When the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, its author, Margaret Atwood, was concerned about the growing strength of Christian fundamentalism in US politics. Unfortunately her story is still very relevant, in fact more relevant, thirty years later.
In 1985 Ronald Reagan was in the White House. His attitude to the Christian right (which in fact has a long tradition in US politics) was one of containment. Yes, Reagan campaigned to reverse a ban on school prayers, and he himself was a nasty anti-abortionist. However, concerned about keeping a broad base of Republican support, Reagan did not overly encourage the so-called “moral majority”.Nonetheless the growing confidence and organisational weight of the US Christian right — in and around the Republican Party, through churches, charitable and educational foundations — scared Atwood.
By her own account she was also thinking about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the founding of a theocracy in Iran while writing the novel.The strength of the novel is that Atwood did not depict anything that had not already happened in human history. From big things to small — patriarchal privileges, street-level and state-sponsored misogyny, compulsory praying, religious war, deportation to the colonies, groups mobilised by fear to condemn and take revenge — all these things are features of all kinds of totalitarianism, and theocracy in particular. By bringing to us an onslaught of scary behaviours, Atwood provokes a recognition for the reader with not only the beliefs of “others” — some people at the fringes of society or in some other country “over there” — but within ourselves.
Who has not taken mild revenge to assuage bad feelings; or pointed the finger to be “one of the gang”?. Are any of us who seek moral renewal in politics in danger of excluding those who fail to live up to our expectations?
As science fiction this is an experiment in political thinking, not a detailed political treatise. There is, of course, a radical break between ordinary bad behaviour and the evils of fascism and totalitarianism. Atwood probably intended to express no more than a left liberal sensibility. And good for her, we need more political consciousness.It is good that Bruce Miller has brought Atwood’s collage of scary behaviours and pious beliefs to the small screen, and so very effectively. This is a powerful novel, one which many irate Christian parents and others have tried to ban since it was first published, and managed to ban in some US schools. More power to it against the likes of Trump whose only real god is money!
And against his Number 2 at the White House, Mike Pence, a man who tries very hard to be more pious than the Pope.The TV depiction benefits from Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal of June/Offred, a woman who has been enslaved and separated from her child. In this world where environmental pollution has nearly destroyed human fertility, any fertile woman like Offred must become a Handmaid, a breeder, to live with a ruling-class man and wife, to be ritually raped by him so that she will be impregnated and then bear a child for him and his wife.
Moss plays a woman always on the edge of despair, always in fear but determined to survive. Through her eyes we see how in this kind of world everyday life, potentially everyone you meet, even acts of human kindness, become treacherous.