A Handmaid’s Tale
Updated: Aug 3
When you next peruse the display table at Waterstones—and I can tell, somehow, you, my reader, are a peruser—then you may well come across a selection labelled “Dystopia”; perhaps the staff will have put little handwritten quips next to each book too (don’t get too excited, they were told to). On the “dystopia table” you will find 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale—and yet…one of these three is not like the others; and you know that is so, yet how?
1984 and Brave New World follow a standard formula for science fiction: describe the world you live in but exaggerate it. So Orwell knew about the Spanish Stalinists and he knew about dismal life in rationed post-war Britain, he combined those two experiences and then amped up the volume—and there you have Ingsoc world, a very real future world because it was just Orwell’s world sharpened and clarified. The same goes for Brave New World: the novel took life in Huxley’s 1930s England—the movies, the pills, the contraception, the consumerism—and amped everything up by a few notches; since the 1930s was really very much like today, right down to the total faith in science, Huxley produced a dystopia that still seems credible.
What makes The Handmaid’s Tale different? The Handmaid’s Tale is not about an actuality that has been exaggerated; it is about a past state that might prospectively be restored—and we should fear to be restored. So while Huxley and Orwell comment on what might come to pass if current trends continue, The Handmaid’s Tale describes no extant situation and, rather, warns about what might be taken away—it is a defensive work. In other words, The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that Ingsoc’s Minitrue might produce to warn the Outer Party what would happen if they listen to the subversive and reactionary theories put about as regards the circulation of elites and the desirability of a return to pre-Ingsoc times.
As it happens, The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty much that—it is an intellectual prophylactic issued to the smalltime intelligentsia, to the book reading public (as was), to inoculate them against dangerous ideas. “But they reversed Roe vs. Wade, the next step is they’ll track down the abortion doctors and hang them in the Harvard Yard—and the blood from their lips will bleed through the white hoods that cover their faces like a clown’s smile!” Perhaps, though maybe not so poetic—and, further, consider that the overturn of Roe vs. Wade, a perfectly normal and in no way rigged judgement, took place over thirty years from the book’s publication; and it doesn’t even ban abortion. If it had happened when Tale was written, we would be in Orwell and Huxley territory—a projection forward of what already exists to a plausible scenario; and yet that was in no way in the offing (in the Offred) at the time.
The novel’s function as a propaganda tool is pretty obvious; it was obvious when Trump was in office that Tale had been “activated” to make sure the Outer Party (teachers, social workers, etc) was on the right page as far as Trump went—hence there was a big new TV series and lots of dressing up as handmaids (even men can dress as handmaids now, of course—something for the gender non-conforming, very inclusive). It is true that Orwell’s works—Animal Farm and 1984—were “activated” in a similar way during the Cold War, with film versions supported by the CIA; however, the impetus was on the threat from without, not the threat from within—though, for all I know, the CIA also pulled the strings on Tale as it pulled the strings on its Orwell projects in the Cold War.
I think we should get this straight, much as it might disturb you: Margaret Atwood is a witch—and I do not mean that in a pejorative “mean girls” comment sense, my assertion should be taken literally. Evidence? Just look at her for a start—she looks like a witch; she even grew up in a forest in the archetypical dwelling with the wispy smoke from a chimney—“Good enough to eat you with, my dear…”
You ruffle your copy of The Times, “Stuff and nonsense, no such thing as witches anymore…lot of nonsense. Madness.” Well, you will see, my friend—you will see. Indeed, Atwood even claims herself to have traced her lineage back to a coven of New England witches…and when I asked my mother for her opinion on Atwood her reply was, “Creepy.” (then again, as Tale aptly displays, women all hate each other).
Anyway, never mind reversing Roe vs. Wade, the question I’m asking—the urgent, pertinent question—is when are we going to get some serious witchcraft legislation back on the books? When will I be able to apply to be “Consultant Witchfinder” on a .gov website—and will it be too late by the time we do it? (Answer, probably yes—the fox is in the hen house; only feathers remain).
There are many typical progressive liberal tropes embedded in Tale; for example, at one point the handmaids gossip about a recent military victory—it happens to be over a group of holdout Baptists. This is significant, for progressive liberals always conceptualise themselves as defenders of all faiths—even though in practice they negate the content of those faiths. Hence, in this imagined future, the Baptists will be exterminated by whatever Christian sect leads Gilead—the idea is similar to that expressed when progressive liberals say “Jesus would have supported immigrants”, “Jesus was a socialist”, “Jesus would have supported gay marriage”—if you’re so concerned about what Jesus thought, why not become a Christian? Silence. If you’re so concerned that the Baptists will be wiped out by some evangelical sect, why not become a Baptist? Silence.
