Dystopia and Realism, Some Notes on A Handmaid’s Tale

Dystopia and Realism, Some Notes on A Handmaid’s Tale

I don’t know why I love dystopian fiction; but it’s certainly not because of the politics. I’ve often thought that if I go back to teaching I’d love to design a class on dystopian literature, a sadly misunderstood genre. It seems most critics focus solely on mapping the political constructs of the dystopia to contemporary or historical politics while ignoring other themes. When the dystopia fails to map satisfactorily, unsophisticated readers either discard it as irrelevant or, worse, mock it as a failure. But I think it’s misguided to use dystopia as a roadmap to politics or to cling too tightly to politics as a key to understanding dystopian fiction. Dystopian fiction, at least that which is worth reading, is more profitably read for its critique of totalitarianism’s effect on the human spirit rather than as a critique of any particular political system.

Dystopia is a hot topic on social media at present as an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing on Hulu. I have not seen any adaptation for screen; but the novel was a favorite of mine when I was in college and when I reread it in the past few years I found that it hadn’t lost its appeal. However, I have been irritated by the claims that the novel is somehow particularly relevant to the current political situation. Most online discussions of it, including statements by Atwood herself, focus only on the political dimensions of the work, which fails to do it justice. The novel’s world is thick and rich with symbolism, but like a symbolist or surrealist painting, its primary value is perhaps not as a realistic portrait of the world as it is or even as it could be. It is much more rich and strange.

Authors are often the least able to have any distance from their work. Art is often much bigger than the creator and speaks much more than the author knows. Atwood might know what inspired her to write the book (though even that might be distorted as people often recreate memories after the fact and change the narrative) but in some ways that hinders her insight into the possible range of meanings for the range of possible readers. I find her present interpretation of the novel is much narrower than the book itself. Moreover, it a silly reading of contemporary political situation in the US which is really nothing at all like her fictional Gilead.

As William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it is only “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” that make fiction worth writing (and, I’d add, worth reading). It is “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” that are the universal truths without which any story is doomed. And although Atwood poses as if she is watching the end of man, I do not think it is truly so. I think she is witnessing to man’s indomitable nature, just as Faulkner describes: “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” The Handmaid’s Tale has no shortage of Faulkner’s list of virtues.

One frequent critique I’ve seen of The Handmaid’s Tale— perhaps an over-reaction to those who tout the novel’s timeliness— is that it’s not very realistic, by which I take it the commenter means they don’t think a society like the fictional Gilead could ever really happen. But the sort of realism that those commenters mean might be the last thing I want in a dystopia. I would much rather have a kind of moral realism. I’m not positive that I’d classify The Handmaid’s Tale as a work of moral realism— I’d really need to re-read it with that question in mind— but off the cuff I think it likely is.

Some critics claim that the novel is a poorly constructed attack on the Christian Right— poorly constructed because the Republic of Gilead is nothing at all like what any group of real Christians would create if they had the chance to create a totalitarian state. If you want to play the game of comparing fiction to reality, is there any dystopia which seems very convincing in the details of how the totalitarian society arises or how it maintains control? I can’t think of any. Be that as it may, that question really missed the point of dystopia. The starting point *for the author* might be a scathing critique of various groups or ideologies that the author dislikes or fears, but any work of art which is merely a diatribe will fall flat. I don’t think the society Atwood imagines is realistic at all, but I don’t think it’s really meant to be. It is not at all necessary that the society a dystopia imagines be a realistic mirror of any particular ideology or social movement. Only that it have a preponderance of elements that are recognizable and that the human motivations of the characters in the story seem consistent with what the reader knows of human nature. 

Moreover, the critics who seek to match Gilead with a Christian Right agenda and find it wanting ignore the historical reality that no society created by a violent military coup looks at all like the ideal of the creators but instead such a society appears to be a depraved version of that ideal. That is what happens with totalitarianism. Ideology and power warp the human person and distort what is good and noble and true. Of course a Christian fundamentalist theocracy would fail to resemble actual Christian ideals. Nor do I imagine that Marx would have been all that pleased with what Stalin and Mao wrought, you know? There are the idealists who dream up their perfect societies, and then there are the ruthless, power-hungry monsters who actually create the regimes. Dictators are usually much more interested in their own power than in the tenets of their supposed ideology and are using the ideology as a cloak for their naked self-interest. The kind of people who become ideologues and dictators are by definition not good Christians. Those who read Atwood’s novel as a failed critique of Christianity are either selling Atwood short or selling Christianity short or fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of dystopian fiction. 

All ideology by its very nature twists and distorts like a funhouse mirror. It is inherently inhuman. Marxism, for example, fails to account for original sin. It simply cannot imagine that after the revolution things won’t be better once the workers have control of the means of production. Because in Marxism’s understanding it is systems that are broken, not people. But, in fact, as Solzhenitsyn says,

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.” (Gulag Archipelago)

Only Christ can conquer evil once and for all. But when Christianity becomes ideology it distorts no less than atheist Marxism. It, too, is rooted in a false understanding of the world and paints a false picture of human nature, because true Christianity can never be reduced to an ideology. It must be rooted in a living relationship with Christ and in his Body, the Church. It must be rooted in liturgy and sacrament as well as in the living tradition both oral and written, in the Bible as well as in the writings of the saints and the teaching of the Popes and the bishops. If Atwood’s Gilead looks like a distorted, funhouse image of Christianity, that seems to me one of the more realistic elements rather than a reason to criticize the novel. But also I think the Gilead of the novel is a deliberate amalgam drawn from a wide variety of sources and is not so much a “what will be if we aren’t careful” or “what those guys would do to us if they had their way” as much as a “what could life be like if these conditions were met.”

