The Handmaid’s Tale has been a runaway hit as a TV series (which I have not watched) so I was curious to review the book which was the inspiration behind it. Margaret Atwood’s novel is the story of Offred, a woman who is assigned the position of handmaid in a dystopian society formed in a twisted imitation of the social order in Genesis. Offred narrates a series of fragmented snippets of life in the Republic of Gilead. I believe the popularity of the novel is due to Offred’s independent spirit which refuses to completely believe in or accept the twisted world in which she lives. Although I too admired Offred’s resistance against a clearly convoluted way of life, I found the book overall to have several extremely troublesome aspects which Catholic readers might want to consider before perusing it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is in essence a story about forced prostitution and adultery. There is only the slightest element of choice in Offred’s situation as a consort to a married Commander. Her alternative was to die cleaning up toxic waste, and any protest about her position will result in immediate execution.
Sexual content includes various descriptions of Offred’s lust for nearly every man she meets from the guards to the chauffeur to her husband. She repeatedly justifies this lust as a natural result of sexual repression. She enjoys teasing the guards because they “have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege.” The novel implies that the lack of access to porn and prostitutes is actually a negative for society. Other content includes descriptions of adultery, sex with two women, fornication, and masturbation.
I think some of the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale is a result of the “glamour of evil.” Most people are repelled and sickened by Offred’s situation, but there is a sort of fascination with the depravity of the situation that leads the reader on. If we stop and think for a moment, what good will come of reading this fictitious account of a sick world?
SMIRCHING TRADITIONAL VALUES
Most of my concern about The Handmaid’s Tale is aimed at its subtle attempts to besmirch. For example, there are several digs at traditional values such as when Offred describes her room:
“There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch the like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?”
Do you see the association that is made cognitively? Traditional values equal dissatisfaction. Along the same lines, Offred is miserable when she loses her job when the Republic is first being set up. She feels unfulfilled and aimless staying at home, and resents relying on her husband to take care of her and earn the family’s income.
STABS AT CATHOLIC BELIEFS
Another area that The Handmaid’s Tale attempts to do a smear job on is a variety of Catholic terms and concepts. There are several pokes at nuns. Offred describes her dismal life as similar to a convent: “Time here is measured by bells, as once in nunneries. As in a nunnery too, there are few mirrors.” Later, she explains: “Some people call [dresses] habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break.”
Another stab is taken at saints, comparing the twisted Aunts who are in charge of the handmaids with them.
“Aunt Lydia did not actually say this, but it was implicit in everything she did say. It hovered over her head, like the golden mottoes over the saints, of the darker ages. Like them too, she was angular and without flesh.”
There are a couple uncomplimentary references to chalices, associating them with emptiness and the Handmaid position. Offred describes herself: “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” At another time, she says:
“The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.”
Then, of course, there is the very word “Handmaid” itself. One of our titles of Mary is, of course, “Handmaid of the Lord.” This book is certainly going to give the reader a bad taste about that title. Another Marian reference is the choice of “Blessed by the fruit” as the accepted greeting for this dreadful society.
Indulgences and rote prayers like the rosary also get attention. Soul Scrolls, nicknamed Holy Rollers, are machines that print and read endless renditions of certain prayers. People buy a certain number of renditions of a prayer as a “sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime.” Offred describes the noise of the soulless machines: “You can’t hear the voices from outside; only a murmur, a hum, like a devout crowd on its knees.”
BAD TASTE ABOUT THE BIBLE
Yes, I realize that the book admits to presenting a twisted version of the Bible. However. How many people are familiar enough with the Bible to tell what is distorted and what is spot on? And overall, how many negative cognitive associations does this book create?
To name a few instances of Biblical references being woven in. Servants are called “marthas.” Handmaids can be struck, because “there’s a Scriptural precedence.” All the shops are references to Bible verses. Lilies of the Field. Milk and Honey. All Flesh. Offred says: “You can get dried-up rolls and wizened doughnuts at Daily Bread.”