It’s not so much that they express a view as to what Jesus thought—I do that, and I’m not a Christian; rather, it’s the way the idea is expressed in a proprietorial fashion—as if they own Christianity, whereas it’s rather obvious they have no sincere interest in it and just want to use the moralistic holy trappings to make you concede a political point. The idea that the scene implants is that progressive liberalism, the current regime, is the “true friend” to Christians—it keeps the extremists in check, you see; and the current regime is, in fact, better than an actual Christian government—since they would certainly persecute other sects very harshly. You could almost say progressive liberalism is the real Christianity, because Jesus was ultimately about acceptance and the progressive liberal can be more accepting than even the formal Christian churches—he can even embrace the Jews and the gays, just as Jesus embraced the tax collector; and, in the end, isn’t that the true Christianity?
This is all implied, though; they never actually say it—and, in fact, I wonder if this whole process is subconscious. I would summarise the thought process as: “We’re the real Christians—real Christians surrender everything, even Jesus and the cross; total acceptance of the last, of the despised tax collector—whereas those bigots with the cross are all straight white males, the first; and, therefore, false Christians.” This is in keeping with the widely observed fact that progressive liberalism descends from Christianity.
In fact, the theme is expanded in Tale, for the Gilead regime also persecutes nuns and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers (Atwood is very keen on Quakers and they play a pivotal role in the story). To read Tale, you would think that Gilead is primarily an anti-Christian regime, even though it has grown out of a quasi-military Christian think-tank and the televangelist movement.
This is the trick: Atwood gives herself away in the post-script—a framing device, an imagined academic conference over a century hence (of which more anon). In this conference, the academic who dissects the now long deceased Gilead regime mentions how the KGB “grew out of the Tsarist secret police”. *Alert* *Alert* This is a progressive fellow-traveller trick, just as they blame Nixon’s bombing in Cambodia for the Khmer Rouge. The KGB was an entirely novel development, not a “natural outgrowth” from Tsarism—the Okhrana were pussycats compared to the KGB. To suggest otherwise, to suggest the USSR “grew out of Tsarism”, means that Atwood runs interference for the Communists (it wasn’t Marxism, it was all Tsarism really; and so real communism has never been tried)—and, indeed, this academic post-script also includes, in its discussion of the rise of Gilead in the 1980s, details of how an augmented syphilis strain was created in a US lab—this was a Soviet propaganda talking point about Aids. Quite like repeating Soviet propaganda don’t ya, Ms. Atwood?
This is the awkward thing about Tale; as a leftist, Atwood tries to give a hardcore Christian government the trappings of the totalitarian Soviet state or even the French revolutionary state. Yet this is unrealistic. So, for example, Gilead’s founders, supposedly Christian fundamentalists, suspend the US Constitution as their first act. Now, even the most cursory glance at what American Christians, especially so-called “fundamentalists”, believe would reveal that they are fanatics for the Constitution—other than the Bible, they worship the Constitution; and some would say that it is divinely inspired. The last thing a Christian government would do in America is suspend the Constitution—they might strip out a few unconstitutional amendments, they would never abolish the whole cloth.
A further problem emerges in the nomenclature used by the regime. For example, they hang “gender traitors” (homosexuals)—and yet “gender” is progressive jargon. Thaddeus C. Calhoun III, of River Bend, Idaho, would never say “gender traitors”—no, he would tap his family Bible, in its big black binding, and say “sodomites”; perhaps that was a bit rude for Atwood, who despite being a witch is a bit prudish—or maybe witches are prudes, and that is the point.
You can see where I’m going with this, “Gilead” is actually the USSR or Jacobin France—yet Atwood likes those regimes in their aspirations, and you can tell this is so because at one point Offred’s Commander sneaks a listen to the Cuban station Radio Free America and there is a little joke about the country’s free daycare for children (for working moms, especially blacks and Latinos—if I recall the CPUSA talking points correctly). The joke is that this is an inversion of the then-significant Radio Free Europe that broadcasted to the Eastern Bloc. Clearly, from the insinuation in the sentence, we are meant to giggle and think Cuba is really free, not Christian Gilead (not Reagan’s USA).
What Atwood has done is trick out a socialist state in its negative actuality as a Christian state, just as she tried to elide the Tsarist secret police and the KGB. Yet everything Gilead does, from the way it plays with history to the way it coins snappy neologisms and greetings, has only ever been done by socialist projects. Why would a prospective hardcore Christian government introduce a “Praystravaganza”, not just tell people to go to church? Why would they make up cheesy greetings for people to snap at each other? “Under his eye” (What Christian has ever said that?).
