A Night with Atwood

by Josh Britt and Corrin Coleman

In the second semester of my senior year of high school, I read my first Margaret Atwood novel. And when I say she blew my mind, I mean Atwood worked her way into my consciousness using her simultaneously lyrical and blunt prose to literally change the way I viewed the American ethos, the effects of patriarchal society on women, and the danger of blind allegiance to political or religious movements across the board.

Atwood’s most famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale, introduces a post apocalyptic, dystopian society, where a fascist, pseudo-Judeo-Christian regime has risen to power. Atwood eerily uses what’s left of the United States, Gilead, as a setting for the thrilling novel, and plays with the idea of blurring the lines between religion and politics, showing the dangers it can easily bring.

Now, having been born smack dab in the Bible Belt, and considering myself a believer and a follower of Christ, I was frankly skeptical when reading the Wikipedia description of the novel before the first assigned reading in class. But upon reading the first few pages, I became obsessed with the book. Atwood’s argument is not an attack on Christianity, or even religion in general. Atwood is simply critiquing the negative effects of any form of radical extremism.

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In the novel, due to the government being run by a Christian extremist regime (one which literally makes up it’s own scripture, and citizens just accept it as part of The Bible, simply because the government has told them so), women are completely stripped of any sort of autonomy or rights. If you were lucky enough to be married to one of the regime’s leaders before the overthrowing of the United States government, you have the privilege of being a Wife. If you are an infertile woman with domestic skills, you are designated a Martha (based on a twisted version of the Mary and Martha story in Luke). And if you are a fertile woman (a rarity in the post apocalyptic society), you are to act as a Handmaid, and bear children only to men of the upper class who can “afford” you.

With a few minor subclasses of women mixed in, Atwood uses this hyperbolic (although not unrealistic) situation to discuss the few “typical” or “acceptable” roles a woman is allowed to fill in today’s traditionally male-dominant society: the role of companion, the role of housekeeper, and the role of child bearer. While simultaneously addressing the classification of women in today’s society, Atwood also faces an issue which many women are guilty of today, the inability to empathize with each other, due to the seemingly different experiences of what “oppression” means. Gilead’s regime works only because the different classes of women are pit against one another, stripping them of their ability to work in cohesion, and possibly overthrow the fascist regime.

While recently speaking at the University of Alabama, Atwood stated that all the events transpiring in her collection of works (especially in The Handmaid’s Tale), have all happened before. And sometimes? The scenes of the novel are all too eerily similar to the scenes we see on the news even now, issues women are facing across the nation, and across the globe.

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In the wake of the current political climate, The Handmaid’s Tale is now seen through a different frame. While basic civil liberties and women’s rights issues are constantly attacked, and the rise of extremist groups make headlines across the country, many readers question if the story told in The Handmaid’s Tale is happening right now. Atwood is not quick to jump to these conclusions. She states, “I do believe in the resilience of the people of the United States. These people are not going to roll over once rights start getting taken away.”  However, she does reiterate the importance of voting. Often times our generation takes for granted the right to vote simply because we did not fight for that right.

However, that mentality has got to change, and soon. With the countless allegations against numerous men high up in government, and with the current shifting away from women’s rights, Atwood reminds us that change won’t happen until we make it happen. Until someone stands up and acts towards change, instead of actually talking about it, the backward slide will continue to run rampant in our country’s government, work force, and even in our homes. And eventually, we might even find ourselves in a similar situation to the Handmaids of Gilead.

Josh Britt