Reviewed by Kathleen A. Cameron, Justice Studies, Social Sciences Department, Pittsburg State University. Email: kcameron [at] pittstate.edu.
Imagine a society where a sign in red paint reads, “We warn against not wearing a headscarf and wearing makeup. Those who do not abide by this will be punished. God is our witness, we have notified you.” Imagine a society where women are tortured and killed for disobeying this law – a society where religious beliefs, the political structure, and female sexual identity are so intertwined as to justify and require the control of women’s freedom, the sexual victimization of women, and the torture and murder of women who do not comply. Imagine a society where a woman is accused by religious police of being a witch and is sentenced to death by beheading.
Margaret Atwood imagines this society in her futuristic, dystopian novel, THE HANDMAID’S TALE. While the excerpt above is a non-fictional description of present-day Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Atwood’s vision of a fictional theocratic regime that reduces the value of women to reproductive commodities is a disturbingly accurate account of the status of women in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and is in many ways reflected in political, legal, and cultural doctrines, ideologies, and practices in the U.S.
Numerous reviews of this most profound and telling work by Atwood have been written since its publication in 1986. Written in a similar vein to Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD (1932), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1962), but with the mysogynistic focus of Piercy’s WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME (1976), it is one of the two most popular Atwood works for use in university classrooms (along with Atwood’s SURFACING (1972)). Rich with symbolism and textured with irony, it relies on a feminist methodology of the narrative, the primary way individuals make sense of experience. As such, it provides an ideal source for generating dialogue, teaching, and learning in courses that have typically included courses in the humanities and social sciences. This review illustrates the use of this work in a course on Women, Crime and Justice, and includes a student paper excerpt in the brief summary of THE HANDMAID’S TALE that follows. The student contributor to the summary below writes, “I am finding The Handmaid’s Tale to be a heart-breaking, yet inspiring novel… I could not stop reading.” Adaptations include a film, an opera, and an unabridged audio book.
The story is set in the futuristic United States of America in the fictional town of Gilead, a puritanical society in which dress codes are used as a way to subjugate women. The tale opens with the narrator, Offred (Of-Fred) remembering a time when she was held against her will in an old gymnasium, [*299] known as the Red Center. Women here are trained to become Handmaids, surrogate mothers for powerful military families, who are ordered to wear red dresses with white veils to signify their importance to the cause (having the Commanders’ children). Gilead is a theocracy run by Christian extremists in which women are not allowed to hold jobs, read, or use money. The chief function of women is to bear children since the decline in the birth rate. Women of lower status, the “econowives” wear striped dresses to signify that their husbands are not yet Commanders.
Throughout the novel, Offred narrates from remembering past times to the present. She is a Handmaid who lives in a Commander’s house but she remembers a time when she was married to a man named Luke and they had a child together. Offred has no idea what happened to either her child or Luke, but she recalls that her child was taken from her because she was deemed “unfit.” In the new world of Gilead (once the United States), the Constitution has been suspended and a Christian theocracy has replaced a democratic government. To address the declining birth rate caused by pollution and chemical poisoning, the government has created Handmaids who are placed in the households of Commanders whose wives can no longer bear children. Handmaids are under constant surveillance, subject to strict rules and regulations, and suffer extreme punishment or death if they defy the Gileadean regime.
While words such as “engaging,” “well-structured,” and “suspenseful” have been used to describe the work, THE HANDMAID’S TALE offers a myriad of themes for pedagogy much more profound than its value as a compelling read and its use in discussions of literature and creative writing. More specifically, the work lends itself to an examination of the politics of female sexuality as inextricably linked to female criminality. As the tale unravels, the boundaries between Atwood’s fictional characters of Gilead and the historical oppression and subjugation of women in the U.S. and the world become increasingly blurred. Students are given the opportunity to uncover ways in which political ideologies have given rise to structures of power that connect the personal to the political. The practices and beliefs in the fictional Republic of Gilead can be used to expose the roots of a non-fictional political campaign to control women that can be seen as early as the 15th century in Europe, when control of women’s reproductive issues and control over women’s bodies fueled a theocratic movement against women as the Roman Catholic church defined their healing practices as the crime of “witchcraft” and led to beliefs that female sexuality was the downfall of man.
This theme of woman as the “sexual temptress” is brought to light once again in the current political regime in Saudi Arabia. In today’s news, where a Saudi woman has been sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft, the color red has been banned as testament that, in the words of one Atwood reviewer, “dehumanization of women is not just a custom but actually the law.” In THE HANDMAID’S TALE, we see the symbolism of the color red. As one student explains, “Red is a scandalous, racy color, defining the Handmaids as such. Everything associated with the [*300] Handmaids is red.” The novel’s protagonist, Offred, states, “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us.” (Atwood, p. 8) Atwood uses the symbology of color to represent social status (Commanders dress in black and drive black cars) for characters as well as the political structure of the society (“ Red Center ”).
The seamless blend of political power, ideological structures, and criminal justice practices is artistically woven into the tapestry of Atwood’s social commentary on the oppression of women. Throughout the novel’s fabric, we find threads of the objectification of women in the control of female sexuality; the value of women defined by reproduction; the victim/criminal continuum and the politics of female victimization and female criminality; the female criminality link to structural dislocation; and the feminist methodology of personal voice, experience, and the power of the narrative.
Any crime can result in an execution and a public hanging on “The Wall,” but just being female is suspect enough. Atwood resists painting a picture of Offred as a victim; on the contrary, Offred is intelligent, courageous, and defiant in the face of her life under siege. Ironically, when it is more common for survivors of sexual crimes and political torture to remain silent, it is Offred’s narrative that empowers the reader to champion her eventual uprising against the family and government that hold her captive. While rape survivors and other women who are victims of crimes of power often find it difficult to talk about their experiences and resist naming them, it is precisely her narrative and the naming of her world that carries Offred to rise above the Giladean regime. The political identity that has been inflicted upon her is ultimately unable to destroy her personal identity and she emerges as a heroine rather than a Handmaid.
As a pedagogical palette, THE HANDMAID’S TALE is rich in possibilities for analyzing the intersection between crimes against women, crimes by women, and the politics of female sexuality. In this tenth anniversary year of “The Vagina Monologues” and the V-Day movement to end violence against women, we read news accounts daily such as those described in the opening statements of this review -- Iraqi women being tortured and killed for contradicting the requirements of Islam demanding that women cover their heads and Saudi women being executed by political regimes in the name of religion. As a feminist pedagogy and methodology, the power of giving voice to women and naming personal experience is the power of THE HANDMAID’S TALE.