It began as a novel written by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. A work of futurist fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale takes us into a specific nation in the near future of this world, not some bright utopia but rather a dystopia, a cruel society of oppression and fear.
However, this is not post-nuclear anarchy infested by hordes of convulsing zombies, nor is it Godzilla’s playground or Jurassic Park after someone left the gates open. It is not childishly sensational, but rather a plausible rational world, planned, ordered and somewhat shabby. The United States has been transformed into a totalitarian society, dominated by patriarchal religious fundamentalism. The nation is called “Gilead”, an Old Testament reference to hill country where fragrant balm or balsam is extracted from trees.
This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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Forget the sweet Afro-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”. There is no healing balm in this puritanical patriarchy. Its symbol is the all-seeing Eye of God. Its oppressive system is geared towards the total control of everyone, particularly women. Its specific goal is more babies at any cost because human fertility has collapsed. It is suggested that nuclear disasters and environmental pollution have rendered most people infertile.
The central character recounts her experiences in minute detail. She once was June, now she is Offred, offspring of Fred. In a compartmentalised hierarchical society, she is one of the handmaids, women deemed to be fertile. The hope of the future rests with these breeders.
They dress in red gowns with red cloaks and wear a linen bonnet that restricts side vision. Living under the strict control of the “aunts”, particularly Aunt Lydia, they are brainwashed and conditioned, directed to one end, to reproduce. But they can be fertilised only by the “commanders”, male rulers in an elite military oligarchy, whose brutal soldiers are called “angels”. The commanders’ infertile wives, who wear blue, claim the babies born of handmaids as their own. Fertilisation and childbirth are enacted as bizarre religious ceremonies. Sins against fertility and illegal sexual relationships can be punished by death.
Atwood has skilfully drawn on many sources to construct her Gilead: ancient Sparta, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Puritan New England, the Third Reich, Soviet and Chinese Communism, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, all blended in a poisonous cocktail of a regime. Her consistent focus is the oppression of women, a society where men crush what today is called “women’s reproductive rights”. At first, Atwood denied that it was a feminist novel. That is not borne out by what has emerged since 1985.
In 1989, Atwood’s book was adapted in a film, adhering mainly to her plot, ending neatly and all over in a couple of harrowing hours. Not so the more recent television series of The Handmaid’s Tale. The original tale has been extended into many subplots, embellished with horror after horror to provide three seasons, with thirty-six episodes already released and a fourth season under production.
Step aside, tendentious Game of Thrones. The Handmaid’s Tale has arrived, moving at an even slower pace. Every episode rams home the dire warning of a coming patriarchy run by ruthless religious fundamentalists, men who force women to have babies.
The state religion of Gilead is based on selective reading of the Old Testament and distortions of the New Testament. However, at first sight the book, film and series do not seem to press an anti-Christian line. Catholics have been driven north into Canada, which is some kind of pluralist society. Priests caught in Gilead are executed. In the book, the Baptists are guerrillas holed up in the hills and Quakers are subversives.
However, one scene in the series is obviously modelled on an image in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will, where ranks of men in steel helmets stand arrayed before soaring swastikas. In The Handmaid’s Tale regiments of handmaids in white bonnets are turned towards an immense white cross. Swastika equals cross, so the old leftist anti-Christian smear lives on.
An unresolved war rages between Gilead and Canada. There are hints that the war may largely be a state propaganda exercise, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But people are always trying to escape to Canada. Most fail and are seized and executed or sent to languish and die in the toxic “colonies”, which also provide dumping grounds for the under-class and failed handmaids who become “unwomen”.
Gilead has a deteriorating economy with much poverty outside the privileged nomenklatura. It fails according to the three sacred tests of politically correct jargon: it is not sustainable or inclusive or diverse. In its gloomy wasteland we are drawn into much darker places than any medieval fantasy world.
The series is well produced, with talented actors, cleverly focused on the tortured psychology and frustrations of the hero, Offred. So, for some viewers, “it gets you in”. However, this imaginary natalist future is having strange consequences in our unsettled times and the author herself has become part of these developments.
Margaret Atwood was the main consultant for the series and recently she has published a sequel, The Testaments. This less pessimistic work completes her transformation from an imaginative fiction writer into a futurist. She has also set aside her coy feminism of 1985. Now, close to eighty, she frankly accepts the ideological role of providing a potent myth, particularly to arm “pro-choice” feminists amidst current polarised struggles over abortion.
Along with wide market success, the series has gathered a specific cult following as The Handmaid’s Tale becomes an attractive political myth. There seem to be followers of this cult who believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is true. This defies rationality, so my resistant human reason prompts questions.
Surely there is no such place as Gilead? Or is there? Gilead has to exist. Google away and you even find maps of this extensive make-believe nation, even if there are several versions defining the borders of a theocratic republic. This is where Gilead differs from the consistent mapping of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Lewis’s Narnia or even mysterious locations in Harry Potter.
