The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is an old favorite of those who would make unpleasant books go away, and was listed 37th on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Banned Books from 1990 to 1999. It was challenged in 2001 in Dripping Springs, Texas by a group of parents who declared it anti-Christian and pornographic. Also quite recently, the Judson School District Board in San Antonio, TX overturned a ban of The Handmaid’s Tale by the superintendent. Ed Lyman had ordered the book taken out of the advanced placement English curriculum when a parent complained it contained sexual and anti-Christian content. A committee comprised of teachers, students, and a parent had recommended the book remain in the class, but Lyman said he felt it did not fit in with the standards of the community.
To be fair: violence, certainly. Sex, absolutely. Anti-Christian, perhaps, if you happen to believe that Jesus was all about wielding obscene levels of wealth and power against the meek. Pornographic, no. There is nothing arousing about the situations found in this book.
The world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a grim one. Women are second-class citizens in the recently formed Republic of Gilead. Women may not own property or carry money. All dresses and hats come with veils. They may not read, write, or (occasionally) speak unless spoken to. Older women are often pressed into service as domestic Marthas, ruled over by Wives. Because of falling fertility rates in Gilead the younger and hopefully more fertile women are sometimes assigned as Handmaids, expected to produce children for the elite rulers of Gilead. Early in the book, it’s suggested that the suicide rate among Handmaids is quite high.
Meanwhile, older women, barren women, homosexuals and criminals are declared Unwomen and sent to colonies to enjoy hard labor cleaning up environmental disasters, toxic chemical spills, or other similar work. Secret police, known as Eyes, are everywhere.
All this is told to the reader through the eyes and voice of Offred, a Handmaid who’s assigned to an older military officer (the Commander.) Her job is to produce a child for the couple, which is unlikely, as the Wife believes that her husband is actually sterile—a dangerous thought, as Gileadan law says that only women can be sterile. Desperate to manage the situation, the Commander’s Wife arranges for Offred to sleep with Nick, her husband’s driver, in an effort to get her pregnant. Nick and Offred become attached to each other. Eventually, Nick tells her that he can get her out of the country if she’s willing to trust him. The book ends with an assumed contact of Nick’s leading her into an unmarked van, although whether she’s being saved or led to her doom by Eyes is left unsaid.
You don’t read a lot about the men in this society directly, since Offred’s dealings with them are sharply limited by the rules she lives by. Men are either in charge, as the Commander is; or they serve those in charge, as Nick, his driver, does; or they populate the military and police forces that maintain order. The pecking order is rigid and there is no escape. Men conform or die, their bodies to be hung in a public square as a testament to the Gileadan manner of justice. Simple.
The most frequently cited reasons for banning this book are the description of Christianity found in its pages. However, the fundamentalist government depicted in the book merely uses certain images found in Christianity as a tool to maintain militarily enforced rules of society. For an environment supposedly espousing Christian values, Christ himself–who commanded his followers to love the poor, tend the sick, comfort those in prison, and abhor excessive wealth–is nowhere to be found.
That said, the folks who complain about the sheer brutality of the book’s worldview may have a point: violence is the center of the Handmaid’s world. Society at some point in the not too distance past was disrupted when a cabal of fundamentalist-minded military officers executed the civilian government and declared themselves rulers over God’s kingdom. Wars against the infidel are endemic; a news show described by Offred mentions the execution of Quaker and Baptist rebels, and the forcible uprooting of “Children of Ham” (i.e., Blacks) to North Dakota. Jews are given a choice: convert or leave for Zion. There’s some question as to how many of those put on the boats ever arrive at their destination.
The violence that Offred experiences is more psychological than physical, although she says at one point the Wives are allowed to beat Handmaids as long as they use bare hands, since “there’s scriptural precedent.” Handmaids have no names except for those assigned (Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc.) by the management. Money has been replaced by pictograph tokens they can use to buy food at the local grocery; even the store signs have been replaced by wordless logos. The ostensible reason for this—the reason the Handmaids are told during their training as state-sponsored breeders—is that it’s for their own protection. Women are too valuable, they’re told, to have to deal with such types of stress.
So here we are. 2017 and Handmaid’s Tale is every bit as creepy as it was when first published in 1985. In a way it’s worse now. The Commander’s Wife, a genteel lady named Serena Joy, was, in her prime, a televangelist who railed against the horrors of modern life and worked tirelessly to bring about the world she now lives in, a world directed by “Christian” values and enforces “traditional” family life. One imagines that she’s resigned to being the head of a household rather than a self-directing individual in a world of business, power, wealth, and religion. One expects that she’d imagined herself being rather more free and/or powerful than she is allowed to be by the leaders she helped bring to power.
As we head into a new presidential administration, it’s worth remembering that this book was meant to be a cautionary tale of a dystopian reality. But…there are those who would use it as a handbook to create a future they very much want to see.
Let’s do better than Gilead did.