I first read Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” some years ago. I loved it, and not just for her beautiful writing—which is potent, poetic. Atwood is a skillful writer, and deserving of praise. But also because Atwood managed to present a truly frightening and honest look at the dangers of fundamentalism, one worthy of attention on both Left and Right.
With a new, highly heralded film adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian novel out this week, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been launched back into the public eye. But progressive writers now face the tantalizing temptation to associate Atwood’s vision of religious, political fundamentalism with all the right-leaning factions they dislike. Including Trump, conservative Christians, pro-life voters, and others.
That, sadly, is not just a reduction of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s a reduction of conservatism, Christianity, and what both traditionally represent.
‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Depicts the Dangers of Fundamentalism
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood poignantly depicts a society in which every human person (male and female) has been reduced—their sexual being separated from their vocational inclinations, their martial virtues separated from their domestic ones, their intellectual pursuits separated from more material hobbies. This reductiveness and objectification create a society of crass, hurting, and suspicious people. All our virtues become vices when separated and untempered. Atwood’s “Republic of Gilead” is plagued by a defect of virtue.
Gilead’s “handmaids,” including protagonist Offred, represent womanhood reduced to sexuality. Due to the declining birth rate among humanity (driven, it’s suggested, by an environmental decline caused by chemical and nuclear poisoning), women who are still fertile are separated from the rest of female kind, and become sexual slaves of the political elite. They’re meant to produce babies. That’s their only salvation, their only hope for life and happiness.
But the handmaids’ babies (if they’re lucky enough to give birth) are not their own: they belong to ruling class women, a stratum of wives who are seemingly powerless, without vocation or purpose in their world. Childless, head of a domestic staff, without real relationship to their husbands, these women are little but figureheads. Offred is under the rule of Serena Joy: a woman who once preached the importance of women’s place in the home, calling for a return to what she calls “traditional values.” But now that she’s achieved this vision, trapped in her home without a voice or companionship, one can tell that she is deeply unhappy.
There’s also a domestic class in Gilead, the “Marthas,” women reduced to vocational servitude. These women seem happiest in Atwood’s society (except for, perhaps, some in the “econowife” class, who we really don’t get to know). The Marthas have activity and daily purpose, a set of skills they get to curate and use. They have fellowship with other Marthas, and needn’t fear for their lives in the same way handmaids do.
This Dystopia Demeans Every Character, Not Just Women
But women aren’t the only ones forced into reductive societal roles. We see Offred’s master’s driver, struggling for purpose or fellowship. The “Angels” and “Guards” that police society are similarly powerless, in a militaristic servitude that’s severe and merciless. And we soon begin to realize that Offred’s master, despite his political power, is a deeply lonely and unhappy man.
In both the book and the film, Offred tells her reader that this dystopian society has championed “a return to traditional values. That’s what they fought for.” It’s the sort of phrase that makes the Left rejoice, because they think it skewers the Right.
But it’s very easy to muddy the waters here. What Gilead champions aren’t traditional values—they’re traditional vices.
Gilead’s Religiosity Is Fake, and Frightening
Atwood tells her story from the perspective of a woman. But that doesn’t mean her society is only a sexist one. It’s reductive of the human person across all pillars of society. Men are “rewarded” with wives only if they’re militaristically loyal and shown worthy. We hear rumors of other downtrodden, oppressed people: the poor, minorities, the religiously unacceptable.
One thing Atwood’s book makes clear is that this society wasn’t formed purely out of some misguided religious sanctity, but out of societal, political totalitarianism in the face of reproductive fallout and environmental decay. The trappings of religion are used to enforce inexcusable injustices on a decaying and hurting world.
This may call to mind visions of fascist Germany, in its racist elements and attempts at religious orthodoxy. It may suggest a puritanical religiosity often condemned in early American colonies, or the fundamentalist communes that still populate less well-known regions of our world. Its reduction of human language and creation of a serf working class may be more reminiscent of the Dark Ages throughout Europe, perhaps. But this narrative could not easily be labelled “populist” or “nationalistic.”
Gilead, Atwood makes clear, offers fundamentalism at its worst. References to the “Children of Ham” are pulled from old sects of Mormon fundamentalism. The term referred to people of color, pulling out the most racist elements of fundamentalist religion. Anti-LGBT sentiment in Atwood’s dystopian society results in killings. Former abortion doctors are tracked down for execution, as are Catholic priests. It’s order, rule, and puritanism taken to their most violent and reductive vision of the human person and society.