Forget the maps. Gilead has a virtual existence. That is what matters in our post-rational world, when people are conditioned by social media, electronic games and fake news, when daily life is based on guessing, wanting and wishing, on assuming identity and taking offence. What is in my postmodern head, that is what is “real”. After all, I create my own reality.
The delusions indicate why not a few female “Trump haters” act as if The Handmaid’s Tale is true. We see the women of the “Handmaid’s Coalition” turning out at pro-abortion demonstrations in the United States, dressed in Offred’s red gown and cloak and wearing her white linen bonnet.
Each one cries out to us, “I am Offred and I am warning you of the male control of women’s bodies. I warn you of the horrors that giant-Trump is preparing as he leads the US on the road to Gilead.” They can point to the pro-life legislation in the conservative state of Louisiana. Apparently, this is where wicked Gilead is being born. But is that true?
In the real world, as any rational observer knows, there is no possibility of a Gilead emerging. The demonstrable threats to freedom come from the aggressive Left or supine elements on the Right, a mix of cultural Marxists and politically-correct libertarians. Democracy is descending into “authoritarian democracy”, the bland totalitarian ante-room.
Moreover, in Western societies women are free. While some may continue to shout “Me too!” against sexual harassment, many more rightly hold positions of leadership in business, politics, education, culture and religion. Not a sign of hideous Gilead.
The myths of the Left may drift into fantasyland but that does not mean they are not powerful. Lying about the past has long been an effective weapon in the Marxist armoury. Lying about the future can have the same effects in a world where so many people live in the future, where they are disconnected from reality.
The myth of The Handmaid’s Tale is sustained by a social mood of pessimism and fear. People want to believe that disaster is just around the corner. They are easily persuaded, because every day the media bombards them with grim warnings.
Global “warmists” predict apocalyptic horror and environmental collapse. Neo-Malthusians call for population control because too many babies are being born—in certain countries. Some economists seem mysteriously eager to wish for, or to bring on, a recession. In the post-9/11 world terrorism is real, but some divert attention from its main sources, by pointing to homicidal individuals on the “alt-right”. We are also told that the Cold War has returned with a renewed nuclear arms race and that Chinese imperialism looms, backed by corporate communism. So much doom and gloom, a mixture of real and imagined threats.
In that wider context, The Handmaid’s Tale continues what came out of the twentieth century, catastrophist futurism. Pessimistic literature, films and media reflect current moods, at the same time creating a market based on people’s fears. In that genre, The Handmaid’s Tale is superior to the films of Quentin Tarantino that celebrate violence. Atwood is not a nihilist. She tempers catastrophism and horror with ideology because she is giving a sermon.
As sermons go, futurism may convey powerful warnings, for example of a gladiatorial tyranny in The Hunger Games. But this tale of the degradation of sport may also point to the dangerous sub-culture of violent video games and internet pornography. Millions of immature males are captivated by and entangled in a dark virtual world. It all depends on how you read the warnings.
Social and political pessimism emerged in an alternative future based on the familiar speculation, “What if Hitler had won the war?” Ingenious novels described Europe or England after a Nazi conquest. Recently this has gone further in a sophisticated television series, The Man in the High Castle. In the conquered United States, the eastern states are under the swastika and the western states are under the rising sun. Australia is a Japanese colony.
However, we all know it did not happen. History seals off fantasy. Speculation becomes a game and the viewer may enjoy a sense of relief: “Thank God, he didn’t win the war …” Not so with The Handmaid’s Tale, set outside history but plausible enough, given some conditions. Atwood thus proposes an unresolved “what if” as she sets up her menacing “maybe”.
When you look into the content of The Handmaid’s Tale other questions emerge. First of all, does it demean women? A woman recently shared with me her impression that The Handmaid’s Tale demeans and degrades women. She gave up watching the series in disgust. She pointed to the emphasis of its content, particularly the gynaecological and obstetric details, minute, repetitive, insistent, an almost pornographic preoccupation with the female body, not focused on sex but on reproduction. Readers and viewers become voyeurs.
We are also taken back to a feminist preoccupation found, for example, in the oft-published book Our Bodies, Ourselves. This was a key feminist manual fifty years ago. Atwood would be familiar with it because it emerged out of a critical decade in her own life and mine, the 1960s.
More seriously, is The Handmaid’s Tale a fanciful distraction from the real “Gileads”? Right now, in our world, there are societies where women are crushed, gagged and exploited. We think of the horrors inflicted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, of what is perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan and by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Women are exploited by international sex slavery and trafficking, and in our society by the sex and abortion industries. Here are “Gileads” where women suffer now. Do we hear the old Western feminists like Atwood denouncing them?
A feminism that retreats into delusions, myths and fantasies is imploding. An ideology crumbles when it has to resort to fearsome futurist tales for gullible grownups.
Peter Elliott is a retired Catholic bishop who lives in Melbourne.