Margaret Atwood (1939– ) is one of the best-known contemporary Canadian writers. A poet as well as a novelist, Atwood has a genuine gift for language, and her writing is highly literary. At the same time, her work addresses a number of important contemporary political issues, especially relative to feminist concerns and to the special position of Canada as a nation seeking its identity in the shadow of its much more powerful neighbor, the United States. The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s best-known work, especially after its highly successful adaptation to television in the Hulu mini-series of the same title. This series began airing in April of 2017 and has now extended through four seasons, moving well beyond the material of the original novel, which itself was followed by a sequel, The Testaments, in 2019. And, of course, recent events—such as the entire Trump administration and ongoing efforts in states such as Texas to restrict women’s access to abortion—in many ways make The Handmaid’s Tale more relevant now than ever, as critics such as Swatie have argued. Indeed, the success of the television series can also be taken as the ongoing relevance of the novel, though one could argue that the series does not do enough to update the 1980s vision of the original. Thus, Gamez Fuentes and Maseda García have recently argued that, “despite attempts at inclusivity and the call to solidarity among women, the series remains attached to the novel and its limited vision. It perpetuates the ideal of the Western-centric protagonist; it remains nostalgically attached to a middle-class, white, cis-gendered experience of womanhood as the center of female subjectivity” (89).
The Handmaid’s Tale participates in a genre known as “dystopian fiction,” which includes works that depict fictional societies (often in the distant future) in order to present warnings against the potential negative consequences of certain proposals for the reformulation of human societies. At the same time, dystopian fictions usually function as satires of specific trends in existing societies. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s imaginative satirical creation of a future society ruled by authoritarian religious fanatics comments directly on a number of specific political developments in the United States in the Reaganite 1980s, especially the growing political power of Christian fundamentalism and a general shift to the right in American politics. These changes brought about a number of reversals for feminist causes, the most obvious of which was the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment that would have guaranteed equal treatment under the law regardless of gender. In its satiric response to these developments, The Handmaid’s Tale is an avowedly political work with a strong feminist agenda that is not limited to the 1980s. At the same time, it addresses a number of more general issues having to do with the nature of fanaticism, of patriarchal societies, and of history.
The Handmaid’s Tale projects a nightmare future in which right-wing religious forces have established control of the government of much of a fractured United States. Though pockets of rebel resistance remain, much of the United States has been replaced by the Republic of Gilead, in which the ideology of religious fundamentalism is imposed by brute force on a stupefied populace. Gilead is a police state, with the movements and activities of its citizens closely monitored and controlled. But the new government also attempts to gain the “voluntary” loyalty of its subjects through a variety of measures that are reminiscent both of religious tradition and of the re-inscriptions of religion in dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
On the other hand, The Handmaid’s Tale differs from most of its predecessors in the genre of dystopian fiction in its lack of focus on the political structure of its dystopian society. There is, for example, no strong leader figure (symbolic or otherwise) along the lines of Orwell’s Big Brother. Instead, a conscripted form of Christian religion itself becomes the focus of this society, with sexuality as a principal focus for the exercise of religious totalitarianism. In the Christian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead, marriage is promoted as a social goal, though it is only available to those who have a reached a certain social status in this strongly stratified society. Indeed, wives are literally “issued” to successful males as rewards for loyal service to the community, demonstrating the thorough objectification of women in Gilead. Suggesting the paucity of roles available to women in our own contemporary world, women in this society exist not as individuals but as members of well-defined groups, corresponding almost to brand names. Among the upper classes, women function principally either as wives (who serve as domestic managers), domestic servants (“Marthas”), or handmaids (sexual surrogates). In the lower classes, however, “Econowives” have to play all of these roles. There are also “Aunts” (who serve to train and discipline the handmaids) and “Jezebels” (officially, though covertly, sanctioned prostitutes used to service foreign dignitaries and important government officials). Woman who cannot or will not play one of these roles are labeled “Unwomen” and are exiled to the “colonies” where they are used for hazardous duties like cleaning up toxic waste.