In amassing this picture of horrific fundamentalism, Atwood pulls out the philosophies of Gnosticism and puts them at the core of her work. The handmaids are reverenced for their ability to further human creation, but their “fleshly” work gives a tinge of dishonor and resentment to their place in society. Sex itself is reduced to a robotic and unsavory action. The “ceremony,” in which the master of a household tries to get his handmaid pregnant, is a truly horrific act of systematic rape. Before it, the handmaid must bathe, “making herself clean.”
Gnosticism created a distaste for the flesh, and a reverence for the “spiritual” aspect of man, that truly dishonors the holistic beauty of the human person. In Atwood’s work, the ruling class have largely divorced themselves from the more materialistic and earthen elements of their natures. That’s what the Marthas, handmaids, and hired hands are for. They’ve severed their very beings into higher and lower orders.
Atwood Offers a Counter Vision of Holistic Relationship
Offred’s recollections of the time before this dystopia are the opposite: messier, perhaps, in their depiction of virtue and vice. But they beautifully, winsomely capture the glory of human relationship: sex and marriage, the fierce love of motherhood, the sweet loyalty of friendship. There’s a glory, an enchantment in these deep and ordinary bonds, and Atwood makes that clear.
Hulu’s film adaptation of Atwood’s work preserves the oral, narrative storytelling of Atwood’s beautiful writing, although Elisabeth Moss’s inner narrative is a little more sardonic and cutting than her literary counterpart’s, who seems more crushed and fearful than this Offred.
The series is beautifully crafted thus far, an aesthetically powerful film. Some scenes have the visual brilliance of a Vermeer painting. The uses of light and color are stunning, and definitely aesthetically attuned to the book. The “Red Center” for handmaids has a fascistic, militaristic feel, with dark concrete walls and muddy brown uniforms.
So, too, Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale” manages to capture the more messy, brilliant, “human” relationships that Offred experiences prior to her capture and servitude. The soundtrack and visuals are so gripping, and saddening, it’s easy to get pulled into the film.
How the TV Series Appears Different From the Book
But the story has also been updated from its 1980s literary counterpart: in one scene, depicting Offred’s time of training at the “Red Center,” the “Aunts” (a set of brutal women who “teach” these women to become sexual slaves) explain how society supposedly got here. Chemicals, radiation, and poisons of various kind led to a God-given plague of infertility, one woman says. “As birth rates fell, they made things worse. Birth control pills, morning after pills, abortion, just so they could have their orgies. Like Tinder.”
Atwood emphasizes the reductiveness of sex and birth in her new society, but she doesn’t attack abortion or the concepts of “choice” with the effusiveness of this film adaptation. She rightly criticizes the reduction of womanhood to a mere womb, but she also celebrates motherhood, female friendship, and the relationships that bind us. But this TV adaptation seems to reduce those elements to make a more visceral political point.
The TV series also hasn’t referred (thus far) to the fact that “rebels” referenced by the state are actually Quakers, Baptists, and others who don’t adhere to the ruling class’s puritanical and totalitarian leanings. (Atwood’s work suggests that reduction of choice and the outlawing of terms such as “freedom” are creating a safer, stronger society—but that many Christians have, in fact, rebelled against these political dogmas.)
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is A Tragedy
But one thing is for sure: Atwood’s work is not something easily celebrated—even for its feminist writing style, say, or the portrayed resilience of its women. The scenes throughout are deeply tragic. This is a saddening work. The “ceremony” it portrays is so reductive, so horrific, so blindingly dissonant and incongruent (especially with the TV series’ Bible-reading and classical hymn in the background), it’s almost too much to watch.
Yet I’ve watched it. And read the book. Why?
Because I believe this story is important. Atwood saw the dangers of religious fundamentalism, and wrote a stinging rebuke to it, much like Aldous Huxley used “Brave New World” to address the dangers of progressivism in his time. This is a book conservatives should read, and consider—as a caution, if nothing else.
I have seen religious conservatives in more authoritarian, fundamentalist circles fall prey to a similar Gnosticism. I’ve seen families reduce womanhood and “femininity” to roles that limited their humanity, the complexity of their characters and minds. I’ve seen how that reduces the depth and complexity of male belief and vocation. I’ve seen the abuse that could often result.
To deny these dangers would be to give the Left the strongest rebuke of conservatism they could conjure up: that we look upon our own vices and susceptibilities without concern, without alarm. To counter this stereotype, we must see what the stereotype can teach us—and then make certain to fight it, however we can.