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Atwood vs. Atavism? The Handmaid's Tale and Its Flagrant Misrepresentation of the Christian Right

George Orwell's book 1984, first published in 1949, has had a notable impact in English-speaking countries. Attempts by governments to limit the flow of politically relevant information, for example, are commonly referred to as "Orwellian."

  • Michael Wagner,
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George Orwell's book 1984, first published in 1949, has had a notable impact in English-speaking countries. Attempts by governments to limit the flow of politically relevant information, for example, are commonly referred to as "Orwellian." Orwell contributed to the widespread belief that totalitarianism stifles humanity and makes life unbearable. Thus his book has had a positive impact. Some citizens, at least, are more leery of their governments, and more watchful of possible infringements of their freedom. Orwell's fictional account of totalitarian society has had a real-world political impact, to some degree bolstering a healthy libertarian distrust of expansionist government.

One of Canada's most famous authors, Margaret Atwood, has more recently written a book in the same genre as Orwell. The Handmaid's Tale, first published in 1985, is also a fictional account of a totalitarian society, and it is intended to induce fear of a contemporary political movement: the Christian Right. The totalitarian society that Atwood describes is supposed to be what the United States would be like after the Christian Right seizes power. As she portrays it, a society under the political control of the Christian Right would be sinister, oppressive, and extremely hypocritical.

If The Handmaid's Tale would wallow in the obscurity of most modern fiction it would not be worthy of notice. However, it is not an obscure work. Instead, it has won awards including Canada's most prestigious award for fiction, the Governor General's Award, as well as the Los Angeles Times' Best Fiction Award. And according to Mary Ellen Snodgrass in Cliff Notes on the Handmaid's Tale (New York, 1994), more than one million paperback copies have been sold in the United States alone (p. 8). Although written by a Canadian, this book is well known in the United States, and is apparently used in some American universities. Thus it cannot be ignored. It's likely that many people in both the United States and Canada have had their view of the Christian Right influenced by this book. Unfortunately, Atwood's representation of the Christian Right is so warped that readers of her book receive an incredibly inaccurate impression of the movement.

In Atwood's story, after taking control of the United States (or at least a significant portion thereof), the Christian Right changes the name of the country to "Gilead." Leaders of this new society whose wives are unable to conceive are issued handmaids to bear their children. The book is written from the perspective of one of these handmaids, Offred, basically a glorified sex-slave. Offred describes her own oppression as well as the oppression of other women and some unfortunate men.

Atwood's Dystopia
Is it just paranoia to see a likeness between Atwood's oppressors and the Christian Right? Not at all. While there is plenty of evidence within the book itself, the secondary literature makes the point especially clear. A master's thesis by Carol Juneau, "Through the Eyes of the Handmaid: A Dystopic Perspective on Fundamentalism in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale" (University of Houston Clear Lake, 1997), notes the purpose of the book, namely, to "posit fundamentalism as a distorted ideology producing a totalitarian and terrifying dystopia" (p. 2). Juneau writes that Atwood creates a fictional society that "carries the ideals of activist fundamentalist theology to extremes, for the purpose of confronting the dangers of a government which imposes upon its subjects a moral absolutism derived from a sacred text" (p. 1). Writing in the early 1980s, Atwood was concerned about the political success of the Christian Right, and this book is her warning about what would occur if conservative Christians achieved political power. As Snodgrass puts it, Atwood "observed the rise of the U.S. political right in the 1980s and compared the Moral Majority's grass-roots menace to the phenomenon of Hitler" (p. 10). The society she describes, however, is entirely different from what the Christian Right seeks to attain.

The book's protagonist, Offred, is expected to bear children for one of Gilead's leaders known as "the Commander." The Commander's barren wife had been involved in televangelism before the Christian Right came to power. She was then known as Serena Joy and she would sing on the Growing Souls Gospel Hour (p. 18). Later she became a spokesperson for the Christian Right: "Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home" (p. 50). This is a scary idea for a feminist like Atwood. "Really she was a little frightening. She was in earnest" (p. 50). Snodgrass states that, "Serena Joy is a composite drawn from Mirabel Morgan, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Phyllis Schlafly; she is the true turncoat against women and must live with her futile hope for a return to traditional womanhood" (p. 75).

Atwood's Totalitarians
Here is the picture: The evil totalitarians who have seized power were, before the creation of Gilead, involved in televangelism, and believed in the traditional role of wife and mother. They also opposed abortion. Atwood's heroine says they carried signs saying, "Let them bleed," apparently referring to women who had abortions (p. 208). The bad guys also opposed universal daycare (p. 242), and spoke favorably about "traditional values" (p. 354). Clearly, then, the target of Atwood's attack is the Christian Right. In her view, people who support the traditional family and oppose abortion are the totalitarians of the future.

Like other totalitarian movements, Atwood's Christian Right seizes power through violence. In short, "they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency" (p. 200). After that, "they suspended the Constitution" (p. 200). Subsequently these newly empowered Christian Right politicos abolish Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations (p. 229). Anyone familiar with the American Religious Right, and its fawning admiration of the US Constitution, will rightly see this as bizarre.