Atwood’s book focuses on the handmaids, who are used strictly for breeding purposes. They are issued to important men (“Commanders”) whose wives have proved unable to bear children so that those men might still have an opportunity to procreate. The narrator and title character of The Handmaid’s Tale is labeled “Offred,” indicating her service to a Commander named “Fred,” and we never learn her real name (though she is identified as “June Osborne” in the television series). Via this narration, she succinctly describes her role as handmaid (authorized by the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Bilhah), noting that her sexual services are intended for breeding purposes only, with no hint of pleasure or affection: “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136).
The Language of The Handmaid’s Tale
This reference to vessels and chalices is clearly ironic, linking the traditional religious significance of such items with traditional social attitudes toward women, attitudes that have been spectacularly literalized in the society of Gilead. Such references, in fact, are quite typical of Offred’s narration, which often employs irony and wordplay to increase its effect. Very early in the narrative, for example, Offred describes the taste for old-fashioned home furnishings that characterizes Gilead and notes that this preference is part of the regime’s general call for a return to “traditional values” such as those embodied in the epigram “waste not want not” (7). Offred responds to this particular epigram by noting sardonically that she still feels a great deal of want, even though she is not being wasted. But surely Offred is here being intentionally perverse. She knows full well that, in the repressive context of Gilead, such epigrams have been converted from advice to direct orders. This particular epigram no longer merely suggests that efficient use of resources leads to prosperity. Instead, it is a command that the citizenry neither waste resources nor want anything more than they already have. Offred’s linguistic play with the epigram suggests that such epigrams are, in fact, perfect icons of Gilead. Like the traditional values espoused by the regime, these epigrams are things of the past that are out of place in the present: they originally expressed wisdom, but have now become empty clichés, devoid of all real relevance except through their use as tools of official power. At the same time, Offred’s wordplay reenergizes the epigram to a certain extent, using the inherent ironic potential of language to produce a meaning far different from that intended by the regime.
Offred’s narration is rhetorically complex in other ways as well. The Handmaid’s Tale consists, ostensibly, of a diary left by Offred, detailing her nightmarish experiences as a forced sexual surrogate in the fundamentalist Christian dictatorship of Gilead. Yet the book ends with an epilogue revealing that what we have been reading is in fact a text assembled and edited by one Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, working from a collection of audio tapes discovered two hundred years after the experiences related on them. We are thus, in a sense, reading two narratives at once, a situation well encompassed by Michele Lacombe’s characterization of the text as a “palimpsest” in which Pieixoto’s version of the story is written over Offred’s, as it were (5). From the feminist perspective that seems to be the most obvious way to read The Handmaid’s Tale, the tension between these two narratives would seem to be that between masculine and feminine perspectives. Offred’s feminine tale is fluid, playful, and poetic, while Pieixoto’s masculine reinscription of it seeks to reduce the story’s ambiguities and to de-emphasize the personal aspects of Offred’s experience in the interest of developing a detailed scholarly understanding of the Republic of Gilead, an historical phenomenon about which little seems to be known in Pieixoto’s time.
The contrast between the styles of Pieixoto and Offred is quite clear in the text. In his quest for historical knowledge, Pieixoto regards Offred’s tapes as disappointing and inadequate. He thus somewhat disparagingly refers to the collected tapes as an “item,” specifically suggesting that it does not deserve to be called a “document” (301). Rather than appreciate Offred’s narrative for its own value, Pieixoto and his co-worker Professor Wade seem to regard it as a curiosity that might lead them to other, more “authoritative” sources. They thus attempt to correlate the information contained in Offred’s account with more conventional historical records. In so doing, Pieixoto bemoans the fact that these records are relatively sparse for the Gilead period, because the revisionist Gileadean regime was given to destroying its own records periodically as their policies changed, somewhat in the mode of the constant revisions of history by the Party that rules the dystopian Oceania in Nineteen Eight-Four (306). As opposed to Offred’s feminine spoken narrative, Pieixoto notes that he would prefer to have the computer printouts of her male masters, thus providing him with the kind of information that he regards as reliable.
One reason for Pieixoto’s disdain of Offred’s narrative is its intensely subjective and often poetic quality. Yet the historian himself also employs wordplay. For example, the title of the text (actually suggested by Wade) is a pun on the words “tale” and “tail,” indicating the use of Offred as a sexual object (301). Indeed, the abusive nature of this sexist pun is one of the clearest indications of the different attitudes of Pieixoto and Offred toward language. When Pieixoto employs wordplay it is at the expense of others and seems intended to demonstrate his power and superiority over them. When Offred employs wordplay, on the other hand, it is largely a matter of self-defense, part of an attempt to maintain a sense of her own self amid the brutal environment in which she must live as a handmaid in Gilead.