Surprisingly, Atwood doesn’t have them use the obvious salutation, “Brother” or “Sister”—as in the hackneyed phrase, “My brother in Christ”. Why not? Mainly because she knows nothing about American Christianity, yet also because American Christians, even the most hardcore ones, are not engaged in a project to establish a modernist totalitarian state—and that is how Atwood has to portray them, since this book is a propaganda exercise to “get” regime enemies; and, as such, she cannot use a Hitlerite movement, a rightist modernism, as Gilead’s government because such a force does not constitute a threat to the current American system, whereas reactionary Christians do.
Really, all these fearsome fundamentalists want is to go back to something like Leave it to Beaver and the ’50s; even the real nutcases are mild as milk (and honey)—well, compared to me anyhow. This is why Atwood has to add elements to Gilead that are Muslim, not Western at all—so all the outfits and hands being cut off and women not being allowed to read are imported from Islam. Atwood has to do this because American Christians just aren’t that scary: they want to go back to some reasonable social standards, such as not telling children to cut off their genitals and not making hardcore porno ubiquitously available and saying grace at dinner and “please” and “thank you”. Reversion to Western norms, to tradition, would not create anything like the world Atwood describes—it would create “I like Ike”. Atwood knows this really, and that is why she has to import themes from Islam to make Gilead into a real terror state.
“But it’s about how religion can be misused for anti-Christian purposes!” It’s about how the American regime fears to lose control over the churches, over their tame pseudo-preachers, to a third force. So Atwood has to show actual historic churches as unused, turned into museums “of our ancestors”—see, heartland Christians and televangelists aren’t “real Christians”, real Christians are Quakers who run aid to Cuba to break the “Yankee imperialist blockade” and care about historic churches. There is a class angle at play here, I think—real Christians in and around Harvard (the book is practically set in Harvard, the famous execution wall actually abuts Harvard Square) go to proper historic churches or to Harvard, bad “false” Christians go to vulgar megachurches and watch televangelists. That’s just snobbery, right?
It’s the old divide between high and low church, even seen in reactionaries like Lord Salisbury. It took me a while to get this myself—why did I always feel evangelicals are a bit icky, even when I was not religious myself? Because evangelicals are low class, not very educated—they take it all really literally and they have kitsch little figurines of the dogs from Lady and the Tramp in their living rooms. In a sense, Tale reflects an upper-middle-class woman’s terror that she might live in a government run by tradesmen and their values—and she has been to college and all. The horror!
The implication is that Gilead is pseudo-Christianity and this theme is taken up again in the historical post-script where it is revealed that the senior Gilead leadership are actually quite scientific. Indeed, Offred’s Commander even describes himself as “a kind of scientist”—and is meant to have been instrumental in the regime’s construction. Gilead is partly based on neo-Darwinism (boo! hiss!) married to Christianity—with the polygamy practiced to revive the post-apocalyptic birthrate soundly grounded in r/K strategy computer models backed up by biblical ideas (rather like neoreaction, in fact). The implication is that it is a false Christianity—yet at the academic conference the future world is staffed by brilliant indigenous academic women, Red Indians or Eskimos, and the other conference attendees are all from India and the like. No white Christians there, not anymore. Species extinct.
Indeed, the conference takes place at the Department of Caucasian Anthropology—the implication being that the white race has been wiped out and is now studied by the non-white world as a historical curiosity. The irony is that Atwood’s natives and non-whites all talk and act like prissy white Canadian academics from the mid-1980s and use the language and jargon of Western academia (Atwood is partly just satirising academic conferences, admittedly successfully)—and yet would it really be like that?
No, yet Atwood is a narcissist—so of course she expects Indians and Eskimos to act just like late-20th century white academics from her spoilt little world. As with all progressives, Atwood thinks everyone else in the world is like her father—a white highly educated academic who is awfully nice. Well, not so, spoilt little girl. The conference—conducted under the auspices of the Moon goddess, with the Solar masculine explicitly rejected, in some cringe-inducing mid-80s feminist ideology moment—does have one white male attendee, a military historian; so risible, thinks Atwood, military history being “a quaint thing funny awkward men do”—his paper about Gilead is called “The Warsaw Tactic”, again muddying the water as if a Christian government and Communist Warsaw Pact (tactic/pact-ic) are the same thing. He is actually the bad conscience of progressives like Atwood, even in the future governed by “feminist indigenous Moon goddess knowledge” there will be a tough guy, an Aryan, from macho San Antonio, Texas to protect the whole game—presumably as militaristically as any Commander from Gilead. In other words, in all feminist fantasies “daddy” is still there to make your multicultural dreams come true.
