Margaret Atwood dedicated her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Mary Webster – “Half-Hanged Mary”. Webster was hanged from a tree for witchcraft in 17th century Puritan New England, yet – remarkably – survived overnight, was cut down, and subsequently lived on for another fourteen years.
Atwood claims Mary Webster as an ancestor. It’s easy to see how June, the central protagonist of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, is a metaphorical descendant of Mary Webster. She clings to life by the slightest of margins, conforming only so far as is necessary to survive.
How common that experience is for many women, today, is a question raised by the book, and now by its TV adaptation of the same name.
The novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985 as a work of speculative fiction. It’s set in a near-future where a fundamentalist religious sect has executed a coup and taken over parts of America, calling the new theonomy1 “Gilead”. Non-specified nuclear devastation and environmental degradation have resulted in rapidly falling human fertility, leading to a crisis which is then interpreted by religious zealots as apocalyptic. The rare women still able to bear children are prized, yet enslaved as breeding stock known as “Handmaids”.
June, condemned as an adulteress for marrying a divorced man, lives as a Handmaid in the house of high-ranking Commander Waterford. Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy, were leading figures in the rise of Gilead. By my reckoning, Gilead is a fascist regime: it ruthlessly maims, tortures and executes any opponents. Also in the Waterford house is Nick, an “Eye” responsible for undercover surveillance, and a female drudge – a “Martha” - who cooks and cleans.
Full-bloodedness falls mainly to the women in the TV depiction of Gilead. Perhaps the men are portrayed as feeble because their effortless, unchallenged power infantilises them: they’re too soft. They don’t even believe in God or the Old Testament literalisms they use to subordinate women.
Within the women, on the other hand, fire rages: the fire of religion or the fire of resistance.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” looks unblinkingly at the role of women in oppressing women. Aunt Lydia, superbly played by Ann Dowd, is a religious zealot devoted to keeping the Handmaids in submission. There are plenty of such women in our own world: sisterly solidarity was a nice idea in the 1970s but it’s counter-productive to deny the ability of women to become abusers. It’s not unheard of for mothers to be abusive towards their teenage daughters; they’re driven half-insane by the fury of sexual rivalry and a petty household jostle for primacy and male approval. The question of power, who wields it, and in which contexts, is constantly raised in Atwood’s masterpiece.
All of “The Handmaid’s Tale” characters are complex and the TV series maximises that. The production company are talking about the possibility of a run of ten series in all. The excellence of what I’ve seen so far augurs well; I hope that Series II can maintain its integrity without selling out to ratings wars. It should be possible to follow up the back stories of leading characters, as well as showing how they are affected by the extreme stress of Gilead, and what happens to them if Gilead collapses. How did women like Serena Joy find themselves compliant in such a regime? Will women now rise up and fight as one? How can the men hold on to their power?
Stifled rage in women is adeptly portrayed in the TV production. It doesn’t help women to force us into a straitjacket of the archetypal mother, with all her milky kindness, because it takes away our power to resist. The most potent scenes are where simmering fury threatens to erupt into violence. One of these, for example, is set in the Commander’s pleasant flower garden: unusually summoned outside by her mistress, June’s eyes linger on the sharp secateurs lying on the grass, and Serena Joy’s graceful white neck.
Yet even in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the emphasis is on the mothering instinct: how women are motivated to resist - to perform heroic feats and Herculean tasks - by the fact that they have offspring. How about women having the right to rage for themselves – against our own oppression, regardless of family ties? How about the right to rage against injustice per se? Must a woman in her own right have nothing to fight for? Is she a nothing, if she doesn’t have family?
I’m at odds with some of Margaret Atwood’s opinions as expressed in interviews I’ve read or heard, and I’ll return to these issues in future blogposts as the TV adaptation progresses. The author opened a teeming box of questions and challenges in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and it looks like the TV production team are not about to shy away from examining some of them in fine detail. Whether they interrogate the sanctity of the family as the bedrock of our existence remains to be seen.
If you read the novel years ago, or have never read it, I can recommend watching Series I of the adaptation, then reading the book again. Series I augments the novel by fleshing it out; Series II then takes the narrative beyond the original confines and timeline of the book. Margaret Atwood is an executive producer for the TV adaptation, and I have faith that she’ll argue against any major travesties. As long as she does, I’m in it for the longhaul.
Series I of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is available on DVD; Series II is currently showing on Channel 4.