So during the last minutes of St. Patrick’s Day, I cast Frog Prince onto these green needles.
(OMG, I frogged it. Get it?!)
Whatever. This picture is totally of the wrong side of the project anyway.
The knitting is mostly pleasant, except for the dreaded 1to7, in which I must magic one stitch into seven by knitting through the back loop and then thrice yarning-over and knitting into that same back loop.
My blood pressure goes up during that row.
But even that isn’t terrible. And I’m happily plugging away on the repeats and keeping my place using a free app called JKnit, which allows me to upload the pattern PDF and move highlighter row along the page to mark the spot.
(I would show you a screenshot, but I paid a pretty penny for the pattern, and I doubt the designer, Mia Rinde, would appreciate my flashing around her pattern for free.)
As I knit, I’m listening to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood on Audible.
How have I never read this book?! I have Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride on my bookshelf because I was supposed to read it for a women’s literature class in college, but I never did read it. Terrible English major!
Anyway, I’ve been seeing references to The Handmaid’s Tale on social media in the context of our current political climate, and it’s being turned into a movie, TV show, or miniseries (or something). And apparently there is a 1990 film with a stellar cast, so I see that in my future.
So when I got the email from Audible telling me I needed to spend one of my six accumulated credits soon or I would lose one, I looked into this book.
Claire Danes narrates, and apparently she won an award for it. Deservedly so! I’ve listened to many audiobooks, and this is one of the best performances I’ve ever heard.
If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of the novel—as I was—it is set in a dystopian future United States, which is (interestingly) probably our past, considering the book was published in 1985. The government has been taken over by a religious group that is centered around subjugating women under the guise of providing them “freedom from” certain abuses of the past (think rape and other sexual assault). The population has been stricken with infertility, and it is the role of fertile women to offer their bodies as vessels for reproduction. These women, including the main character, are “handmaids,” assigned to childless households. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred—literally “of Fred,” to identify her as a certain man’s possession—who remembers life before this societal restructuring. The story is revealed bidirectionally—the current story of handmaids unfolding and the flashbacks of life leading up to her current “reduced circumstances.”
It is a somewhat unsettling experience to knit while listening to this book. The craft of knitting has a recurring role. At one point Offred muses:
There’s time to spare. This is one of the things I wasn’t prepared for—the amount of unfilled time, the long parentheses of nothing. Time as white sound. If only I could embroider. Weave, knit, something to do with my hands. I want a cigarette.
Aside from her daily shopping trips and reproductive duties, a handmaid has very little to do, but she isn’t permitted any possessions, especially ones that might be used as weapons—against someone else or, more likely, against herself.
Serena Joy, the woman for whom Offred is an intended surrogate, is a knitter. She, as the Commander’s wife, is allowed luxuries such as yarn, needles, and cigarettes. Knitting intarsia scarves for the members of the military, called Angels, is her primary occupation. Offred tells the reader:
Sometimes I think these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the Wives busy, to give them a sense of purpose. But I envy the Commander’s Wife her knitting. It’s good to have small goals that can be easily attained.
Knitting here seems a sort of frivolity, a pointless endeavor. That line about “small goals” reads as condescending, but I identify with this, the need to be able to accomplish something with my hands.
In another scene, Offred describes an encounter with Serena. The wife, whose hands are becoming increasingly crippled, asks the handmaid to hold a skein of yarn while she winds it into a ball.
Serena winds, the cigarette held in the corner of her mouth smoldering, sending out tempting smoke. She winds slowly and with difficulty because of her gradually crippling hands, but with determination. Perhaps the knitting, for her, involves a kind of willpower; maybe it even hurts. Maybe it’s been medically prescribed: ten rows a day of plain, ten of purl. Though she must do more than that. I see those evergreen trees and geometric boys and girls in a different light: evidence of her stubbornness, and not altogether despicable.
Here the craft earns some respect—or gets upgraded from “despicable,” at the least.
And then the metaphor I’d been anticipating:
Or she stays in the sitting room, knitting away at her endless Angel scarves, turning out more and more yards of intricate and useless wool people: her form of procreation, it must be.
Knitting as a form of birthgiving. Not just “something to do,” but another surrogate.
The product of yarn and needles holds heavy symbolism in this novel, so holding them in my hands while listening feels meaningful—a connection, yet also a betrayal.
To be honest, I haven’t figured it out yet.
I have about three hours of listening left in the book, and I don’t think I will be anywhere near done knitting Firebolt by then. I may look into the film, and upon further research, I see that the miniseries is set to “air” on Hulu late next month. (I don’t currently have Hulu, but I did do a free trial so I could watch the first ten episodes of This Is Us, so now that rest of that season has aired, I do think it’s time for a subscription renewal…) It may take watching all of that for me to finish this shawl.