There Is A Balm In Gilead: Musings on The Handmaid’s Tale

Unlike a lot of men in this movement, I attended high school quite a long time ago. It seems like a distant, fleeting memory to me. I do not remember a lot of the football games I attended. I do not remember all of the girls I dated. I do not remember many of the classes.

But, I do remember the books I read. Some of these books I have kept, surviving the onslaught of marriage, moving, and children. And even if I do not have copies of these books, many of the tomes of my young manhood have branded something upon my heart. It was Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that taught me how important art and aesthetics are in liberating the human being. Shakespeare’s Hamlet instructed me that “…above all, to thine own self be true. (Act I, Scene 3)” Everything else don’t mean shit. We even touched upon the works of Classical antiquity that would become so important to me later on. The Platonic Discourses introduced how to construct arguments in the face of ignorance, and Homer’s Odyssey impressed upon me the importance of home.

In all of these works of great literature spanning the history of Western civilization, I would ask my instructor one question today: How in the hell did Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale enter into our curriculum?

I remember sitting in class my sophomore year the day they introduced it to us as we were moving into the genre of dystopian fiction. We had just finished Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four,  a novel I consider, to this day, to be one of my favorites. I liked dystopian fiction and was excited to rush into what I thought would be an exciting novel.

Published in 1985 during the Reagan years when Republicans joined Evangelicals in a conservative détenteThe Handmaid’s Tale follows the story of Offred, a “handmaid” whose duty it is to bear children. Her narrated story takes place in a not-so-distant future where Christian Evangelical Theonomists have taken over what is today the United States of America, transforming it into the Republic of Gilead. A staged attack kills the President and most of Congress. This leaves the “Sons of Jacob,” a right-wing Christian Evangelical group to take control of the government. They suspend the Constitution in the name of public safety, take over most Christian groups while outlawing some (like Catholics) and soon suspend rights for women. While a lot of the back story is convoluted, leaving you to believe that Offred is just an unreliable narrator, I blame the author. You can probably deduce by now that Atwood has a childish view of the American political system (she’s Canadian, by the way).

Women are not allowed gainful employment, read, or to operate bank accounts. We also know from the back story that a series of radiological events caused either by wars or accidents have taken its toll on humanity. Compounded with ecological damage thanks to modernity and non-organic farming thanks to BigAg, most women have been rendered infertile. In fact, only a fraction of women left on Earth can carry a baby to term.

To solve this population crisis and to save the human race, the Republic of Gilead institutes a highly regimented caste system with women. Wives, known by their blue dresses, are married to bureaucratic members and top brass of the Republic. Most of them are not fertile. Aunts, dressed in brown, are infertile women who train women, specifically Handmaids. They are the only women who are allowed to read and carry weapons, usually in the form of cattle prods. Marthas, dressed in green, are responsible for domestic duties (named after St. Martha, a disciple of Christ). Handmaids are women who are fertile and bear children for Wives who cannot have children. They have ritualistic sex with the men who they are assigned to.

Now, most of you are probably thinking: fun sexytime! Well, the ritual is based out of the Old Testament, Genesis Chapter 30 to be specific. The ritual alludes to the situation of Jacob and his infertile second wife, Rachel. Rachel demands that Jacob give her a child, “lest she die.” Jacob, angry with his wife, explains to her that he’s not God and can’t quicken her womb. So Rachel gives Jacob permission to “go unto her handmaid, Bilhah.” In the book, the ritual is pretty milquetoast when it comes to sex. The handmaid places her head on the womb of the wife while the man enters her, usually with her dress hiked up. It is probably the most clinical form of insemination I’ve ever read in literature next to a technical manual on horse breeding.

But as I, a young man in class, was digesting this, I looked around at my classmates who shook their head and proclaimed this as awful. Girls denounced it as rape. My male peers proclaimed it unfair.

I raised my hand.

“To be fair to the Republic, they are only trying to keep humanity going.”

You would have thought that I ate a baby right there in front of everyone with the way they were looking at me. The discussion in class later devolved into a basic, simple principle: a woman’s “right” will always trump the needs of civilization. Later on I realized that concepts of sacrifice and duty don’t really matter to feminists. After all, that is the realm of men.

And even now, after all these years, The Handmaid’s Tale haunts me. After the late eighties, the book pretty much was forgotten with the exception of being used by high school teachers to spread liberal feminist ideology. In 1990 a film came out based on the novel starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall. It was a box office flop, Ebert gave it two out of four stars, and most critics consider it worse than a B-movie. In spite of the bad reviews, the film is very true to the novel, which tells you something about its quality.

But now, the novel has gained a new popularity. With the rise of Trump and the Pussy Hat movement, Hulu has produced a series based on the book, with the same title. It stars Elizabeth Moss as Offred (nota bene: Elizabeth Moss is a Scientologist in real life. She disbelieves in Christ but believes that millions of years ago, a galactic dictator named Xenu blew up aliens in volcanoes here on Earth. This is a religion that locks away dissenting members in Hemet, California on their desert compound. I don’t know of any Calvinist or Christian church that does that in the United States today). It has received rave reviews by critics and has become a cult favorite with the Pussy Hats, who along with Margaret Atwood, compare the Republic of Gilead with the Trump Administration.

Now, let’s follow this gynecological logic train, shall we?

Trump is being associated with Christian Theonomists. I do not know how that is remotely possible or what drug you have to take to make you that delusional. When I think of Calvinist Theonomists like Rushdoony, Trump doesn’t come to mind. President Trump is a nominal cultural Christian, if even that. The man has said in the past that he doesn’t even pray or ask God for forgiveness. But as Reagan was the specter of progressive liberals, Trump now embodies everything that they fear – white, rich, powerful, and above all, masculine.

And we all know that Liberals over-dramatize more than Italian opera.

But I think there is something that the Theonomists in The Handmaid’s Tale get right. All of the ecological, radiological, and havoc waged by war on the United States is a spiritual problem. The Republic of Gilead states in the novel that the US got its just desserts because it turned away from God, spurned the Gospel, thumbed their noses at stewardship of the land by poisoning it, and killed its young in the name of convenience and liberty.

Man thinks he is free. But in reality he is ever dependent on everything that flows from the grace of God.

I stand with Thomas Jefferson and his quote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Atwood claims that America is closer to becoming the Republic of Gilead now than ever before thanks to the Republican majority. I say, “If only.”

Season 2 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 25, 2018.

-By Southern Comfort

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