No, 'The Handmaid’s Tale' Is Not 'Unexpectedly Timely'
We are all necessarily prisoners of our own place and time, and thus, I was in my youth necessarily a fan of "The Handmaid’s Tale." I read it; I discussed it very earnestly with like-minded friends; I copied author Margaret Atwood’s muted style and dystopian preoccupations in my own, less competent fiction.
But that youth has fled, alas; it has been two decades since I last waxed indignant about the drinking age, or picked up my copy of the book. Even that copy -- paperback, dogeared and waterstained and threatening to come apart at the spine -- has been left behind somewhere, presumably the same place I lost my velvet chokers and my Suzanne Vega CDs.
However, a new television show has been made out of the book, and is attracting rave reviews, less for its acting, script, or stunning visuals than for its “unexpectedly timely” message.
Whatever future we should fear Donald Trump will usher in, it will bear precious little resemblance to Atwood’s Gilead.
But people keep saying the TV adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" is "unexpectedly timely" in this age. Perhaps I had forgotten some Trumpian intimations from the text. So I reread the book again. 1 To try to get as close to the original experience as possible, I listened to Suzanne Vega on Spotify. Alas, my household does not contain anything that may safely substitute for a velvet choker.
After completing a rereading, I am interested to see the show. But I am, if anything, even more stunned that anyone thinks it is particularly timely in the era of Trump. It is as if someone had read “Brave New World,, gone to modern Pyongyang, and shouted: “You see! This is just what Huxley was warning about!” Um. Not really….
My quarrel is not with the politics of "The Handmaid's Tale," nor with its realism. Expecting plausibility from dystopian fiction is like expecting haute cuisine from a highway service area. Of the dystopian fiction I’ve read, only "1984" comes even remotely close to feeling real, and that’s because Orwell was working from two vivid contemporaneous examples, from which he lifted freely.
Fictional dystopia is sort of the photonegative of the movies produced by actual totalitarian regimes. Masses of people wearing identical creepy clothes, forming into precise lines, chanting the same things. Yes, in regimes like North Korea and Hitler’s Germany, those mass rallies occurred. The men marched and the girls danced in eerily infinite lines. But afterward, most of them went home to the banal, the ordinary, and the familiar -- altered by political fear and economic shortages, but not wholly transformed into something unrecognizably inhuman.
In interviews since its publication, Atwood has emphasized that all the details in the book were based on things that really happened in the world (or at least, are recounted in tales; the “handmaids” of the book, concubines given to elite men of Gilead’s theocracy in order to bear them the children their barren wives could not, is based on the story of Rachel and Jacob in the Book of Genesis). One sees the historical referents when reading, and yet the entire effect is completely unrealistic, because she’s drawn details from too many oppressive regimes and collaged them all together. Thus a regime that is clearly supposed to be some sort of fundamentalist Protestant theocracy is enthusiastically adopting extramarital sex, infanticide and Tibetan prayer wheels. This makes for some dramatic imagery, but not for what Mary McCarthy, in her review of the book, called “the essential element of a cautionary tale”: “…recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock.” Dystopian regimes in real life have common features, yes, but they are not actually interchangeable; indeed, they are surprisingly specific.
Reading accounts of those actual regimes, I’m always surprised at how culturally embedded they remained, even as they proclaimed that they were enacting a new world order in which everything would be different.
People still got married and settled into family domesticity under communist regimes that were supposed to be sweeping away all the vestiges of private lives in favor of creating “new Soviet man” or his many cousins; people in theocratic states still had considerable variance in the level of religious observance; theoretically internationalist ideologies fell back on nationalist sentiment to motivate the masses. All of which is to say: The Taliban certainly existed, but it could not exist in America, because it would have no popular base from which to launch its attacks, no historic practice of burqa-wearing to ratify bringing them back.
Nor could such a movement gain power here along the lines that Atwood outlines. I’ve seen her praised for actually thinking through the mechanism by which her fictional state might emerge, and kudos for the effort, but we must also acknowledge that, as written, it doesn’t really make all that much sense. The inciting event is a lightly fictionalized version of the Reichstag fire, but a careful student of history would note that a decade after the Reichstag fire, most of German society still looked pretty much like it had in 1925. No, I’m not excusing Nazi atrocities in any way shape or form, nor discounting the sweeping changes that Hitler did make. But they didn’t gut-renovate the economy, wipe out all religions that competed with the state, and completely reorganize society in the space of a few years; they left much of the economy and the culture alone. For structural reasons -- she needs her handmaid to remember the world before as an adult, and yet still be young enough to be fertile -- Atwood needs changes that are both unrealistically sweeping and ludicrously fast. She is not illustrating how Trump will transform America.
America hasn’t had a unified theocratic tradition since the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the descendants of those Puritans are now pouring their fervent moralism into buying Priuses and complaining about Trump. The closest modern equivalent, the statewide hegemony of the Latter-day Saints in Utah, doesn’t look very much like The Handmaid’s Tale, and hasn’t the faintest prayer of co-opting the rest of the nation’s fractured religious traditionalists, many of whom do not even consider the Mormons to be Christian. And even if some movement did, somehow, gather a Mormon-like critical mass, Trump is hardly likely to be its avatar; our most religious red state was also the one where Trump had the greatest trouble.
But these are, as I say, not necessarily flaws with the novel; dystopia’s job is to illustrate the conflict between the individual and society by heightening it into its starkest contrast, not to paint it in photorealistic fashion. However, if one can forgive a speculative novelist for taking great liberties with reality, one cannot offer the same to gushing critics who are now arguing that Trump’s election has somehow made the story more relevant.
First, these critics seem to have failed to notice that Trump has been unable to usher in even the far more limited changes he promised, such as dramatically restricting immigration, reshaping NATO, and bringing foreign governments to heel. He hasn’t got control of Congress, or the courts, and has nothing like the mass movements behind him that brought other dystopian governments to power, whether fascist, communist or theocratic.
Moreover, even such a mass movement is not necessarily enough. Think of the most famous examples of these sorts of regimes: Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, the Khmer Rouge, the Taliban. Those revolutions were born out of catastrophe, either colonialism or war. They moved into power vacuums as weak institutions were failing. Bad as our current political moment is, “congressional gridlock” and “declining wages for unskilled men” are not in the same class as the disasters that launched the careers of history’s worst tyrants.
Meanwhile, the culture is moving the other way. Women are gaining more economic power relative to men; the nation is becoming less religious. "The Handmaid’s Tale" is becoming less plausible a future with each passing year, no matter how hard feminists insist that there is only a brief and slippery slope between overturning Roe v. Wade and forcing women into state-sanctioned breeding programs.
Does it matter that this misogynistic theocracy is not on the rise? Does it matter that whatever dark future Trump may presage will be quite different from the one on the television? Yes, I think it does.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying implausibilities on a screen or page. But there is something very wrong with hysterically declaring that those things are reality. That risks confusion so we will not notice the real dystopia rising -- or the rest of the world will be too tired of our cries to hear any warnings we shout.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
I should say that upon rereading, I found The Handmaid’s Tale somewhat diminished, as often happens with the “serious” books we loved at a tender age. (Somehow, children’s books do not suffer this depreciation; in some ways I enjoy the Oz books and Narnia more than I did at 10.) Margaret Atwood’s sentences are beautiful, her grasp of interior monologue sharp. But it is a book about the tedium of a passive life under oppression, and she has captured her subject too well. When you know what is going to happen, the tension that animated early reading is gone, and it was something of a chore to plow through the acres of wan character sketches and fallow meditation that lie between the sparse moments of action.
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