Pieixoto gets the last word in a literal sense, and it is certainly true that the epilogue causes most of the preceding narrative to appear in a somewhat different light than it had before. Nevertheless, Offred’s poetic perspective seems more powerful in the text than Pieixoto’s scientific one. After all, Offred’s puns and various other plays with language still come through even in the text as edited by Pieixoto—no doubt much to his own frustration. Moreover, the narrative leaves many questions unanswered, thus defeating Pieixoto’s quest for precise, scientific knowledge of the past. In particular, as Offred leaves the Commander’s residence in a van at the end of her narrative, we are not sure if she is being rescued and taken to safety or arrested by the secret police and taken to further torment. We also do not know how she was finally able to record her story or how the tapes were able to survive until discovered two centuries later. From Pieixoto’s point of view, the most vexing uncertainties involve Gilead itself, and the text gives no indication of what happened to bring about the end of this apparently short-lived Christian dictatorship. As a result of all of these uncertainties and ambiguities, there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Pieixoto ends his presentation to his audience at the academic symposium of the epilogue by asking them if there are any questions. There are, of course, many questions, and there is thus a suggestion in this ending that scientific approaches like those employed by Pieixoto always leave important questions unanswered, despite their drive for a seemingly complete compilation and explanation of the “facts.”
As is often the case in dystopian texts, the power of language is one of the central subjects of The Handmaid’s Tale, and it is no accident that some of the most repressive measures instituted by the government of the Republic of Gilead have to do with attempts to establish strict control of language itself. The regime in Gilead thus exercises a strict control over the media, assuring that all potentially subversive discourse is suppressed. Even reading of the Bible is strictly controlled, for fear that variant interpretations of this complex document might further opposition to the extremist policies of the regime. Women in Gilead are subject to especially stringent linguistic controls. Except for the “Aunts” charged with training potential handmaids, they are forbidden either to read or to write, thus making written language (and the power that goes with it) a strictly male preserve.
The totalitarian Christian government of Gilead can tolerate no opposition and no deviation from its own interpretation of reality. The attempts of the government to control language can then be taken as an indication of the potential ability of language to produce perceptions of reality. But language turns out not to be so easy to control. Indeed, the official attempts to suppress unapproved language use in Gilead seem paradoxically to give language an additional subversive force, and it is probably not surprising that language is such a key resource for Offred in her attempts to resist the role thrust upon her by the Gileadean regime. It is certainly no accident that Offred emphasizes the large collection of books she observes in her first secret unofficial visit to the Commander’s study, thus linking books directly with this serious transgression of Gileadean law. It is also significant that, during these illicit meetings with the Commander, Offred plays “Scrabble” and reads novels by banned authors like Raymond Chandler and Charles Dickens. Finally, it is clear that Offred’s own private attempts to maintain a facility with language that goes beyond that alloted to women in Gilead represents her most important and successful form of resistance to the dehumanization that she experiences in her role as a handmaid.
In The Handmaid’s Tale even the most seemingly literary uses of language have significance that goes far beyond the realm of literature. Indeed, dystopian texts like The Handmaid’s Tale tend to derive their most powerful energies from their direct relevance to reality. Thus, as Booker notes, “dystopian fictions are typically set in places or times far distant from the author’s own, but it is usually clear that the real referents of dystopian fictions are generally quite concrete and near-at-hand” (19). In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, it seems clear that one cannot appreciate the significance of Offred’s predicament in Gilead without understanding it as a thinly-veiled satirical reinscription of the situation of real women in the real America of the 1980s. For example, the subjugated position of women in Gilead can be taken as a direct commentary on the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, while the use of handmaids like Offred merely as vehicles for the production of children can be seen as a commentary on the “right to life” movement and its insistence that pregnant women should be forced to bear children, even if against their will. Thus, Linda Kauffman argues that in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood has not created a purely fictional dystopia but has simply defamiliarized the present American of the 1980s:
“Whether one thinks of the trials of surrogate motherhood, or the Vatican’s recent doctrinal edict against anything but married “normal sexuality,” or of the AIDS epidemic and its attendant repressions, or the resurgence of racial and religious intolerance–the seeds of hatred, violence, and repression are already prepared” (241).
