It’s tempting to reread Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, within the contemporary context of Donald Trump. Since 2016, Handmaid-inspired red robes with white bonnets and Handmaid protest signs, featuring quotations from the novel such as “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum“, Atwood’s joke-Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, have become international protest symbols. The new book from Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy: A Womb of One’s Own offers different canonical philosophers’ frameworks for understanding Atwood’s novel, from decades (Hannah Arendt and George Orwell), centuries (Karl Marx), and millennia (Plato and Aristotle) past. Yet as a whole, it’s primarily focused on a single year: 2016, the year of a US presidential election. The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy bears a sense of urgency, but not necessarily posterity.
Set in a near-future when political and environmental catastrophes have led to widespread institutionalized sexual oppression, the novel The Handmaid’s Tale constructs an extensive yet claustrophobic world where women’s fertility and status determine their social position. The narrator, Offred, as we come to know her, serves as a “handmaid”, a forced sex and birthing surrogate, for a powerful and wealthy but infertile couple, and the novel uses her deliberately limited perspective as a means to explore the bleak, totalitarian world America, in the near future, has become. Literary-fiction-as-page-turner, The Handmaid’s Tale is equally engrossing and harrowing.
The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy capitalizes on the popularity of the successful 2017 Hulu series. As its introduction by editor Rachel Robinson-Greene suggests, the story remains, as she writes, “heavy” and “important”, because “it reminds us that our grasp on our most fundamental civil liberties is often tenuous at best. As a result, it’s crucial that we pay careful and active attention to the way that political events unfold. We must be ever on the alert for warning signs.”
Yet for all its timeliness, Atwood’s book was published in 1985. So Anna De Vaul, drawing on Plato, Aristotle, and Sima Qian, prudently uses the opening chapter to establish what her title calls “a great darkness filled with echoes”:
“History, and the political movements that shape it, tend to be cyclical, just like trends in fashion. We see renewed efforts to outlaw abortion or limit LGBTQ rights in the present day just like we see the return to the plaid flannel Luke wears in hipster fashion. Social cycle theory is an important part of The Handmaid’s Tale. The idea that history repeats itself helps shape the story. It’s part of what makes both the novel and the TV show a cautionary tale. Gilead [the novel’s fictionalized dystopian version of America], in all its oppressive glory, is the result of political and historical cycles repeating themselves, and bringing things we thought were long past into the present day.”
In keeping, De Vaul quotes Atwood herself, who was clear that she did not view her novel as a work of science fiction: “When I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.” Atwood’s novel, then, combines the historical realities of the 17th century Puritans in New England with the rise of fascism in Europe that led to World War II through the dystopian idiom of books like George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). In looking for historical cycles, De Vaul, echoing Atwood, does not suggest the inevitability of oppression as much as the need for continuous vigilance.
This emphasis on caution and awareness is further echoed throughout the whole collection. The essays of The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy are loosely grouped into six categories: “But They Were Godless”, mostly about theocracy and totalitarianism; “Faith is Only a Word, Embroidered”, about misogyny; “Dying of Too Much Choice”, about a catch-all section about different groups of people within the novel; “How Easy It Is to Invent a Humanity, Any Humanity”, on different philosophical notions of the self on the novel; “I Tell, Therefore I Am”, emphasizing language and close readings; and a single-chapter conclusion, “Gilead in the Rearview Mirror”.
Yet in many ways there are really only two categories: those that directly comment on the Trump presidency, and those that conspicuously avoid it. Readers, then, will notice tonal shifts between, say, “The Red and the Black”, co-written by Mariana Zarate, Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns, and Emiliano Aguilar, which draws upon the work of Aristotle, Goethe, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Adorno to analyze use and symbolism of color in the novel, and “The United States of Gilead”, by Richard Greene, a professor at Weber State University, which proffers blunt political commentary. Greene, for example, constructs a list of direct parallels to the United States in the era of Trump, the “five features that the Republic of Gilead and the United States have in common that are so remarkably close, that one actually wonders whether Atwood had a time machine: othering, the separating of parents from their children, gaslighting, the discrediting of those who would speak out against them, and lying.”
