The Handmaid’s Tale

Western civilization has been influenced by Aristotle’s vision of the world for centuries.  In short, God had structured all matters of life in a sort of hierarchy were  God was at the top of the ladder while right under him there were the angels and human beings. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order. Everything and everybody had they exact place and , according to this perfect organization, women ranked right after men. Women were meant for reproduction after all, and apparently,  this was believed to be their main task  as all the other more important matters concerned men only. Therefore, man’s place was the world, while women had to remain confined in their houses.

This patriarchal vision of society was the consequence the divine vision of the world and for this reason  it was regarded to be primary duty of men to tell the subordinate gender what was right or wrong and to behave accordingly. Men have accurately controlled their education over the centuries focusing a woman’s training mostly on her accomplishments: sewing,  playing , dancing, drawing etc.…. still, when we get to the nineteenth century, the running of a house and family was everything that should matter to a woman. This scheme started to crack during WW1, when women replaced men at work while they were at the front. Women started to earn their own living, to gain independence and have access to a broader education. When the war was over, the taste of freedom had been too sweet and exciting to go back to home seclusion, furthermore, with independence the right to vote had arrived. The door house was now wide open and the world tantalizing.

Hence, women had eventually rebelled to what had been designed for them by God himself but, can all this be without consequences? As I said before, it is incontrovertible that we have a reproductive biological function, but it is likewise incontrovertible that the women that belong to the more advanced and wealthiest part of the world make less children. My great grandmother had six children, my grandmother four, my mother just me and I chose to have none. If this is the trend, we are doomed to extinction. Hence, if we want to keep stuck to the metaphor of God’s hierarchy, the world is out joint, as Hamlet would say, what if a totalitarian theonomic state would form to set things right? Would it be so impossible?

This what “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a dystopian novel by Canadia authoress Margaret Atwood, is about. We are in a not too distant but nightmarish future: a radioactive disaster has devastated the Earth and the wars that have followed have changed the face of states and governments. In the United Stares, a theocratic sect, called the “Sons of Jacob”, has come to power and has upset the social order. In this new Republic of Gilead, as it is now called, it is possible to confess only one religion, the one decided by the state, and absolute power is in the hands of the Commanders. Below them, the Angels are the armed militia, the secret agents called the Eyes, while the men of lower social class are employed for the humblest jobs. But , where are the women?

Women are completely subservient to man – again -, and according to a rigid and aberrant interpretation of the the Holy Scriptures, they are considered useful only if the are able to procreate. Deprived of any kind of freedom, access to their goods, the possibility of receiving an education, women are divided into different categories: among these, the “Handmaids” are those who, being fertile, are used for the purpose to father the children of the Commanders.

All women of Gilead are classed socially and follow a strict dress code: the Commanders’ Wives in blue; the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces; the Aunts (who train the Handmaids in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids) in green; Econowives ( the wives of lower-ranking men) in blue, red and green stripes; young, unmarries girls in white; widows in black. Some women are sent to work as prostitutes in brothels called Jezabel.

The novel is told from the point of view of June, now called Offred, a Handmaid. Before the coup that brought the Commanders to power, the girl led a normal life: she had a job and lived with Luke, with whom she had a daughter. But when the Republic of Gilead is founded, her life is completely turned upside down: she loses her job – women in fact cannot work -, her bank account is cleared and she is persecuted as an immoral woman, because Luke and she are not married.

The two then try to flee to Canada with the child, but are captured: the child is given up for adoption, Luke disappears and the girl is transformed into a Handmaid, thus taking the name of Offred. In fact, the maids do not even have the right to their own name; since the only purpose of their existence is to generate children on behalf of the Commander to whom they belong, they take their name: “Offred” stands for “Fred’s”, the name of the Commander to whom the girl is enslaved. So now Offred is nothing but an object in the Commander’s hands.

Atwood says she wrote the novel in 1984 when she was in East Berlin, and that she was inspired by seventeenth-century American puritanism. So the crazy drifts described in the work are certainly the result of invention, but certainly the atmosphere of the Iron Curtain and the religious radicalism, real and historical facts, contributed to the genesis of the novel. In fact, as the writer explains, “every totalitarian regime does nothing but exasperate trends already present in society to consolidate its power”.

This is perhaps why the story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a truly disturbing, even if engaging whether one decides to read the book or watch the series. What is disturbing is that, in the midst of the inventions typical of a science fiction novel, you always feel that there is something potentially close to us, from misogyny to attempts to control the woman’s body. Atwood says, in fact: “My rule was that I would not include events in the book that had not already occurred in what James Joyce called “the nightmare of history”: nor any technology that was not already available, no imaginary law, no atrocity that was not already been committed. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil. “