These links, of course, are established quite directly in the text, though they are sometimes more complex than one might expect. For example, Atwood warns against what she clearly sees as a dangerous trend in contemporary feminism by suggesting that the censorship policies of Gilead have roots in the attempts of feminists to suppress certain kinds of books and magazines (especially those labeled by them as pornographic) in the 1980s (38). It is Pieixoto, however, who expresses the links between Gilead and America most clearly when he insists that no historical phenomena come out of nowhere and that the policies of the regime in Gilead must have grown directly out of certain attitudes in the society that preceded Gilead (305).
Drawing upon the insights of feminist critics that the oppression of women in patriarchal society is embedded in the very languages used in such societies, writers of feminist utopian and dystopian fiction have frequently focused on language as an aspect of both the patriarchal traditions they oppose and the feminine alternatives they suggest. For example, writers like Ursula K. LeGuin (in The Dispossessed) and Suzette Haden Elgin (in Native Tongue) have envisioned the development of entirely new languages based on premises more amenable to the fair treatment of women. In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood imagines no such language, but she does emphasize that the brutal treatment of women in the Republic of Gilead has a strong linguistic component. The handmaids in Atwood’s dystopian Gilead have no identity except as potential childbearers; they are even stripped of their original names, which are replaced with possessive nominations like “Ofglen,” “Ofwayne,” or “Ofwarren,” indicating their status as mere property of their Commanders (“Glen,” or “Fred,” or “Warren”). Then again, if the renaming of the handmaids would appear to be designed to label them as possessions, it is worth keeping in mind that this sort of renaming has in fact gone on in Western civilization for centuries through the use of the designation “Mrs.,” whereby women are transferred from the jurisdiction of the Father to that of the Husband (and presumed Father-to-be). Offred herself clearly finds this renaming a significant threat to her identity, and she jealously guards her former name (though it, too, was given her by someone else) as an almost magical emblem of her former identity:
“I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet” (84).
The Handmaid’s Tale and the Question of Power
Beginning his discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale with a quotation from French theorist Michel Foucault on the complex relationship between sexuality and power in modern society, Amin Malak suggests that any reader of Atwood’s book “needs to recall Foucault’s observation to contextualize the agonies of the narrator-protagonist” (9). Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale serves in many ways as an exemplary literary dramatization of some of Foucault’s major ideas. Atwood’s book reacts directly to the growing political power of the American religious right in the 1980s, projecting a nightmare future in which the forces of religious fundamentalism have established control of the government. These forces then impose their ideology on the entire populace, seeking to dominate and control every aspect of the lives of individual citizens, much in the mode of Foucault’s notion of the carceral society. Meanwhile, as one might expect in a fundamentalist regime, official power in the Republic of Gilead is largely focused on the control and administration of sexuality, thus echoing Foucault’s important elaboration of the connection between sexuality and power in modern society.
It comes as no surprise, then, that critics like Malak have often appealed to the work of Foucault in their discussions of the book. Stephanie Barbé Hammer, for example, notes the relative lack of conventional technology in Atwood’s future society, and suggests that this lack comes about because this society emphasizes the technology of power rather than of machinery, in the mode of Foucault’s discussions of “discipline” (45). Hammer goes on to note how techniques of surveillance and manipulation in Gilead respond quite closely to those described by Foucault. Similarly, Linda Kauffman works from an explicitly Foucauldian perspective to conclude that, in The Handmaid’s Tale, “sex and politics are indistinguishable as transfer points of power and oppression in a society under siege” (226). Kauffman also notes the complete regimentation of life in Gilead and relates this regimentation to Foucault’s notion of the carceral society. Not only are the citizens of Gilead slotted into rigidly defined roles in an overarching system of social controls, but every movement made by individuals is carefully scheduled and then monitored to assure compliance to the schedule. For example, a system of bells (which the narrator Offred specifically compares to the bells formerly used in nunneries) is used to signal times for specific activities. Offred, as a “handmaid” occupies one of the most thoroughly controlled positions in the society of Gilead: she is even granted only a specific number of minutes in the bathroom each day. Finally, Kauffman also notes that the extreme regimentation of life in Gilead is reinforced by an elaborate technology of punishment.