Chad Tim, a professor at Simpson College, in “Under a Watchful Eye”, invokes “the era of Trump” and “the era of fake news, fake facts, and twitter tirades,” quoting philosopher Michel Foucault’s injunction to “‘rise up against all forms of power”. In “A Rose by Any Other Name”, Cari Callis, a professor at Columbia College, like Du Vaul calls The Handmaid’s Tale “a cautionary story.” Callis draws upon Tim Braun’s The Philosophy of Branding (2004) in order to again ask, “Why do this novel and television series seem so relevant now, perhaps even more so than the thirty years ago when the novel was first published? Perhaps because we’re living in world where ‘Grab them by the Pussy’ is president and reproductive rights are being challenged daily, people of color are being killed by police who are getting away with it and immigrant families are being separate from their children who are being put in cages.”
Similarly, in “Babies and Pleasures”, Samantha Wesch writes that “Speculative fiction, then, is not about fantasizing or guessing at what’s to come, but, instead, thinking about the world we live in.” Wesch, then, breaks down characters that are divided into competing groups in The Handmaid’s Tale: the Handmaids themselves “participate in the ceremonial torture and murder of an accused (but not guilty) rapist”; “Serena Joy dominates the household…”; Rita bosses around Offred and Cora”; and Ofwarren, another Handmaid, now pregnant, “revels in being the object of the other Handmaids’ jealousy.” Women are divided between “Legitimate Women” and “Unwomen”, and children between babies and “Unbabies”. Granting these petty powers and using strategic divisions make resistance difficult, but, Wesch concludes, in keeping with the Trump chapters, that Atwood “provides us with the possibility of resisting domination through resilience and pleasure.”
Other chapters use different lenses, however, and in doing so, further illuminate Atwood’s novel, rather than relegating its necessity to the late 2010s. In “Gilead as Palimpsest”, Christopher Ketcham analyzes Gilead as a society in transition rather than an unadulterated theocracy, drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s concept of the past as sous rapture, “under erasure”, in which elements of the past are crossed out yet still visible. Guillaume Lequien, in “June the Stoic?” analyzes Stoicism as a system rather than synonym for resignation, to consider how Stoicism can help the reader understand the ways in which Offred uses her mind to maintain her freedom, even in physical confinement.
The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy has its gaps: in Atwood’s novel, African Americans are removed from Gilead through violence and forced relocation off-screen in just a few sentences. A chapter engaging in critical race theory or that drew upon the writings of W.E.B. Dubois may have launched a discussion of the history of American racism that the novel elides. Similarly, the writings of philosopher and psycholinguist Luce Irigaray would have provided additional avenues for analysis, such as her critiques of phallocentrism and the ways in which women are treated by men as commodities.
The book’s concluding essay, “A Response to Professor Piexioto”, by Darcy Doll, a professor at Delta College, is particularly forceful and well-placed. As readers of Atwood’s novel will recall, The Handmaid’s Tale‘s story-proper ends ambiguously, but the book’s conclusion flashes forward to the transcript of an academic conference in an even-further future, after Gilead. There, “Professor Piexioto”, like the reader, attempts to discern the meaning of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, but this imagined “keynote speaker” for the “Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies” consistently questions the authenticity and veracity of Offred’s story, even interspersing his address with sexist jokes. Imagining, then, a “dissenting view presented by Professor Anadicrad” at this same fictionalized conference, Darci Doll proclaims that “it is not sufficient to merely describe Gilead and establish the authenticity of our records. We must also evaluate Gilead and the contributing factors that allowed it to rise to power.”
Unlike other contributors who address overtly misogynistic and fascist threats from Trump, Doll instead considers the danger that moderates and apologists pose when they implore Americans to “give Trump a chance”. As Holocaust survivor and writer Eli Weisel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy insists on holding Trump accountable, and while this ideological stance will turn off some readers, excluding Trump supporters is a feature, not a bug, of the collection. As far as The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy is concerned, they are the exact bastards you’re not supposed to let grind you down.