by Andrew Kim
28 February 2017
I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for fun back in 2010, and I remember thinking it farfetched and anachronistic – a novel about Christofascist America on a timeline that had little chance of intersecting with our own. The premise’s supposed farfetchedness was not lost on Atwood when the novel was published in 1985, despite the prominence of the anti-feminist Moral Majority movement and the political mobilization of the Religious Right during that decade. But with the recent series of bills introduced by conservative politicians to restrict access to abortions, a leaked draft of an executive order that would block legal repercussions for people and organizations that discriminate on religious grounds, the new Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos’ support of vouchers for private religious schools, and the withdrawal of federal protections for transgender students, fiction may be becoming reality: the Trump administration is using the name of religion to disenfranchise vulnerable bodies, both literal and institutional.
The Handmaid’s Tale records the observations, experiences, and memories of a woman named Offred, a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Handmaids make up a class of women with the societal responsibility of bearing children for the regime. Offred’s name – “of Fred” – denotes an identity only in relation to her authorized impregnator; her name changes as she is shuttled from one apparatchik to another. The society depicted in the novel is horrific: in addition to the literal chattelization of women, there are ethnic and religious cleansings, public hangings, concentration camps for those deemed “unwomen” (political agitators, the old, and the sterile), and brutal Prayvaganzas.
Atwood’s dystopian novel has shot up the bestseller’s list in recent weeks, especially in anticipation of the upcoming television adaptation. But the resurgence in sales parallels that of other dystopian classics like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here, seeming to compare Trump’s America to an alternate reality. When signs at January’s Women’s March say “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again,” the assault on reproductive rights by the new powers-that-be becomes something aberrant – a perverse impingement of dystopian fiction upon reality. One of the purposes of dystopian fiction, it could be argued, is to exorcise and then seal away the frightening extremes of organized human behavior; dystopia is rendered a kind of genre fiction because it is supposed to deploy literary conventions outside of “realism.” But as Adi Robinson astutely noted in The Verge shortly after Trump’s election, and as Margaret Atwood has herself pointed out, The Handmaid’s Tale does not project an imagined world out of current phenomena as much as it archives practices that human beings had already done somewhere at some time.
That historical “somewhere” is close to home. The repressive policies of the Gilead regime draw from seventeenth-century Puritanism. Atwood’s allusions to the Puritans imply that America’s current political consciousness, far from having cast repressive theocracy into the dustbin of mythic anomaly, is in fact rooted in a legacy of repressive theocracy. In Racial Formation in the United States, Michael Omi and Howard Winant claim that this patriarchal Puritan legacy “has steadily and continuously organized and influenced North American ideas of identity and belonging in ways that are deeply intertwined with concepts of race,” and that the Puritanical insistence on dogma, individualism, repression, and the concept of a chosen elect has generated “many of the components of what we now call “American exceptionalism” (24). Readers of The Handmaid’s Tale may have underestimated the novel’s relevance in the age of Obama, as I did, because we interpreted its premise as a dystopian thought experiment for white feminists. But the corollary to Gilead’s all-encompassing whiteness – which readers tend to take for granted – is the systematic removal of African Americans (referred to in the novel as the “children of Ham”), as well as of Jews and Catholics; it can be assumed that the Muslim and Latinx population has been driven out as well. The point here is that the Gilead regime is patriarchal and religiously intolerant alongside and because of its inherited racist and colonialist policies – policies that have affected millions already on this soil, and policies that we ourselves have inherited.
Perhaps the way to read dystopian fiction in the age of Trump – and especially in the age of the unholy alliance between Trump and Mike Pence – is not to deem the unwelcome present an aberration on reality, but to look at America’s past and examine its intimacy with dystopian possibilities. (Could Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for example, be considered dystopian fiction? If so, what does that make the nineteenth-century slave narrative?). The end point of The Handmaid’s Tale is not simply to represent the insidiousness of religious hegemony. It is inaccurate and counter-productive to equate Christianity with dystopia. Instead, we must grapple with how a specific brand of white Protestant Christianity has been bound up in a much larger framework of domination and hegemony.
Andrew Kim is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.