The Handmaid’s Tale as a Different Kind of Dystopia

The Handmaid’s Tale is the famous dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which a radical theocratic regime has taken over America, brutally oppressing everyone who isn’t a Reconstructionist “Christian,” but particularly focusing on women. Since the book was released, and especially since the launch of the Hulu series based on it, feminists have been using it to protest policies and politics they oppose—things like restrictions on abortion, the Supreme Court nomination of Bret Kavanaugh, and the perceived anti-women attitudes of Donald Trump.

I feel like this is an interesting and somewhat misplaced move—not because of the merits of the policies themselves. (This isn’t a political blog, and I’ll admit that the red Handmaids’ costumes are a powerful symbolic image.) Instead, I’m thinking about two factors stemming from the story itself. First, as I described in my review, The Handmaid’s Tale was not meant to be overtly feminist nor political. And second, I think it is a dystopia of a very different kind from the earlier classics—one that is not a direct warning to the readers, but instead asks thought-provoking questions—questions I believe are just as important as its acquired political message.

Dystopian fiction (and fiction in general) has been used for political campaigning and messaging before. In 2008, the British Libertarian Party, protesting the surveillance state, sent copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four to every member of Parliament with a note reading, “This book was a warning, not a blueprint!” Fahrenheit 451 is frequently referenced whenever someone tries to ban books, including Fahrenheit 451 itself. And that’s only scratching the surface.

These protests have a particularly salient point because books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 were meant to be a warning. They were based on worrying trends the authors saw in their own societies, and while we’ve avoided falling into a totalitarian dictatorship, we still see trends things in play. The surveillance state and secret police of Nineteen Eighty-Four constantly rewrite history and suppress dissident ideas before they can take root. The enforced consumerism and hedonism of Brave New World leave people not caring enough to worry about things like truth and justice. Fahrenheit 451 has similar themes—more in the direction of what we would now call political correctness, but at the time was more about McCarthyism and the distractions of mass media.

All of these things are things we can relate to—things we can see worrying parallels with in our society today, still running in the same direction, which is one of the reasons these classics are so timeless. Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury all bring with them a haunting feeling of, “This could really happen if we aren’t careful!”

The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other hand, was based on a different premise. It’s a thought experiment: “How could a dictatorship happen in America?” And because of that, it was based on possibilities and historical precedent, not on specific trends of its time. It’s still a warning, but I contend it’s not the same kind of warning as Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a cautionary tale—a rebuttal to the claim of, “It can’t happen here.” It was meant to show the shortest path to dictatorship, excepting a Red Dawn scenario, but it wasn’t necessarily the most likely one. The classic dystopias go further. They show things that appear (rightly or wrongly) to be at serious risk of happening here, rather than the unlikely but possible.

But even if The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t meant as a specific warning, couldn’t it still be prescient of dangerous trends in our modern society? Certainly, it could, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m not seeing it. What trends is it warning us about? Radical right-wing militias? They flare up every so often, but they don’t seem like a long term trend—not actual, violent militias rather than a rabble of protesters. The Christian right? Stronger in the 80s when the book was written than it is now, and when was the last time you heard of them advocating for any of the restrictions in Gilead other than banning abortion and occasionally birth control? Anti-feminists? They’ve been kind of loud the past few years, but #MeToo has almost certainly been louder.

Now, it’s absolutely possible that I’m being biased—that I’m more sensitive to the libertarian concerns raised by the earlier dystopias than I am to the social liberal and feminist issues raised by The Handmaid’s Tale—and I’m open to arguments on that front. I’m certainly not saying that these issues are invalid. However, I just don’t get that same haunting vibe from Atwood’s work.

I do want to add a bit more about one religious movement that is never mentioned by name in the book, but whose influence is very clearly felt throughout: Reconstructionism. Christian Reconstructionists were actual, dyed-in-the-wool theocrats who were at the height of their influence in the 80s when Atwood wrote the book. They believe that the government should enforce Old Testament Biblical law—notably including the death penalty for adultery, homosexuality, and blasphemy, among others—exactly as Gilead does. And of course, they believe a woman’s place is in the home. (Never mind that this is not at all how Biblical law was practiced in Judea even in Jesus’ time.)

Believers in Old Testament law are real, and there are still a few of them around, but they really have no influence anymore. They have since declined and ceased to exist as a movement by about 2010. They probably weren’t intended to directly be the Sons of Jacob, but even so, this is one of the biggest reasons why the story doesn’t feel timely to me today.

Essentially, Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury are so haunting because you can see the societal trends they were warning about in our own society—not all of them, but certainly enough to worry you—but The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t have nearly as much of that. Yes, I can see how we could get there from here, but a lot of other unlikely things have to happen first.

But I don’t just want to leave it at that because there is a warning in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I think it is one we should heed. It’s just a different one from the other dystopias. For me, the question The Handmaid’s Tale asks is this: If this really happened, would I understand what was going on enough to get out of Gilead before it was too late?

And the scary thing is, I don’t know. I’m a scientist, I’ve publicly voiced my belief in evolution, and while I’m a Christian, I’m a member of one of those “heretical sects,” the Presbyterians. That means I probably wouldn’t have much more of a window than Offred did to find a way into Canada. Would seeing martial law declared and the army uniforms replaced with something else I didn’t recognize be enough to figure it out? Would the rampant and increasing censorship of the media do it? When women were all forbidden from working or owning property, it would be blindingly obvious, but the whole point is that by then, they would have cut off all the exits.

The classic dystopias tell us to be watchful of dangerous societal trends that could lead to tyranny. The Handmaid’s Tale is different. It tells us to be watchful of the means of tyranny—that opportunistic strain that will latch onto any trend or institution that is useful to it and twist it for its own ends. And this is why I think that reading it on the allegorical level of specific trends that are so often brought up today is misplaced.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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