After violently overthrowing the US Government, the Christian Right swiftly moves against its opponents. People who demonstrated against the new regime would be shot by the police or the army (p. 207). The families of those who rebelled would also be punished (p. 357). Some opponents of the regime are sent to "the Colonies" where they do forced labor. The lucky ones are involved in agriculture, the unlucky ones get stuck cleaning up toxic waste and radiation spills (pp. 287-288). Later, opponents of the regime were killed by "salvagings" or "Particicution" ceremonies where handmaids were encouraged "to tear a man apart with their bare hands" (p. 353). Afterwards, the bodies of the people executed in this manner are publicly displayed (p. 36). Some opponents of the new regime are tortured (p. 104).

In Atwood's portrayal the Christian Right is, of course, racist.Jewish people are expelled from Gilead. At least they were treated with some respect. "Because they were declared Sons of Jacob and therefore special, they were given a choice. They could convert, or immigrate to Israel. A lot of them emigrated, if you can believe the news" (p. 231). Furthermore, the new regime implements other "racist policies" and, in fact, "racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did" (p. 351). In other words, racism provides some of the "emotional fuel" for the Christian Right.

But the main crime of the Christian Right is its oppression of women. As mentioned earlier, the central character of the story is a "handmaid." The handmaids were women who were coercively "recruited for reproductive purposes and allocated to those who both required such services and could lay claim to them through their position in the elite" (p. 349). The Gilead regime thus instituted the kind of "polygamy practised both in early Old Testament times and in the former State of Utah in the nineteenth century" (p. 350). The handmaids were given new names reflecting their ownership by particular men. For example, the protagonist Offred's name means, literally, "of Fred" because she was Fred's sex-slave (p. 351). Handmaids were not allowed to have friends (p. 326). They were simply "two-legged wombs" (p. 157).

But it wasn't just the handmaids who were oppressed; basically all women suffered. Women were not allowed to own property (p. 206) or have paying jobs (p. 204). All infertility was blamed on women: "There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law" (p. 68). Most women were also forbidden from writing (p. 44). Feminists are referred to as "Unwomen" (pp. 137-138). In sum, this Christian Right regime treats women as less than fully human, making them tools of men.

The Christian regime of Gilead is, most of all, hypocritical. Although smoking and swearing are forbidden, Serena Joy smokes and swears (p. 234). And the hypocrisy is widespread, for Atwood states that "Everyone's on the take, one way or another" (p. 209). Babies born with deformities were declared "Unbabies" and it is strongly implied that they are killed (p. 129). It is also strongly implied that old people are killed (p. 177). This is very strange. The political movement most outspoken against abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia is exposed as hypocritical for implementing infanticide and euthanasia after taking power!So in Atwood's view, if the Christian Right comes to power, deformed babies and old people will be killed!Could it really be that those most committed to the sanctity of innocent life actually support euthanasia? Of course not, but Atwood apparently doesn't want truth to interfere with her malicious attack on the Christian Right. Here we have a committed feminist condemning the Christian Right for supporting infanticide and euthanasia. The truth has been turned on its head.

It can't get much worse than this, but Atwood tries. Christian sexual morality is also turned on its head in Gilead. The handmaids are shown hard-core pornographic movies (p. 137). And the leaders of this Christian regime have their own whorehouse!At night certain leaders of Gilead have sex with prostitutes in a bordello reserved for the elite. One of the participants justifies it this way: "Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it's part of the procreational strategy. It's nature's plan" (p. 274). These leaders also encourage lesbianism among the prostitutes because "women on women sort of turns them on" (p. 289). So in Atwood's view, a society under the control of the Christian Right would (secretly at least) encourage the grossest sexual immoralities!

If that isn't bad enough, access to the Bible is strictly limited by this new Christian regime. It is only to be available to the elite, and only for certain occasions. "The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn't steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?" (p. 99). And when parts of the Bible were publicly taught, the words were blatantly changed. In one case, the phrase "Blessed are the silent" is claimed to be a passage of Scripture (p. 101). And in another case, one of Karl Marx's slogans, slightly reworded as "From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs," is claimed by these Christian leaders to be in the Bible (p. 135). So Atwood has her Christian "fundamentalist" severely limit people's access to the Bible, and also change the content of the Bible!

Atwood's Dishonesty
The Handmaid's Tale is a deliberate and malicious attack on the Christian Right. It serves a political purpose, namely, creating an irrational fear of the Christian Right, and thereby strengthening the opposition to conservative Christian involvement in social and political issues. Atwood goes to such lengths to smear the Christian Right that she represents this movement as willing to reverse many of its key tenets upon achieving power. Imagine conservative Christian activists supporting infanticide, euthanasia, prostitution, and removing the Bible from public access!This is the picture presented by Atwood. Strangely, Atwood's deceptive portrayal of the Christian Right tries to discredit the movement by suggesting that deep down many of its adherents actually desire to implement positions that are distinctive to secular humanism in its various forms.

Margaret Atwood is a dedicated feminist. As a prominent and successful fiction writer, she decided to use her considerable talents to encourage opposition to the Christian Right. The Christian Right should not be immune from criticism, but the method she chose portraying it as nothing more than an extremely hypocritical, neo-fascist power grab is clearly dishonest. Christians need to be aware of the tactics of their opponents and their opponents' willingness to deliberately misrepresent Christian positions on social and political issues. The Handmaid's Tale is an awful book, but one that has been widely praised in the literary community. Rather than a work of fiction in the genre of George Orwell, it could perhaps be more accurately classified as a clever form of disguised political disinformation.

  • Michael Wagner

Michael Wagner is a home schooling father, an independent researcher and writer, and the author of Christian Citizenship Guide: Christianity and Canadian Political Life. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Alberta and lives in Edmonton with his wife and eleven children.

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