Interestingly, Atwood imagines that the Gilead government hates Catholic priests and nuns as much as it hates feminists. I haven’t seen that mentioned in any of the Catholic critiques of the novel. It certainly suggests that Atwood is more nuanced than people give her credit for and does not at all see Christianity as a monolith. And most critics ignore Atwood’s own statements that part of her inspiration came from the early theocratic colonists of Massachusetts Bay. She’s also been fascinated with Islamic misogyny and other anti-women movements. So it’s hardly surprising that the Gilead of the novel doesn’t match up with the agenda of any contemporary political factions.

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    • Thanks for the correction. I suppose I should have looked it up, but since I had no intention of watching it I was going with what I remembered from seeing people talking about it.

      I hope you liked my essay.

      • I thought it was worth the read 🙂

        I reread the book recently.

        Gilead’s religion is based on the Old Testament. She takes what she sees as New England Puritanism, tosses Jesus out, then retains cold, Calvinist sternness. It really isn’t even a *Christian* fundamentalist theocracy, as they clearly found Jesus himself problematic. It’s a… I guess an distorted Abrahamism mixed in with what she sees as the social control exerted on colonists in the 1600s. It’s really more of a *political* fundamentalism than anything else–taking the Religious Right (in the 80’s) at their word that the Mayflower Compact was more important than the Constitution (which was floated (probably still is) by insular Dominionist types.) There is also *so much* Iran in the 80’s in that book, it’s sort of stunning. I think it’s very much, “Rousas Rushdoony uses Khomeini’s Iran as a blueprint, then loses control to more apt politicians.” The symbol Gilead uses isn’t the Cross. It’s an all-seeing eye. Jesus isn’t even in the picture; the government is.

        An aside: they have a prayer machine. It’s just one of the most entertaining, on-the-nose things I’ve read in ages–there is a machine set up on display, in a print shop, that continuously prints “soul scrolls.” They’re supposed to be prayers that the Wives call in, which are printed, then just recycled.

        I do really love her “The Penelopiad” as well.

  • Finally got the chance to sit down and read this and the followup post.

    Interesting points. As arguably one of the unfair dystopia critics, I think where my breakdown with the genre often comes with thinking of the worldbuilding itself as a part of the story telling, and wanting to see a sense of moral realism in that as well. I want the world to seem like it was constructed by real people making real choices (however wrongly.)

    Of course, I think a lot of “realistic” fiction falls short in this as well. A lot of war novels take it as read that the higher ups simply are both stupid and wicked, and that their actions do not need to be explained beyond that. A lot of historical novels I’ve read take it as a foundational assumption that religious and cultural practices are simply the result of powerful people wanting to oppress the vulnerable.

    Sometimes there’s a sense of moral realism in how the up-close actions of major characters are chosen, and yet the background is completely divorced from moral realism, and this tends to really bug me.

    However, I don’t know if this is a fair complaint against Handmaid’s Tale since I haven’t read it.

  • I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, either, but I did read another dystopian novel by Atwood: Oryx and Crake. The latter was an optional text in a paper I took in uni that covered dystopian literature and other kinds of satires. The required novels included Gulliver’s Travels, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Erewhon, and A Clockwork Orange. Which texts would you add in your own hypothetical course, Melanie?

    Oryx and Crake wasn’t particularly memorable for me, though. I recall getting in a heated (and therefore fun) discussion of a history-based computer game that two of the characters liked. In it, you get to trade great human achievements (say, the invention of the printing press) for terrible human atrocities (like the Holocaust), and see how civilization would have played out if we had had to lose both. And now that I think about it, the novel itself is set in the aftermath of a great atrocity that devastates civilization all over the world.

    • I did read Oryx and Crake and though there were things I liked about it, on the whole not one of my favorites, but I’d have to re-read it to decide if it would make the cut. On the whole, if I had to pick one Atwood, I’d go for Handmaid. It’s a much better novel.

      I haven’t read Erewhon or A Clockwork Orange. Though I did see the movie of the latter and afterwards tried halfheartedly to read the book. I didn’t get past the second or third page. That was a long time ago.

      The list is still a work in progress, but as of today I would definitely include Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Fahrenheit 451.

      • How could I have forgotten Fahrenheit 451? It was also a required novel in that paper! And now that you mention Neal Stephenson, another novel of his, Snow Crash, was a required text in another paper on futuristic (but not necessarily dystopian) literature!

        • I read Snow Crash as a teen and didn’t like it much. Probably didn’t understand it at all nor had any conceptual framework for it. I should really go back and re-read it now that I’ve got a lot more experience with Stephenson’s later work.