A quick look at Foucault’s description of the discursive production of sexuality in modern society shows the obvious relevance of his work to The Handmaid’s Tale. As opposed to Freud’s “repressive hypothesis” that modern societies gain power through a repression of sexual energies, Foucault argues that modern society seeks not to repress or even to extirpate sexuality, but instead to administer sexuality and to turn sexual energies to its own advantage. In short, sexuality does not necessarily stand in direct opposition to official power and may in fact stand in direct support of it: “Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another” (History 48). For Foucault, sexuality is not so much a matter of natural instinctive impulses as of socially and discursively conditioned responses. He describes sexuality as “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power” (History 103). In particular, sexuality functions as a focal point for an entire array of practices through which modern society has attempted to constitute the individual as a subject of administrative control.
Foucault’s description of administered sexuality matches the practices of the Republic of Gilead quite closely. Offred’s narrative in The Handmaid’s Tale reveals quite clearly that the regime in Gilead, despite its puritanical aversion to sexual pleasure, does not seek to eradicate sexuality, but simply to control and administer it. Indeed, the entire society is to a large extent organized around sexuality, both in its emphasis on the family structure and in its implementation of the handmaid system as a means of producing offspring. Offred, like many fertile women living in Gilead, is thus forced into functioning in a role that is principally sexual in nature. As a result of deteriorating environmental conditions, most of the women (or at least most of the Caucasian women) in this near-future society are sterile–as probably are most of the men, though in Gilead the infertility of a couple is always attributed to the woman. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist regime in Gilead strictly voids the use of any kind of technological aids to the solution of their population crisis. They insist, presumably on the authority of scripture, on strictly “natural” means of procreation, though of course the actual way they go about achieving such procreation within the framework of the traditional Western nuclear family is highly artificial. They establish the institution of the handmaids, whose function (authorized by the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Bilhah) is to be impregnated by husbands while their (presumably infertile) wives look on during highly ritualized ceremonies that are supposedly sacred, but that function somewhat like unpleasant medical procedures. Importantly, this ceremony is obligatory for both the husband and the handmaid; it is strictly impersonal, and individual choice (like individual pleasure) plays no part.
The Handmaid’s Tale derives from the diary of Offred, who succinctly describes her role as a handmaid, noting that her sexual services are intended for breeding purposes only, with no hint of pleasure or affection. But, despite precautions to the contrary, a private connection of sorts does develop between Offred and her the Commander, the husband who is assigned to impregnate her. He induces her to start meeting with him privately, and in these sessions they enact various transgressions like reading banned books and playing Scrabble, a game forbidden to women because it promotes literacy. In this way, the text seems to support Foucault’s point that the will to knowledge is actually more fundamental in modern society than the desire for sex. Meanwhile, the Commander’s wife (a former gospel singer whose stage name was “Serena Joy”) suspects the Commander of being sterile, so she recruits Offred to engage in covert sexual relations with the chauffeur Nick in the hope that the handmaid will thereby become pregnant and bring increased status to the family. Offred herself then becomes emotionally attached to Nick, and the couple secretly begin their own private series of sexual liaisons in addition to those arranged by Serena Joy. Sexual energies that are ostensibly transgressive thus circulate rather freely in the text, despite the repressive environment. As opposed to the ritual nature of the handmaid ceremony, these “extracurricular” sexual activities are endowed with an aura of secrecy, corresponding to Foucault’s observation that in modern society sexuality is consistently regarded as “harboring a fundamental secret,” and that as a consequence sexuality is thought to be the locus of “the fragment of darkness that we each carry within us” (History 69)
Importantly, though, Offred’s secret liaisons with the Commander are conducted strictly under his orders, and she remains a tool of his power. Similarly, her relationship with Nick is, at least initially, authorized by Serena Joy. Indeed, despite the decidedly anti-erotic figuration of the handmaid’s role in this Puritanical society, even exotic sexual pleasure is secretly endorsed by the powers that be in Gilead, in the form of the authorized brothels where the Jezebels ply their trade under strict government control and where the wildest fantasies of the clientele can be realized. Even lesbian relationships between Jezebels are openly condoned, though the society at large is violently homophobic. And when the Commander takes Offred to one of these brothels in order to have sexual intercourse with her outside the bounds of the impersonal ritual of the handmaid ceremony, she submits not out of private loyalty or feeling, but merely out of her firm understanding of the workings of power that are involved. Even the relationship between Nick and Offred turns out to be highly political; he is apparently an agent of the “Mayday” underground, and his interest in “Offred” may be largely due to his understanding that she is in a position to extract useful information from her Commander. On the other hand, he may also be an agent of the secret police charged with keeping the populace under constant surveillance. In any case, sexuality functions in the final analysis not as a counter to political power in Gilead, but as one of the most effective tools through which that power is manifested (and opposed).
