The Handmaid’s Tale: Looking for Tyranny in All the Wrong Places

 

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.

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    RT Vaden: Powerful older men get official privileges – such as marriage – that younger men do not.

    Sounds like the Zulus.

    • #1
  2. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    All these horrible dynamics exist in Muslim (and some non-Muslim) societies. Why not write a book about the stuff that’s actually happening?

    Our culture has a really hard time writing stories about the evils that exist in the world today. Superheroes can’t fight extremist Muslims even though Political Islam is obviously the great threat to Western decency today.

    • #2
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Margaret Atwood is a leftover feminist from the 1970s. She’s Canadian, yet she writes breathless, practically hysterical articles asking the profound question of what will become of “art” under Donald Trump. She bloviates about “those who don’t understand art” and therefore dislike it. She sees only the basest aspects of men, possibly because they never paid much attention to her if you ask me. This book is absurd and so is she.

    • #3
  4. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    RT Vaden: Powerful older men get official privileges – such as marriage – that younger men do not.

    Sounds like the Zulus.

    Or Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait, etc etc etc.

    Cannot tell you how many times I saw Saudi families where the old goat had just married another wife, a 16 yo basically sold to him by her parents….

    • #4
  5. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Margaret Atwood is a leftover feminist from the 1970s. She’s Canadian, yet she writes breathless, practically hysterical articles asking the profound question of what will become of “art” under Donald Trump. She bloviates about “those who don’t understand art” and therefore dislike it. She sees only the basest aspects of men, possibly because they never paid much attention to her if you ask me. This book is absurd and so is she.

    Yeah but a Progressives wet dream… ” See those Christians are worse then any Ayatollah”…

    • #5
  6. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    We should tell the Jihadis that it’s an attack on them, a thinly disguised anti Muslim book.

    • #6
  7. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I’m going from memory here, from “The Washing of the Spears,” that Zulus weren’t allowed to marry until they were 35, and had proven themselves in battle, and that the marriage ceremony was something like the opening sequence of “Zulu.”

    • #7
  8. billy Inactive
    billy
    @billy

    I’ve heard hysterical shrieks since the 80’s warning about the eminent takeover of America by the Christian Right.

    Yet, over the last three decades, religious organizations have been mostly in retreat.

    • #8
  9. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    • #9
  10. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    I never even knew about it until now!

    The Handmaid's Tale Poster

    • #10
  11. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Margaret Atwood is a leftover feminist from the 1970s. She’s Canadian, yet she writes breathless, practically hysterical articles asking the profound question of what will become of “art” under Donald Trump. She bloviates about “those who don’t understand art” and therefore dislike it. She sees only the basest aspects of men, possibly because they never paid much attention to her if you ask me. This book is absurd and so is she.

    I have to walk through the post modern section to get to the english sporting art exhibition at the art museum.  I like the livestock statuary.

    • #11
  12. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Frankly, the most exploitative and abusive reproductive “strategies” employing breeders  in the US seem to be employed by upper class forty-fifty somethings and gay couples in posh lefty cities.

    • #12
  13. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Margaret Atwood is a leftover feminist from the 1970s. She’s Canadian, yet she writes breathless, practically hysterical articles asking the profound question of what will become of “art” under Donald Trump. She bloviates about “those who don’t understand art” and therefore dislike it. She sees only the basest aspects of men, possibly because they never paid much attention to her if you ask me. This book is absurd and so is she.

    She had her moments 30 or so years ago. I heard her doing a reading of some “examples of bad female behavior”. Two short works, Gertrude Talks Back, and Siren Song were terrific. The first is hilarious, and the second is almost too close to the truth for some. Easy to find with a google search.

    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/32778/siren-song

    • #13
  14. doulalady Member
    doulalady
    @doulalady

    My friend and I went to see the 1990 version at a small art house movie theatre in a small Midwest town. I’m from England she’s from Lebanon.

    We laughed and laughed the whole way through because it was so over-the-top. Eventually we realized no one else was laughing. Strange sensation.

    • #14
  15. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    I never even knew about it until now!

    The Handmaid's Tale Poster

    Well of course. We were in a 12 year run of Republican presidents, so the Theocracy was just around the corner…

    • #15
  16. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Quake Voter (View Comment):
    Frankly, the most exploitative and abusive reproductive “strategies” employing breeders in the US seem to be employed by upper class forty-fifty somethings and gay couples in posh lefty cities.

    This is a really good point. I’ll have to bring it up with my lefty friends!

    • #16
  17. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Kate Braestrup (View Comment):

    Quake Voter (View Comment):
    Frankly, the most exploitative and abusive reproductive “strategies” employing breeders in the US seem to be employed by upper class forty-fifty somethings and gay couples in posh lefty cities.

    This is a really good point. I’ll have to bring it up with my lefty friends!

    Might want to preface the point with “This bozo off a cereal box said …”  Be prepared for some real Eloi versus Morlock rants.  The distaste and condescension for working class white Americans is pathological amongst liberals.  It all spews out.  Obesity, dentition, TRUMP, four wheelers, guns, Walmart, TRUMP, kids without bike helmets! TRUMP…

    Bring it up after watching the conclusion of Gone Baby Gone.  Good luck Kate.

    • #17
  18. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    I remember when it came out.  I never saw it, but then, there are lots of movies that I never saw.

