IT is Happening Here (Re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale)

by Steven P. Miller

Recently, I have been thinking about how the rise of the evangelical right influenced late twentieth-century American liberalism. My inquiry led me to take another look at Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). I first encountered the novel during my high school days in the mid-1990s. Reading it—or at least knowing about it—was something of a rite of passage for aspiring members of the new class. (I never went through an Ayn Rand phase, thankfully, and hence never aspired to join the productive class.) The Handmaid’s Tale may or may not have inspired some of its readers to spray paint X’s across the ubiquitous Oliver North for Senate signs in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a riveting story driven by the alternately righteous and resigned, but always ironical, narrative voice of “Offred.” She is the handmaid of Commander Fred; which is to say, she exists to bear his seed; which is to say, the Republic of Gilead (nee New England) is a nightmarish patriarchy. In fact, the “early Gilead era” is the conflation of all things right-wing; not merely patriarchal, it is also theocratic, nativist, racist, and belligerent. The only thing missing is capitalist, although Offred’s Commander does have a background in market research. The regime is a composite of past models: the predictable Stalinist USSR-Nazi Germany template (Born of a coup, Gilead is in a continuous state of mobilization; the state police force is known as the Eyes), antebellum slavery (The handmaids are breeders subject to the whims of Commanders and the spite of Commanders’ wives), and Puritan Massachusetts (The book is dedicated to convicted witch Mary Webster, an ancestor of Atwood’s). More striking are the contemporaneous analogues: apartheid South Africa, Khomeini’s Iran, Ceausescu’s Romania . . . and, most importantly, the religious right’s looming Christian America, which in the novel is firmly in place by the 1990s. Thus, fundamentalism—a category then in the process of being conceptually stretched from Dayton, TN, all the way to Tehran—was the new “it” (more like an IT) that can happen here (or there, for the Canadian Atwood), specifically, in a city not unlike Cambridge, Mass. (not too far from Canada, when you think about it).

If Gilead’s complementarian view of oppression is a little too convenient, its religious politics are downright incoherent. (Why exactly does Gilead war against the Baptists down South? Are they the Socialist-Revolutionary Party to Gilead’s Bolsheviks?) Theo-ideological consistency was not really the point, though, in this unabashedly political novel. Fundamentalists, after all, are not averse to making up some rules as they go along; they’d rather play Geneva than wait for the promised new Jerusalem. Gilead’s basis for legitimacy is the law-and-order God of the Old Testament. But the basis could just as well have been some other IT rooted in some other reactionary resource, so long as IT provided an alternative to a sexual revolution that, by late 1970s and early 1980s, had created an opening for counter-revolution. As Norman Lear said during the early days of People for the American Way, “every generation must deal with its own Infallibles.” For Atwood, the more historically distinctive thing was the target: sexual freedom and, by extension, women’s bodies, and by further extension, women’s humanity. (Here, Atwood’s own targets included feminist anti-porn activists as well as anti-feminist female dupes.)

So much for my very impressionistic re-reading of Atwood. Has this novel served any serious political significance—other than to scare the hell out of impressionable readers? Atwood’s attitude toward the Christian Right is that of the distant literalist; fear trumps contingency as a heuristic device. Thus, the book offers little in the way of counter-intelligence. It tells us next to nothing about the Christian Right’s appeal, save to point out its ironic—in the novel, tragic—overlap with feminist moralism. While gallows humor spills forth from the oppressed, the villains remain predictable in their two-dimensionality: The Commander is a traditionalist who makes an exception for himself; his wife, a former televangelist (“Serena Joy”) who now chafes at her separate sphere.

Still, The Handmaid’s Tale undoubtedly reminded many readers of what they had to lose. Perhaps Colorado Springs was the Salem of our time, and the Republican National Convention the new Munich. At the very least, the novel gave young liberals such as myself a handy foil during the mid and late 1990s—a time when, amid my mistaken belief that Michael Kelly’s The New Republic really was a liberal publication, it was not always easy to gauge the stakes of political discourse (Boy, did Michael Kelly hate Bill Clinton). Opposing the Christian Right seemed a clearer vantage point; if liberalism was anything, it was not fundamentalism. In an age of presumed backlash, it seemed more pressing to be libertarian than liberationist on social issues; the best way to celebrate freedoms was to defend them. But what about religion? If The Handmaid’s Tale was to be believed, then religion was an inherently destabilizing force in politics. But didn’t such talk play into the hands of the opposition? Wise figures on the right long had warned (with a wink) that, should the decadent tide fail to ebb, the back-lashing masses would find recourse in authoritarianism.

Then came “W.” A decade later, I teach this stuff. So many of my students interpret religion-in-general through the lens of politically-conservative-religion-in-particular. They may have read The Handmaid’s Tale (I will take a poll next semester), or perhaps they have just absorbed its echoes.


Gale Kenny said…
Interesting post, Steven! I actually taught The Handmaid's Tale last fall to an all-female first-year seminar, and I was surprised to discover that most of them found Atwood's depiction of a fundamentalist society to be very outlandish and unbelievable. (They thought the techno-future in Bladerunner was more relevant to their times, although I guess Atwood does have the digitization of library books as an ominous sign).

When I asked them what political issues might have motivated Atwood to write the book, they were far more aware of divisions among feminists than of the existence and (former?) political power of the Christian Right. Maybe because they're largely liberals from the Northeast, or maybe because they're 17-18 years old, but their political world has been shaped almost entirely by opposing Bush and the Iraq War, and the election of Obama. They had barely heard of the Christian Right and knew nothing of this history. Interestingly, very few in the seminar took religion to mean political-Christian-fundamentalism. Instead they took pains (and several wrote papers about this) to separate the "good" parts of religion from the "bad" interpretations and practices in The Handmaid's Tale.
Thanks for your response--and very interesting to hear your experiences teaching the book. While only a few of my students (most of whom think of themselves as politically progressive or, in a few cases, libertarianish) are familiar with the labels Christian Right or Religious Right, they do tend to think of religion as having a net conservative influence on politics. Their point of reference (no doubt owing to the religious landscape of St. Louis) often is the Catholic Church's stance on abortion.
mhulseth said…
I've taught this book many times, on and off in courses in public universities in Minnesota and Tennessee, since the 1980s. It has been interesting to watch the students' frame of reference for thinking about the bad guys change over time, and it definitely feels increasingly dated. However, the question I always ask students to think about-- what parts are plausible, what parts are not-- has not yet failed to teach well and spark good discussion. It is true that some of the implied critique of the religious right is a bit cartoonish or otherwise unfair, but this is good fodder for discussion in my experience.

I would like to call attention to what, for me, is by far the greatest strength of the book-- the scathing critique of academic complacency in the face of oppression and suffering that is the major point of the "Historical notes" that appear at the end of the book. I do not feel that this part is dated at much, if at all, and it is the most important reason I keep coming back to the book.
Randall said…
I bought this book about a year ago after a ringing endorsement from my friend Brian Ward. Have still been meaning to dig into it. Your post makes me want to dig the book out of the pile of "to read."
foxofbama said…
Interesting post. I encourage you and Joe Crespino to have Harry Dent's daughter Ginny Brant on your various campusses to respond to your musings here. The daughter of a Nixon operative, a Trustee of the SBC International Mission Board, she could be an interesting lens through which to continue your reevaluation of the 90's.
You may also want to monitor any discussion that may develop in reference to Mark Noll's TNR review at public policy forum of

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