Sex in the Republic of Gilead is a matter not of emotion or biology, but of pure political power. Indeed, every aspect of this society functions as part of a total system of behavioral controls. The religious emphasis that centrally informs the society is concerned not with spiritual salvation but with political domination. Television programming in Gilead consists primarily of religious programs and of heavily biased news reports that are little more than official propaganda. And literature is even more strictly censored and controlled. Most women are not allowed to read at all; the signs in stores consist of pictorial symbols so that shopping will not require reading. Even the Bible is considered highly dangerous. In family groups like the one around which The Handmaid’s Tale is centered, the Bible can be read only by the Commander, though he does sometimes read passages aloud to his wife and female servants, for their group edification. As Offred explains, “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? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read” (87).
This secrecy already hints that there may be something fraudulent about the religious ideology that rules Gilead, and indeed Atwood’s text is full of such hints. The official policies of Gilead are invariably justified by Biblical precedent, but since no one but the leaders of the “republic” have access to the Bible they are able to claim Biblical precedent for almost anything they want. The Gileadeans have in fact imported a number of bits of spurious Christian ideology, as when the distribution of women as sexual objects among men in the society is justified by a perversion of Karl Marx that is claimed to come from St. Paul himself, in Acts: “From each according to her ability: to each according to his needs” (117).
Such “Biblical” slogans, intended to evoke not spiritual elevation but political obedience, are often chanted in the various communal ceremonies that Gilead uses as a central means of indoctrination of its citizens. These ceremonies mimic Christian rituals, but they often have a dark tone that strongly recalls the rituals of public torture and execution described by Foucault in relation to technologies of power prominent in Europe prior to the modern period. One such ceremony is the “Salvaging,” the name of which carries hints of Christian salvation of those who have strayed, but which is in reality nothing more than a public hanging of groups of subversives, who serve as a focus for mass hatred–and as a warning to potential opponents of the regime. This hatred surfaces most violently in the ritual of “Particicution,” a chilling reinscription of medieval public executions in which groups of women servants act not as spectators but as executioners; they are whipped to a frenzy by incendiary rhetoric, then turned loose on a convicted transgressor against society and encouraged savagely to beat the victim to death, thus gaining their full complicity in the enforcement of the rules of the State. Even “sinners” who are not publicly executed still have their bodies put on public display, hanging for days from hooks set in a wall as an abject reminder of the fate that awaits such sinners.
Atwood further emphasizes the lack of a true spiritual basis for the religiosity of Gilead in a number of ways, as when “Offred” describes the “Soul Scrolls” shop, where one can order (for a fee) by telephone any one of five prefabricated prayers. These commodified prayers are then produced by machines, without human intervention: “There are no people inside the building: the machines run by themselves” (167). This shop serves as a fairly obvious symbol of the mechanical, dehumanized, and spiritually bankrupt nature of religion in Gilead, but this suggestion is made all the more powerful because of the way it closely parallels certain highly automated and commercialized religious activities (like dial-a-prayer telephone lines) that already exist in 1980s America. Indeed, while Atwood’s book is a little vague about the mechanisms by which the theocracy of Gilead actually managed to supplant the United States government, her vision does gain a great deal of energy from the fact that the seeds of her dystopia clearly do exist in the contemporary efforts of the American religious right to enforce its beliefs through political power.
