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Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a cultural phenomenon. Since the debut of the new Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss, the novel (originally published in 1985) has earned a new crop of readers, including people who have not yet seen the new web series. I am one of those people.
The world of Atwood’s Tale is a totalitarian Christian fundamentalist nation called Gilead, which was founded after a bloody takedown of the U.S. government. Gilead enforces levitical law more literally and brutally that any Jewish or Christian sect in history. Adultery, fornication and pornography are capital crimes, of course, but Gileadeans may even endanger their lives by owning fashion magazines or wearing makeup. Clothing is Taliban-modest and color-coded to indicate the caste of the person donning it.
Gilead has a strict social structure. Men and women have very distinct roles. Powerful older men get official privileges – such as marriage – that younger men do not. Very few women work outside private homes, but their castes are even more well-defined than those of men. Wives act as the lady-like consorts of powerful men, administering their houses. “Marthas” are household servants who do the real work while the wives engage in handicrafts. Then there are the Handmaids; what they do requires a bit of background.
Because of pollution and nuclear accidents, very few women are fertile. (Few men are too, but to say so is forbidden.) It is extremely difficult to conceive a child, and many children who are born suffer from fatal malformations. To redistribute the fecundity of the few, the Gileadean state assigns the still-fertile women to a high-status household where the wife is barren. While the handmaid is ovulating each month, the man of the house, the wife and the handmaid engage in a highly ritualized (and unsexy) threesome, intended to impregnate the handmaid with a baby who, once weaned, will be taken from the handmaid and raised by the wife as her own child.
Atwood’s engaging narrator is called Offred (or “Of Fred,” Fred being the first name of the man she works for). While Offred is still childbearing age, she’s old enough to have been an adult before the fall of the U.S. government, and she often recalls the world she has lost: a husband and a mother and a child of her own, freedom and a job and property.
The book’s atmosphere of danger, blended with the psychological realism of the narrator’s voice, gives the story momentum and resonance. So, as a piece of entertainment, I certainly recommend it.
But what about the book’s ideas? Is The Handmaid’s Tale man-hating, feminist propaganda? A militantly anti-religious tract? In a 2017 audiobook version produced by Audible, Atwood addresses both these questions in an afterward she reads herself.
She says that the book is not feminist in the sense that it portrays “all women [as] angels” or “so victimized that they are incapable of moral choice.” She claims that the book is only feminist in that it treats women as important, complex human beings. I think the action of the book basically supports Atwood’s claim. Offred is not particularly brave or cowardly, saintly or wicked. She’s an ordinary woman of the late 20th century. Unlike her radical feminist mother and lesbian best friend, Offred doesn’t hate men or feel indifferent to them. Before Gilead, she adored her husband. As the plot develops, she enjoys her furtive (and forbidden) friendship with her male master. She is also unaccountably drawn to a young chauffeur with whom she indulges her craving for physical love.
I said that the action of the book supports Atwood’s claim that her book is not militantly feminist, but the premise of the book does make many of the new-left’s feminist assumptions. In addition to the uncontroversial claim that human beings have a deep and perverse desire to control other human beings, Atwood also assumes that men as a group want to oppress women as a group. In other words, she casts the Orwellian-Randian struggle for liberty as a battle of the sexes, where men are the perennial aggressors. This undergirding assumption strikes me as politically feminist.
As to whether the book is anti-religious, Atwood also answers, basically, no. She points out that, in Gilead, Baptists and Catholics are unjustly killed for their beliefs and that Quakers courageously run an underground railroad to liberate women from the cruel regime. So, if she isn’t trying to indict religion, why make the regime so devout? Atwood explains that she made Gilead a totalitarian theocracy because any totalitarianism that emerged in America would inevitably be Christian due to the Puritan “roots [that] have always lain beneath” the country.
But as cautionary literature, this assumption is the book’s irredeemable flaw. Atwood says, in the afterword, that she undertook to include in her Tale no technology, law, or situation that had not already appeared in the “nightmare of history.” But the combination of modern totalitarianism and fundamentalist Christianity is something entirely of the left-wing imagination.
American fundamentalists are probably the group of Americans least likely to succumb to the totalitarian temptation. All totalitarians are some flavor of statist. And America’s Christian fundamentalists are far less likely to favor expansions of state power than either non-religious people or Christians of “mainline” denominations. Perhaps, when the book was being drafted in 1984, there were many Christians who favored limiting the availability of pornography or prostitution. But nowadays, evangelical Christians are at least as likely to hold libertarian views on these issues as radical feminists are.
If American totalitarianism would inevitably be religious because of our Puritan roots, as Atwood claims, one wonders why the USSR was not governed by the Russian Orthodox Church or the Nazi regime by the precepts of Lutheranism. The truth is that those countries had to reject their roots before they could justify their statist ambitions.
Under Sharia law, hundreds of millions of women bear the yoke of oppression. Religious minorities and homosexuals are persecuted in Russia and China. In all those places, men of high stature forcibly take what they want from whomever they want. But the religious right in America? Outside protecting unborn children from abortion, is there any area where fundamentalist Christians want the state to exercise more power than it currently does?
Atwood’s cautionary Tale rightly enjoins us to keep watch for creeping totalitarian threats. But while Atwood suggests that we cast our suspicious gaze toward the religious right, history teaches us to look over our left shoulder instead.