Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.
“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.” (p. 144)
“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)
This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government. The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.
When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum. The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament. But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.
All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences. Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough. Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.
The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.
The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts. The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her. This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.
In the Red Center, where handmaids are trained, Aunts are charged with indoctrination. Concepts from the New Testament like “Blessed are the meek,” from the Beatitudes, women covering their hair, and “worthy vessel” are repeated as doctrine.
And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well. Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.
And what of the misattributions? If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical. One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,” a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.
And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.” Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament. It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.
The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working. A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.
The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s. Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.
Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste. While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.
There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.” Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam. Women are not allowed such a diversion. Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation. Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.
All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies. It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife. It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.
The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions. Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers. Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet. Let the mob sort it out.
Rigidity leads to rebellion. Gilead is no different. A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety. The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh. “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.
For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun. Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history. That should terrify us all.