The dreams mostly involve rape with an electric cattle prod. From the very first, Atwood lingers on the electric cattle prod the Aunts, the older women who guard the handmaids, keep to maintain order among their charges. Atwood is really into the cattle prod—along with whips, chains, and lashings with rigid metal wire on the feet. Indeed, I can see why this book has been banned from so many schools—it is pretty pornographic, it lingers lovingly on the various ways women are tortured and dismembered.
Offred is a slut, by the way—the sainted lead character, despite living under “religious oppression”, seems to bang her way about with easy enough facility. Doctors throw themselves at her as their jellied hands probe the outer reaches of the cervix to assess her longed-for fertility—the muscly chauffeur, later revealed to be a resistance hero, bangs her. Who knew there would be so much sex in a repressed religious dictatorship?
Naturally, in keeping with the earlier point, the resistance heroes are handsome whereas the Gilead patriarchy is plain and a bit weak and hopeless at heart. A young resistance member, falsely accused of rape, is torn to pieces by vengeful handmaids in a scene reminiscent of the bit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the women put on false beards and pretend to be men in order to attend a stoning. The young hero is, of course, blond—a common theme, the Aryan superman is portrayed in service to progressive causes; he uses his martial prowess against Gilead—he is a “good man”, or “an ally” as they say today.
The scene itself is partly an insight into the vicious feminine psyche—particularly of sicko feminists like Atwood—but it is once again unrealistic. Per Life of Brian—actually a more reliable source on Abrahamic religion than Atwood—patriarchal religions rarely incite their women to acts of violence, let alone collective punishment; it is reserved for men, mainly because only men are really capable of lethal violence, but also because they are more humane than women. However, the scene does demonstrate how the female mind really works—what women want to do to each other and do in fact do psychically: tear each other to pieces, rip out clumps of blond hair, with their bare hands.
Quite a bit of Tale, perhaps 33.3%, is just Atwood’s sexual fantasies about being raped and tortured—and, ultimately, being kept for “breeding purposes” by stern powerful Christian men who tell her exactly what to wear, and then being rescued and roughed up by a burly chauffeur who likes to seductively wash his car. Ooohh…err…it makes me feel all funny inside when you talk that way (panty status: wet).
Well, that’s just any book written by a woman really—nothing special, though it leads to many absurdities. Handmaids are shown porno videos from “the before times” and made to recount tales of gang rape (more fantasies)—yet what religious regime would do that? They would ban all that, even for “aversion therapy” reasons—chastity and being demure would be a top priority. They would never re-expose their citizens to what had been overcome. For Atwood these scenes are just another chance to linger over porno torture (she really likes women being strung up in chains) and to set up a masochistic fantasy whereby you are gang raped and then confess it over and over again in public as the girls chant “She was asking for it! She was asking for it! She was asking for it!”. Mel Gibson once starred in a film called What Women Want—the above pretty much covers it. On this occasion Mr. Gibson was wrong, and Freud need enquire no further.
In between her sluttery and Mills & Boon subplots, Offred reminisces about her liberated past “when we had our own money and everything”. As with most novels by women, we have an ambivalent relationship with her mother (they hate each other, being in competition for the same man); except Offred’s mother is a spunky ’70s feminist who dismissed her father at once—under Gilead she ends up in some toxic waste reclamation site, as implausibly glimpsed in a video Offred hears about.
Offred’s other pre-Handmaid’s female presence is Moira, a “proper dyke” from the women’s collective who says things like, “I need to take a shit in a can,” because that’s what dykes are like. She is a dab hand with a spindle wrench and “fixes her own car”—because that’s what real dykes are like. In an implausible scene, Offred is reunited with her bff in a brothel-club that her Commander sneaks her off to for some illicit lingerie-based action—the brothel-club, in an old hotel, is a liminal space, a permitted underworld where Gilead offers R&R to visiting Jap businessmen and oil sheiks. Moira, the original tough dyke, has become a courtesan—frankly, it seems unlikely given typical bull-dyke looks; but perhaps, post-apocalypse, Gilead has to be liberal about whores (it wouldn’t be, Atwood is just a bad writer who cannot create a plausible world. Sad! Low energy!). What has really happened here is that Atwood has done this typical female move where a girl positions herself with a plain sidekick to accentuate her beauty—only in Tale this is done with a plain dyke positioned next to Offred.
