The Politics of the Handmaid's Tale

By Beauchamp, Gorman | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The Politics of the Handmaid's Tale


Beauchamp, Gorman, The Midwest Quarterly


In Canada, they said, 'Could it happen here?' In England, they said, 'jolly good yam.' In the United States, they said, 'How long have we got?'" Such were the reactions, according to an interview that Margaret Atwood gave to The New York Times, to her futuristic novel The Handmaid's Tale. The British response is the calmest, viewing the work, that is, purely as fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland or Lord of the Rings. Canadians feel, apparently, some modest degree of apprehension. But it is in America, where the tale is set, that reaction has been most intense, most alarmed. By now a canonical text (the self-important term that academics use for books that get taught a lot) in university courses, the source of a film and an opera, a work particularly revered by pessi-feminists, The Handmaid's Tale has been widely viewed as a serious commentary on the socio-political conditions of the day. I want to cast a critical eye on the putatively American way of responding to Atwood's tale.

Read "seriously" (in contrast to pure fantasy), the book belongs to the genre called the dystopia, a genre that projects an imaginary society that differs from the author's own, first, by being significantly worse in important respects and, second, by being worse because it attempts to reify some utopian ideal. Science fiction works like Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants and John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, while offering decidedly negative images of the future, are not truly dystopian because they lack an anti-utopian animus; Zamyatin's We and Huxley's Brave New World, by contrast, serve as paradigms of the genre precisely because their negative futures stem specifically from the implementation of a rational design for reorganizing society, a utopia. Since most, if not all, such designs for a dirigiste world belong to the political left--most, of course, are communal, collectivistic--their anti-type, the dystopia, usually is, or at least appears to be, conservative, counseling rather the bearing of those ills we have than flying to others that we know not of. Another tradition of utopias, however, depends on revelation rather than on reason, on some divine injunction or leading from above, in which case they are usually theocracies, regimes ruled by a priestly class whose authority rests in the will and word of God. Giliad--the futuristic society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale--is Atwood's dystopic projection of such a theocracy, a right-wing, fundamentalist Christian theocracy.

Aldous Huxley has argued that "whatever its artistic or philosophic qualities, a book about the future can interest us only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably come true." That is to say, the conviction or force that such projections convey depends on real-world conditions or, at least, on the perception of these conditions; consequently, as these conditions or perceptions change, so will the vatic force of the fictive projections. Powerful as Nineteen Eighty-Four remains in many ways, its potency as a possible and fearful future significantly declined with the decline of the old-fashioned jackboot-and-truncheon totalitarianism. With the collapse of the Evil Empires of Orwell's day, the specter of Ingsoc no longer haunts Europe or the world. As long ago as 1958, in Brave New World Revisited, Huxley noted that "recent developments in Russia . . . have robbed Orwell's book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude" and argued, correctly, that "the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than something like 1984" looming in our future. We have, in other words, little cause to fear a future that does not seem a plausible extrapolation of current conditions. An America, for example, whose super rich convert to Christianity, sell all they have to give to the poor, and thus create a crisis in capital accumulation and economic catastrophe is not a scenario that arouses much anxiety.

The question, then, that I want to consider is the plausibility, in light of current conditions, of the future depicted in The Handmaid's Tale. …

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