Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Oppression, pt II.

A reader (who admits he has not read the book) writes to say (in response to this blog) that what he sees in Atwood’s work is the “predictable, feminist slant, trying so hard to construct a scenario for which men can be excoriated as “oppressors” that it ignores entirely (and probably unconsciously) the fact that the “handmaids” are “oppressed” for the benefit of RULING-CLASS WOMEN.”

Well, this is a good lesson why one should not make observations about a book one has not read. How women oppress other women is actually a central theme in THT. Indeed, at every turn, what we see is that women are oppressed by the state. Not by a united front of men. Indeed, the Republic of Gilead is opposed from within my many men (who are themselves oppressed) and countless guerilla fighters in the hinterlands who are waging war against Gilead.

Here’s the problem people seem to have. Everyone wants a simple, morality-play of a novel where the good guys and bad guys are all broken out nicely into little groups. Men vs. women, straights vs. gays, feminists against Catholics, and so one. But that’s not the way the world works and that’s not the way this novel works.

If there is any dominant theme, it is that the means of coercion used by a police state against dissidents are abhorrent in the extreme, and that women can be a convenient scapegoat. (It’s not like there aren’t historical examples to support this assertion.) If Catholic readers want to be offended by something, let them be offened by the brutality of the regime, or the assaults on the God-given dignity of women. But sadly, that’s not what I see. They’re too busy wringing their hands over an occasional F-word.

The Catholic critics just want to hate Atwood, but if we look deeper, we see that in other works as well as this one, she seems to support numerous bourgeois and Christian values. So maybe simple labels are insufficient.

Atwood has in fact been condemned by many feminists for being anti-feminist. Why? Because she points out how women oppress women, and also because she has some of her heroines wanting to live bourgeois middle class married lives. Indeed, the world of Gilead is, like all totalitarian regimes, poised against the family, and against economic freedom.

So, the main character fantasizes about baking bread, buying pantyhose, and living a normal domestic life. Some feminists (but not all) hate that ideal. Indeed, the consumerism of the 20th century is held up in many ways as liberating by Atwood. Remember, it was destroying the economic freedom of women that was the first step in Gilead’s totalitarian agenda.

And, someone just drew my attention to Atwood’s other dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake. It looks like in this novel, the most prominent atrocities are genetic engineering, prostitution, and child pornography. Hmmm, doesn’t the Catholic Church condemn genetic engineering, prostitution, and child pornography as abhorrent? Does this make Atwood a Catholic now? Hardly, but it illustrates the problems with slapping down easly little answers and platitutudes about how THT is a “second rate novella” anf how Atwood is a radical “ultra feminist.” I see no evidense to support either conclusion.

White’s and Zuhlsdorf’s little tirades against THT smack of parochialism and is the sort of unsophisticated religious paranoid fear-mongering that Mencken would have had a field day with.


11:26 am on October 14, 2007