Tag Archives: novel

The Handmaid’s Tale: paranoid feminist nightmare?

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futuristic 1985 novel doesn’t seem to be her magnum opus as it is a relatively short obscure read that feels more like a fast write than a masterpiece. Dream-like, taking place primarily in the main character’s head, The Handmaid’s Tale is a surreal nightmare-become-reality for women in Gilead, the new martial law nation that is the United States’ predecessor after a violent coup.

But where the novel is obscure (yet powerful), the Hulu series is fully fleshed out, forceful, and eventually leaves June’s head to roam freely into other characters’ emotional territories, weaving in and out of their memories of what came before Gilead existed.

Central to the story is the fact that fertility has declined drastically all over the world due to pollution and other unknown factors, to the point where an extremist Christian sect sees it their duty to take over the U.S., subjugate its fertile women, and dictate every detail of its citizen’s lives through threat of death and torture. All in the name of Christianity and furthering humanity, and in the case of the series, reducing carbon emissions in a last gasp to save the planet.

In the political sense, the story is not necessarily anti-Christian – the extremist group could have been any religion – but it’s possible the creators of the series included the carbon emission issues in order to muddy the waters politically and make it harder to accuse them of a liberal bias. What is clear though, is that the series central emotional pull is female empowerment.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “A Woman’s Place” Episode 106 — (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

The men in The Handmaid’s Tale are clearly the winners of this violent overturning of the government. Women were involved, specifically the wives of the now-rulers, but were betrayed by the husbands who, by following the rigid standards of The Bible, have kicked them out of the decision making process. The wives now dress in dark green, are forcefully held in place by codes of conduct, and their only jobs are managing the households while the men come and go as they please.

And this is the crux of the story to me: that men don’t necessarily want the debauchery and depravity to end – they just want to control every aspect of it and dole out favors and privileges to those that prove their loyalty and accept (or at least seem to accept) their new lot in life.

The commander, June’s benefactor and hopefully the father of her baby if she manages to conceive, as that is the limit of her role in the world now, appears somewhat compassionate in his dealings with her, at least in private. But we soon see that he is reveling in his new powerful position. We also see that in his past life in regular old America, his wife was the powerhouse and intellectual in their relationship, writing books and even being taller and more imposing than he was/is.

Some may say The Handmaid’s Tale is a paranoid feminist nightmare. A feminist nightmare it definitely is, but perhaps “paranoid” is not the best word to describe it. Paranoia literally means “baseless or excessive suspicion” and in this case, women have been fighting for sovereignty over their own lives and reproductive decisions for as long as written history exists. Women may currently have more or less equal rights in the U.S. and other western countries but you can travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East and Africa and see women being subjugated right now. Vaginal circumcision is still common in many places. Saudi Arabia could be seen as a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale: women cannot exist in that society without a male guardian to give them permission for any public activities – they only recently were given they right to drive.

So paranoid fantasy The Handmaid’s Tale is not. Currently men are devising ways to limit reproductive freedom and curtail women’s decision making about their own bodies (and yes, women are devising right alongside them too, as in the series). Things are changing, yes, but all that is needed is a real or perceived threat to humanity, and extremism could be the law of the land. That’s what The Handmaid’s Tale warns against, and what a prescient admonition it is, as sensible a concern as it was in the 1980s.


Beautiful quotes from The Last Man

The Last Man by Mary ShelleyThe Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

As the last of the human race suffer:

“They were sad, but not hopeless.  Each thought that someone would be saved; each, with that pertinacious optimism, which to the last characterized our human nature, trusted that their beloved family would be the one preserved.”

And later,

“We have a power given us in any worst extremity, which props the else feeble mind of man, and enables us to endure the most savage tortures with a stillness of soul which in hours of happiness we could not have imagined.  A calm, more dreadful in truth than the tempest, allayed the wild beatings of my heart — a calm like that of the gamester, the suicide, and the murderer, when the last die is on the point of being cast — while the poisoned cup is at the lips, — as the death-blow is about to be given.”

And as the last man gazes upon the countryside:

“Yes, this is the earth; there is no change — no ruin — no rent made in her verdurous expanse; she continues to wheel round and round, with alternate night and day, through the sky, though man is not her adorner or inhabitant.”

Mary Shelley’s false messiah in The Last Man

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

I always wonder just what people believed and assumed in years past, most specifically in hundreds of years past.  And these quotes by Mary Shelley from The Last Man, one of the earliest science fiction novels, give me insight that there are always astute individuals in every age.

Centering around a plague that makes its deadly way to England, the few people left are torn between the calm, caring, patient leader who has brought them across the ocean in search of salvation, and the evil power-hungry charlatan who threatens eternal damnation and preaches that sickness is God’s punishment.

“It is a strange fact, but incontestible, that the philanthropist, who ardent in his desire to do good, who patient, reasonable, and gentle, yet disdains to use other argument than truth, has less influence over men’s minds, than he who, grasping and selfish, refuses not to adopt any means, nor awaken any passion, nor diffuse any falsehood, for the advancement of his cause.”

So relevant to our time!  (Donald Trump running for president)  I guess some things never change.


The Future as Metaphor (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin  (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinIn the last post I stated that Le Guin’s books are about differing perceptions of reality.  In the 1976 introduction of this book she writes that writers, thinking themselves truth-seekers, write down a bunch of lies, accompanied by scientific facts that make it seem more real, and put them out there as “the truth.”

In The Left Hand of Darkness, the beings (essentially humans but with a major difference) on the planet Gethen are androgynous, turning into males or females only a couple of days during their 26 day month.  Genly Ai, the narrator of the book, is a human who spends years on Gethan, and the book is a reporting of his experience.

Seeming to address my question of whether we should attribute statements made by a character in a book as opinions of the author, in the 1976 introduction she says that she is not saying that she is predicting that we will become androgynous, or that we should be androgynous, but that in a certain light we already seem to be so.

I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies

Fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor.  What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology…  Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another.  The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and [the main character of the book] would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

I strongly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness if you enjoy complexity of truth.