    • #18
  19. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    The official narrative taught in public schools is that Western civilization has been one Christian theocracy after another since Constantine. The brutal pattern only ended because of “the Enlightenment” — an explosion of liberating ideas born of secularism, following a pagan-inspired Renaissance, and fueled by materialistic industry since the gloriously democratic French Revolution.

    There is ample precedent for ruthless Christian oppression, if one trusts the histories taught in nearly every school in modern America.

    • #19
  20. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    I never even knew about it until now!

    The Handmaid's Tale Poster

    She’s cute.

    • #20
  21. Mister D Member
    Mister D
    @MisterD

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    All these horrible dynamics exist in Muslim (and some non-Muslim) societies. Why not write a book about the stuff that’s actually happening?

    Our culture has a really hard time writing stories about the evils that exist in the world today. Superheroes can’t fight extremist Muslims even though Political Islam is obviously the great threat to Western decency today.

    It was written originally in 1985. I would have only been a freshman in high school at the time, but I don’t recall us having quite as much exposure to life under radical Islam (the Ayatollah notwithstanding) as in the post-9/11 world. This was also when the Moral Majority was at its peak, so it makes some sense that it would have some influence in her writings. It was also going to be easier (that is, require less research) to write about a government influenced by the more familiar Christian religion than the relatively exotic Islam.

     

    • #21
  22. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    It’s a novel of its time – written when sodomy was still illegal in many states.  I haven’t seen the series, but vaguely remember the film.  Why is everybody taking it so personally -it’s fiction. And dystopian fiction at that.

    • #22
  23. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Mister D (View Comment):

    It was also going to be easier (that is, require less research) to write about a government influenced by the more familiar Christian religion than the relatively exotic Islam.

    Yeah but it’s not Christians shooting up gay clubs or beating up Jews in Paris. The great of our time is with Political Islam or Salafism or Wahhabism but it’s not with Christians that don’t want to bake a homosexual couple a cake.

    If you were learning about the world just from pop-culture. You would be wholly ignorant the best parts of the west (accepting Jews and homosexuals) are being attacked by the worst parts of the Islamic tradition.

    This is an incredibly bad sign because it means we have extreme difficulty talking about incredibly important complicated topics.

    • #23
  24. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Zafar (View Comment):
    Zafar

    It’s a novel of its time – written when sodomy was still illegal in many states. I haven’t seen the series, but vaguely remember the film. Why is everybody taking it so personally -it’s fiction. And dystopian fiction at that.

    I’m not freaked out about the novel. I’m freaked out that we aren’t writing the fictional equivalent of 1984 about political Islam. Western civilization could better grapple with communism because everything from George Orwell to Captain America wrote stories about communism. Luke Cage even learned how to speak Russian when he worked with shield.

    • #24
  25. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Mike LaRoche (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    I never even knew about it until now!

    The Handmaid's Tale Poster

    She’s cute.

    If she just had a cheerleader uniform on.

    • #25
  26. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    I’m not freaked out about the novel. I’m freaked out that we aren’t writing the fictional equivalent of 1984 about political Islam. Western civilization could better grapple with communism because everything from George Orwell to Captain America wrote stories about communism. Luke Cage even learned how to speak Russian when he worked with shield.

    Two things:

    Orwell wrote from within Western culture (as a member of it) so he could write more profoundly about Western impulses to totalitarianism; imho it’s unlikely that a similarly profound take on political Islam could come from the West, it could only come from those countries or cultures that are a part of Islamdom.

    For good or for ill, we find ourselves in the age of cinema rather than reading and writing – so the format of this take, or takes, is likely to be film rather than book.  Look at Iranian cinema with this eye – that’s why its critiques of political Islam (including but not limited to the Iranian system) are so unforgettable.  I don’t know if you have seen it, but the film Kandahar by Makhmalbaf (set in Afghanistan) does a pretty good job, and one of the reasons it’s so good is that it does what it does with a light hand.

    • #26
  27. The Whether Man Inactive
    The Whether Man
    @TheWhetherMan

    Trigger warning: I’m going to buck the trend and say something nice about Margaret Atwood. She’s written some novels I really enjoyed (The Robber Bride and Alias Grace especially), but two recent projects stand out: Hag Seed, which retells Shakespeare’s The Tenpest, and her Angel Catbird graphic novel, which is campy good fun in the tradition of 1940s comic books and filled with groan-inducing cat and bird puns (I’m a sucker for a good pun). I don’t hold her politics against her: she’s a terrific writer.

    The claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is now frightening real in Trump’s America (sigh) didn’t really come from her – it’s the marketing scheme, and clearly it worked.

    • #27
  28. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    I guess in all the excitement, everyone has forgotten movie, released in 1990. Maybe because Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.

    Just noticing….

    I never even knew about it until now!

    The Handmaid's Tale Poster

    Good grief. I forced myself to suffer through 20 minutes or so of this cinematic bilge, just out of curiosity (it was grad school, everybody was talking about it), which was just long enough to trip the “insufferable, noxious tripe” meter, prompting my exit from the room.

    • #28
  29. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    RT Vaden: Powerful older men get official privileges – such as marriage – that younger men do not.

    Sounds like the Zulus.

    No–sounds like the Mormons.

    • #29
  30. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Henry Castaigne (View Comment):
    All these horrible dynamics exist in Muslim (and some non-Muslim) societies. Why not write a book about the stuff that’s actually happening?

    Salman Rushdie?

    • #30

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