It is, of course, no accident that Foucault’s analyses of the carceral elements in modern society correspond so well to Atwood’s depiction of the Republic of Gilead. As Kauffman puts it, “like Foucault, Atwood is writing a history of the present” (242). Both Foucault and Atwood are responding to phenomena that already exist in contemporary Western society, and the clear relevance of Foucault’s work to Atwood’s dystopian vision is of considerable help in illuminating the links between Atwood’s projected future and practices that are already underway in the present. For example, Atwood specifically calls attention to the fact that Gilead is not an entirely new departure for America and that an element of religious fundamentalism has always been present in American culture. Thus, The Handmaid’s Tale is partly dedicated to Mary Webster, one of Atwood’s own ancestors who was publicly hanged as a witch in Puritan New England (though she survived the hanging), thus linking the Republic of Gilead to America’s Puritan past. Meanwhile, the numerous parallels between the practices of the Republic of Gilead and those of the medieval Inquisition suggest that the oppressive religious energies that inform Atwood’s dystopia have been present in Western civilization for centuries. That a resurgence of these energies like that embodied in the Republic of Gilead could occur thus reinforces Foucault’s suggestion that official power has not diminished in modern Western society but has simply been routed in more subtle directions.
Atwood’s delineation of the complex interrelationships among power, sexuality, and discipline in Gilead provides a striking dramatization of Foucault’s ideas in these areas. The Handmaid’s Tale also recalls Foucault’s work in its satirical treatment of the work of historians in the epilogue that ends the book. Professor Pieixoto, the keynote speaker at the academic conference of historians featured in the epilogue, is the kind of conventional historian that Foucault frequently criticizes in his work. Pieixoto seeks to find a single version of historical truth and to construct smooth, continuous narratives that explain the course of history in a precise and unambiguous way. He thus fails to appreciate Foucault’s insistence that all historical accounts are necessarily partial, and that many different accounts of history can be produced depending upon the assumptions made by the historians producing these accounts. Meanwhile, the scenario presented in the epilogue tends to support Foucault’s, rather than Pieixoto’s, vision of history. After all, the Republic of Gilead has long since passed from the scene, much in the mode of Foucault’s vision of history as a sequence of distinct epochs, each of which can differ radically from the others. Further, Atwood’s text offers no explanation for the passing of Gilead, much as Foucault (believing that such processes are far too complex to be described in simple cause-and-effect terms) refuses to speculate on the specific causes of the shift from one epoch to another in the movement of history.
Atwood reinforces this element of academic satire by locating the capital of the Republic of Gilead in Cambridge, Massachusetts (one of the main centers of American academic life) and by dedicating her book partly to Perry Miller, a well-known literary and historical scholar whose work emphasizes the centrality of the Puritan heritage to American culture. Miller is especially well known for his two- volumes work The New England Mind (1936, 1953), in which he attempts to depict the New England Puritans as tough, hard-working, independent, and energetic. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood clearly suggests that this energetic Puritan spirit, because of the ideology of rejection of difference that underlies it, can lead to tyranny and oppression rather than expansion and dynamism. And the Puritan rejection of difference derives precisely from the tendency to see the world in terms of polar dualities based on the God-Satan opposition, a phenomenon that Foucault in The Care of the Self describes as central to Christian thought in general. Meanwhile, Atwood’s depiction of an academic conference in the epilogue and her dedication of The Handmaid’s Tale to Perry Miller suggest that traditional modes of scholarship, with their dehumanizing insistence on single, authoritative versions of truth, work directly in complicity with the ideology of Puritanism. As Tomc puts it, Atwood is criticizing “not just the persistence of a puritan strain in modern American culture but a tradition of American studies that celebrates Puritan intransigence as quintessentially representative of the American spirit” (80). Here again Atwood echoes Foucault and his memorable declaration that he should not be expected to adhere to the rules of conventional scholarship because it is the job not of scholars but of “our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write” (Archaeology 17). This rejection of conventional morality as a guide for historical scholarship is very much in the spirit of Atwood’s academic satire in The Handmaid’s Tale, just as the dystopian carceral society of Atwood’s book corresponds closely to Foucault’s warnings about the increasing regimentation of modern life. The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on a critique of the attempts of religion-driven right-wing politicians in the United States to control the lives and bodies of women. But it is a rich and complex work that engages in dialogues with a number of issues, well beyond this central focus.
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