Moira went on the lam for a time with help from Quakers. Strange to report, the only member of the American Young Communist League I ever met was a Quaker girl. Why should Quakers, consummate businessmen, be Communists? It goes like this: Quakers strip out all rite and ritual from religion and just leave egalitarian silent contemplation, examination of conscience, and hard work—hence they end up successful owners of Cadbury chocolate or Quaker Oats. However, they find that even this does not constitute plain labour—they want something purer, they become Communists because Communism venerates the plainest proletarian labour available, the world as a moralistic labour camp. A similar process is at work with the Jews.
Quakers are hypocrites, free-riders who preach peace and yet reap the benefits when other people die to protect them—they are mealy-mouthed, in colonial America they would vote for bills to appropriate gunpowder to fight Injuns so long as the bill was given a non-military name. This desire to deceive with language trickles down to socialist newspeak—and hence Atwood loves them; these lying egalitarian hypocrites, these atheists (for the divine is in the rites and ceremonies).
The odd thing about Gilead is that women have loads of power. Atwood lingers on the way Offred can tease the regime’s soldiers with her enshrouded body because they aren’t even allowed to masturbate. So…female power actually increases in conservative regimes? Yes, since everything the left says is upside down: feminism hurts women, makes them weak and powerless—BLM hurts and kills blacks. As Atwood knows—revels in, using her typically sadistic prose—when sex is tamped down even a glimpsed ankle becomes provocative.
Despite herself, Atwood relishes the thought of dangling the red meat before a man—to watch the strong independent beast turn to putty in her hands (and just for my c*nt, so pathetic). Well, Atwood is not an attractive woman and that explains her feminism—here she gives herself away when she fantasises about how much power an attractive woman has, how her limited looks would be accentuated in a demure regime (she even has the Commander say Gilead is fairer, everyone gets married—less overt sexual competition; and that’s true too, feminism promotes raw sexual competition; completely brutal and primal and unfair—just like the Communist rat fight).
Similarly, Tale actually relates a very “misogynist” fear—barren women are sent to “the colonies” where they are worked to death; and Offred disdains the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy—a former televangelist ironically given what she asked for and constrained to the home after a life as an independent career woman, of a sort. Again, such purdah is a Muslim thing not a Christian thing; and this is just more Atwood sadism. The subtext is that Serena Joy is an ugly older woman—the real sin, she even has a walking stick! It is women who are the cruel ones, you know—who whip their barren and ugly sisters off to the labour camp; for women “she’s old, she’s done”—only men, not driven by appearances, have any mercy for an old woman (their sisters have none, feminists have none). And why are they barren? Why does the white race die out? Atwood pins the blame on toxic chemicals and nuclear disasters; really, the problem is witchcraft—feminist witches. The very thing Gilead removes—for, contra Atwood, Gilead’s cornucopia doth overflowest (“Under his eye.” “Under his eye.”)
Basically, Tale isn’t real. At one point Offred complains there isn’t “any love” in Gilead, even if all the violent sex crimes and decadence have been done away with. The Commander is astounded; he only talks about nature, its harshness and ineluctable laws—even as he hoards forbidden women’s mags and lingerie. You see, Commander “Fred” (Offred, “of Fred”—you belong to me, ya getit?) is this rather dull suburban man who used to work in market research (low status middle class, not even a Harvard degree—an evangelical); he doesn’t seem too keen on the regime he helped create, even down to consumer product names for the female servants of the state (capitalist to the last, religion as a disguise for profit).
The implication is that he doesn’t really believe; just as the regime lets Jews emigrate by boat, being people of the book, and then dumps them in the sea for profit because the operation is privatised—yet that is how leftists think “just dump them in the sea, take the money and run”; real businessmen know that is not a sustainable business model—they are not so careless, lazy, and feckless. What Offred really means by “love” is just sex (with added whips and chains)—and consumerism, indulgence; it’s even in the novel’s name, as Atwood has to gleefully confess, tail/tale—a handmaid is tail, her ass. This is it for Atwood, though not for Gilead.
In Brave New World and 1984, the end note is despair. The savage John, unable to adjust to techno-utopia, hangs himself; and Winston Smith gets the rat mindwipe. Tale ends on a high note—in the post-script we learn it has been transcribed from audio tapes, Offred escaped with help from dishy chauffeur Nick. The “good guys”, the indigenous feminist Moon goddess worshippers, won in the end—Christianity and “monotheism” have been replaced by polytheism and indigenous ways of knowing (worn as a skin suit by communists). The white race has been wiped out (except for that guy from Texas who helps out on the military end for scraps of sex). Why…is The Handmaid’s Tale really a…utopia? Yes, yes it is—a communist-feminist utopia. That’s why it’s on the wrong table at Waterstones…see, I knew you knew what she was up to really.