“If the United States were to have a totalitarianism, what kind of totalitarianism would it be?”
That's how Margaret Atwood explains the theme to her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale — the sales of which have skyrocketed since the 2016 presidential election. And April 26, the book finds home in a Hulu adaptation — a 10-part series, which, though planned before the election, finds particular resonance today.
Atwood’s story, which depicts a Christian dystopian regime in a future United States renamed Gilead, is being called “eerily timely” by television critics. In Gilead, people are stripped of their rights and forced into factions and roles based on their gender, class, and power status. Environmental pollution has rendered most women infertile, and those who are still able to bear children are conscripted into a form of sexual slavery as “handmaids” to powerful families, based on an extremist interpretation of the biblical account of Rachel and Bilhah.
Speaking to Sojourners about the nature of the type of theocratic regime she originally envisioned for America in her book, Atwood pointed out that it is not genuinely Christian so much as “purportedly Christian.”
“I don't consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity,” Atwood said. “ … and that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies. That would also be 'I was sick and you visited me not' and such and such … But they don't do that either. Neither do a lot of the people who fly under the Christian flag today. And that would include also concern for the environment, because you can't love your neighbor or even your enemy, unless you love your neighbor's oxygen, food, and water. You can't love your neighbor or your enemy if you're presuming policies that are going to cause those people to die.”
Sojourners spoke with Atwood about how the themes in her classic tale have found home with a new audience.
Layton Williams, Sojourners: [The Handmaid’s Tale] points both explicitly and implicitly to the way that various justice issues intersect. It obviously talks about gender justice and economics and religious freedom, and at least in the background, some questions about race. And it's very clear in your book that all of those various issues are connected to, not only one another, but especially to the environment. Could you say a bit more about how you see climate change and environmental justice as crucially connected to these other justice issues?
Atwood: OK, so when you destroy somebody's, when you degrade somebody's environment, you make them poorer. When you refuse to take steps to reverse climate change, you are therefore endorsing more floods, more famines, more extreme weather conditions, more droughts, and all of that is going to have an impact on the world food supply, particularly in areas that are already challenged. … So when you're impacting the food supply you're also impacting people's livelihoods and what is available to them. And you're also creating more unrest and wars. And I'm not the only person who says that. The Pentagon says it. It says climate change is one of the biggest threats to world peace. So I didn't make it up.
In short form — in really short form — if you kill the ocean, there goes our oxygen. So it'll be fine for trees. But we aren't trees. So I think all of those things are connected and what is also connected is: It's going to be up to major faiths to come to understand these things, because they actually have some leverage in their hands that could move the conversation.
Williams: And actually that's a great point that I did want to bring up. You alluded earlier to how groups purporting to be Christian, like in your novel, are not really a legitimate representation of Christianity. I'm wondering if you could say a bit more about how you believe faith can also be a force for good? And whether it can serve as a primary vehicle for justice?
Atwood: No question. I mean, early Christianity was egalitarian. And it was also very courageous because it underwent various persecutions, as you know, and so it also had its own underground. … Of course faith can be a force for good and often has been. So faith is a force for good particularly when people are feeling beleaguered and in need of hope. So you can have bad iterations and you can also have the iteration in which people have got too much power and then start abusing it. But that is human behavior, so you can't lay it down to religion. You can find the same in any power situation, such as politics or ideologies that purport to be atheist. Need I mention the former Soviet Union? So it is not a question of religion making people behave badly. It is a question of human beings getting power and then wanting more of it.
Williams: Right. And something that makes me think of is, in a broad sense, in The Handmaid's Tale, you see the destructiveness that can come from people being divided into groups and pitted against each other. I know you talk about this in some other places, but I think something that really comes out in the book — in particular in relation to women — the way that women can be each other's own best allies or worst enemies.
Atwood: … this is very much not just a thing that women do — it's a thing that people do. We just happen to be seeing it from the women's end, and of course such a regime would raise a group of controllers from among the group that they were wishing to control. And of course, it's also a way of keeping the women in question away from men. So what they get in return for all these rules that are placed upon them — they get safety from certain other kinds of things. They get "freedom from." They get three meals a day, Lord knows they get clothing, and they get shelter, and they get freedom from indiscriminate rape.
Williams: We were also thinking about recent conversations around the Women's March and after the Women's March about whether … there can be such a thing as "big-tent feminism"? I know that can be a loaded word, but specifically, space for the experiences of women of color and space for people with different views on abortion, etc. … The question is whether there can be room in feminism for the experiences of all women?
Atwood: Well, I think in theory there ought to be. But I know there's a lot of argument about it. Some people say unless you limit what you mean by that [word] then it's not going to mean anything. And other people say, "why should we be excluded because we have certain beliefs about these specific things?" So what you could point out about Christianity was some of the earliest people supporting it were women. And the reasons that they supported it as women was it made more room for them at that time. Supposing you believe in souls, women got to have souls too in the early days. And supposing you had some objections to slavery and those kinds of inequalities —Christianity made room for those people too. If not in this world, at least in the next. So there was a built in inclination, in the early days, towards including women. Notwithstanding St. Paul who came along later. Notwithstanding "Shut up in church" — thank you St. Paul. And notwithstanding St. Paul who said that women were at the root of original sin but that they could redeem themselves by having children, among other things he said.
So this conversation has been going on for a very long time.
Williams: There are people that identify in all these different ways and seemingly opposite ways who are huge fans of this book. And I'm just wondering if you have noticed that and why you think its appeal successfully transcends those ideological binaries?
Atwood: Well because I think it tries to show how it would be. And one of the ways that it would be is that when a group like that gets power they try to eliminate the competition. So they are not only mandating women's behavior, they're also getting rid of Baptists and Catholics. Because those are the competition. And that's what they would do. This is the Bolsheviks got rid of the Mensheviks, and if you follow the French Revolution, people kept shoving each other to more and more extremes and eliminating moderates.
So people who identify as sane religious people know that they would be in the crosshairs from this group because they would object to the kinds of things that were being done. They would object on religious grounds, among other things. I've had some pretty thoughtful letters from people over the years — I mean, from religious people over the years — and they understand that part. They understand the part about religious freedom and that a group like this would shut down religious freedom because they're not really interested in religion; they're interested in power. They're not interested in belief or in faith; they're interested in compliance and they're using religion as a way to get the compliance, because once you set up a state religion like that, no matter what you call it — even if you call it Maoism, anybody who doesn't agree with you is a heretic.
Williams: People are talking about the relevance of your book in our current moment and I think there are ways that that seems obvious, particularly related to faith, and ways that it doesn't. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit about, to the extent that we do find ourselves increasingly in a Gilead-esque world, what lessons do you hope your book can teach beyond the page in terms of ways that people can engage and act?
Atwood: Well they might try voting, just for starters. … I think one of the things that happened in the last 34 years is that people stopped — I mean too many people stopped taking religion seriously. And they stopped following the conversation, and that left a vacuum for other people to come in and kidnap that space, as it were. And [they] put in a number of ideas that are actually not very Christian. And are not very agreeable. How Christian is it to say that God is going to fry the world, but you're going to be up in a cloud watching? And then God will make you another one. … So how can people engage? Well I would say, pick a thing that's small enough that you can actually accomplish it. And not feel squashed flat like a bug because it's too much for you. So I limit my own engagement to a certain range of things, and other people can do kidneys and livers. Which are very seldom controversial.
Editor's Note: The original story attributed Gilead's basis for female sexual slavery to the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar. Well actually, in the novel, the use of handmaids is justified by the biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Bilhah.