state, anything looks better. Site doesn’t want to be where she is nor the woman she’s assigned to, but it’s the closest to freedom that’s possible for a woman in the world of this novel.

      I think the premise of The Handmad’s Tale could be depressing, but you cheer when even something goes a tiny bit right. The protagonist is always fighting back any way she can. There’s a resistance and defection. It makes everyday life seem better. And it shows how easily everything could fall apart. It’s not happy, but I found a little bit of myself hidden away in there. I finished it quicker than I dared believe. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, aside from the inefficiencies of prose present in the time this book was written. Maybe you’d try reading it.

      Like

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