I revisited and revised a blog post from over a year ago to submit to Vermont College of Fine Arts as a critical essay on an application and thought that I would post it here. It is (hopefully) quite a bit tighter than my original posting. You can find the original post here.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was not required reading in any of my Literature classes. This is unfortunate. I truly wish it had been required reading for me, particularly alongside Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as Ms. Atwood’s novel tackles many of the same topics surrounding religion and social class. Ms. Atwood, however, is not shy about delving deeply into gender roles and feminism in her very multi-layered novel. The Handmaid’s Tale is an onion, and every layer drags you deeper into despair and pain, and at the core is the fragility of human self-esteem.
It is a classic cautionary tale, describing what might happen if people (particularly women but applies to both genders) allow themselves to be subjugated through social engineering accomplished by an elite minority. Set in a dystopian future (or maybe present by this point), where a totalitarian theocratic regime has seized power of the United States, the novel first leaves you wondering, How did this happen to us? How did we let this happen? The pre-revolution world described by the first person narrator referred to as Offred is by no means utopia. There is rampant pornography, an overactive sex trade, antibiotic resistant STDs and apparently some environmental disasters impacting the birth rates. Despite this apparent decline of society, radical feminists and fundamentalist religious zealots band together to protest and burn pornography (in one case to protest of the objectification of women and in the other to protest the declining moral values of society). With this imagery, Ms. Atwood paints a grim picture of the future of the United States, and it is against this backdrop that the Sons of Jacob fake a terrorist attack and overthrow the government in a coup.
After the initial shock of the coup is realized and the Republic of Gilead is established, Ms. Atwood presents the thesis that no gender, race or social class wins. We are tempted to think to ourselves, well, those moralizing nut jobs got what they wanted. However, Atwood makes clear that this outcome has not met the expectations of the white upper class males, called Commanders, who remain in power. The Sons of Jacob have accomplished their goal and returned the United States, now Gilead, to a bastardized version of Quaker morality. Within a matter of weeks, it becomes illegal for women to work, to have our own money, and illegal for us to own property. Ms. Atwood’s depiction of this quick and dirty overthrow of women cased a blinding, jaw-clenching outrage that coursed through my body when I first read it. I thought my head was going to explode. The nerve! However, this revolution only touches the surface of the misogyny Ms. Atwood explores in A Handmaid’s Tale. It is presented to us as diversion from the true damage that women inflict upon each other. The real misogyny occurs in how the men manage to engineer a society that subjugates women by pitting us against each other. It takes every basic female emotional response and uses it as ammunition, one female against another. Fear, jealousy, rage, sadness— all of these feelings are fodder for the cannon of class warfare. Women are divided into a social hierarchy, and Ms. Atwood effectively uses this hierarchy to create classes of women policing each other. Each class holds checks and balances against the other classes, with one having more power, another having more freedom, and yet another having the ability to induce jealousy.
The Aunts are allowed to read, which is a substantial privilege. In fact, they are the only class of women allowed this accommodation. The Aunts are saved from exile to the colonies as Unwomen by their willingness to indoctrinate those fertile women who are unsuitable to be Wives, and would otherwise be Unwomen as well, in the art of being a Handmaid. The Wives are given freedom to “command” their household, but they use this power to make the Handmaids miserable out of jealousy and shame. They have no charity or compassion for the other women in the household. The Marthas are resigned to their lot, but they too harbor resentment of the Handmaids for their role in society. This infighting is Ms. Atwood’s true subjugation of the female gender. If the women of Gilead worked together, their chance at overthrowing the patriarchy would increase substantially.
Another interesting and ultimately teeth-grittingly frustrating aspect of Gilead society presents itself when we learn the motives behind this morally upright society. At first blush, the Sons of Jacob seemingly use religious zealotry to achieve a total power grab. For all intents and purposes, this power grab appears to have backfired for the Commanders and other male social classes. From the limited perspective of Offred presented at the outset of the novel, none of the males in Gilead are particularly happy in their physical or marital relationships. That said, all classes of men can still read, own property, hold jobs, and drive cars, so, their misery is still put into perspective by the how Gilead society treats its women. Male privilege aside, relationships for men, on the surface, are quite regimented, and the tightly structured protocols of marital and sexual arrangements lull women into believing that they hold some new post-coup power over the men of Gilead. This belief is illusory. As we learn through Offred’s increasingly intimate relationship with her Commander, the Commanders have built themselves a state-sanctioned sex industry hidden from the rest of Gilead’s puritanical society. They have replaced some local hotels with secret harems of prostitutes, called Jezebels, dressed as caricatures of the modern sexual trope (cheerleaders, playboy bunnies, bikinis, lingerie, etc.). These women ostensibly have the most freedom of any of the women of Gilead. They are allowed to drink, smoke, and wear makeup. They have been sterilized, so they are not expected to breed. They can also curse and fraternize openly with the Commanders. And yet, they are the most emotionally removed of the female social hierarchy. Ms. Atwood portrays them as empty shells that have given up on life. Even as the Commanders seem to think these women a vestige of the past, they represent ghosts or echoes of female freedom.
When the existence of the Jezebels is revealed to Offred, the last remnants of the flimsy platform of theological morality collapses, and Offred and we are left to gaze upon a sad group of pathetic man-children who orchestrated the takeover of an entire nation as a response to the feeling that their social roles were being usurped by women. The irony makes me want to smash my head against a wall. The infinitesimal reduction in male privilege for white males that comes from women just holding down jobs (not even better jobs or jobs on par with men’s jobs), having children by themselves, and choosing their own mates is enough to threaten men’s fragile self-esteem and cause a backlash that destroys an entire civilization. Although absurd, Ms. Atwood has rendered a powerful image derived entirely from feelings that exist in our society today. Does this mean that I think my male coworkers are going to overthrow society so that they can have a wife, a mistress and a collection of hookers at their disposal with no back talk? No. But I do think that it is indicative of real sentiment bubbling under the surface, even today. Male privilege and its incremental and tiny decline is a huge sore spot for men, and women are just as willing as ever to tear each other down rather than build each other up. The lessons of the The Handmaid’s Tale are just as poignant and appropriate three decades later as the day the novel was released, and Ms. Atwood has masterfully woven them into a tale that is both chilling and hopeful. Chilling because, despite its speculative nature, it is grounded solidly in real American sentiment, and hopeful because the final segment ends with a talk by a far future Professor Pieixoto at an academic conference looking back at the Gilead period just as we currently look back at the Civil War and Women’s Suffrage – as mere history.
I share Ms. Atwood’s optimism that these problems will continue to be addressed in society and eventually overcome, but until that magical day happens, nolite te bastardes corborundorum (don’t let the bastards grind you down).
About the Photograph: My corgi Einstein upside down on my couch lounging among the pillows, taken some time in early 2014. Rendered in Waterlogue.