The “Aunts,” who are the indoctrinators and managers of the handmaids, use Bible verses liberally in their indoctrination.
“Hair must be long but covered. Aunt Lydia said: Saint Paul said it’s either that or a close shave.”
“If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek.”
“Aunt Lydia thought she was very good at feeling for other people. Try to pity them. Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Again the tremulous smile, of a beggar, the weak-eyed blinking, the gaze upwards, through the round steel-rimmed glasses, towards the back of the classroom, as if the green-painted plaster ceiling were opening and God on a cloud of Pink Pearl face powder were coming down through the wires and sprinkler plumbing.”
“For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. … Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when.”
“From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert.”
But not all the Biblical references come from the evil Aunts. I love the Book of Job, so I particularly resented this entry of Offred’s which formed some subtle negative associations with it:
“It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats. The Book of Job.”
Another memorable convolution of Offred’s was equating the Incarnation with falling in and out of love:
“The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh. And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past.”
I think The Handmaid’s Tale has an agenda here: to create a subconscious recoiling from Biblical references. To contaminate God’s word by association with such despicable characters.
A few broad statements here about The Handmaid’s Tale depiction of people of various genders. Men are drawn as power-hungry, overbearing, and hypocritical. Most women are weak followers or brainwashed zealots. So who is the reader supposed to admire in this novel? Moira.
Who is Moira? Moira is Offred’s best friend, a spirited, courageous woman who resists the regime. She becomes a veritable legend by successfully escaping the “Red Center” where the handmaids are processed. Offred describes her as “daring and spectacular.”
Moira is also a very outspoken lesbian. I am not saying there is anything inharmonious about a lesbian being courageous and spectacular. But I am saying that the single admirable character in The Handmaid’s Tale being a lesbian indicates an agenda to normalize and even create favorable views of homosexuals.
DEHUMANIZATION OF DISABLED CHILDREN
I believe another hidden agenda in The Handmaid’s Tale is to shore up the fiction that a disabled or genetically abnormal baby is not even a person. In The Handmaid’s Tale, sterility and infertility are rife, and many of the children born have birth defects. The term “unbaby” is used for children who are born disabled or disfigured. Offred speculates about a fellow pregnant handmaid:
“What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, as we all hope? Or something else, an unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet? There’s no telling.”
She later implies that the “unbabies” are killed. Does having a hole in the heart, or no arms, or disfigured hands, make a baby not a person? Of course not!
There is an implication that nothing can be done about disposing of the “unbabies” before birth because abortion is illegal. And the assumption is definitely that this lack of access to abortion is a negative, since these “unbabies” are not persons.
TWISTED DESCRIPTION OF WHAT A CHRISTIAN WORLD WOULD BE LIKE
I have read other Catholic reviews which claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is pro-Catholic. Sure, there are a few token mentions of priests or nuns being persecuted too. But much more prevalent is a litany of atrocities committed with a facade of religious fervor. Abortionists murdered as war criminals. The old sent off to “colonies” to a slow death cleaning up toxic waste. The entire concept of the Handmaid system with its adultery and perverted sex.
What are the key words the reader will walk away association with religious people in authority positions? Intolerance. Hypocrisy. Totalitarianism.
The whole premise of the Republic of Gilead is deeply troubling. It feeds liberal frenzy that right-wing and fundamentalist Christians are unbalanced zealots who need to be placed on terrorist watch lists. Would any true Christian seize control of the American government by massacring millions? Can you imagine if this book had been set in, say, an enforced Islamic society? Would it still be popular?
The Handmaid’s Tale has received so much exposure lately due to the TV series. In our secular post-Christian society, unfortunately this may be the most exposure many people have to the Bible and Christian values. For a well-catechized Catholic, reading this book is an exercise in detecting subtle propaganda and devious. But for the average person, this novel will imbue a deep distaste for many Bible verses and Catholic symbols and figures. Add to this the homosexual agenda and dehumanization of the disabled, and my conclusion is that this novel is not worthwhile reading.