Atwood’s Red Riding Prophet
A FEMINIST CRY IN THE DENSEST COLD WAR SITUATION
Margaret Atwood committed a major crime against male-dominated society as well as female-descending society. She imagined a society in which women are entirely marginalized and rejected except a small elite minority but since they are sterile they have to find a way to get children they cannot conceive children or carry them to anything looking like birth.
So Margaret Atwood imagines a society in which a class of surrogate mother will have to be ritualistically impregnated by the Commanders, the elite men of the elite families, in public and following clear rules. This solution is absolutely obscene. No medical assistance and no checking if the Commanders, the elite men in these elite families are fertile or not.
That’s absolute absurdity.
This book has been adapted to the silver screen in 1990 and was still valid in that Cold War period in which it appeared, targeting, of course, a possible communistic evolution of the USA towards such a society. But today we are no longer in this simple-minded situation: The Cold War has been out for more than 25 years. But the West cannot survive if they do not have a scapegoat, an enemy and the West is the best manipulator in history and they can always manage to produce an enemy out of nothing, thus negating all natural laws of chemistry.
They were told it was not good to target Islam, so now they target Shia Islam. Is it better? Of course not. And then they target women in Islamic society . . . Unluckily women in Iran are an essential class of workers at all levels, though women cannot be imams or the masters/mistresses of ceremony in public executions. Shucks! Nothing is that simple.
And North Korea or China are not even easier. There might not be many women in the political elite but women are vastly present at all levels of the economy, including at executive level. Shucks! Again. Nothing is simple. Then they try Russia. Same remark and the rich males we know in the west are executives who want to move out of Russia, with all their assets and money, hence who want to emigrate and steal, loot, pillage Russian capital at the same time. Shucks! A third time! Nothing is simple.
So American television insists as much as possible on the existence of a Russian mafia, of an Armenian mafia who bring drugs to the US and cheap women for prostitution. In an older period, it was the Georgian mafia and Schwarzenegger was the main Soviet bully that brought them down in the USA. Things have changed then and yet are always the same: these rotten Russians not only are good at hacking and computing, but they can even hack American missiles and compute their trajectory into the sea. Shucks! One more time! The missiles were not Russian but American. So who pretends to be the cop of the world?
There was the same tendency in Great Britain in the late 1980s under Thatcher and the Conservatives: the country was invaded by Russian, Armenian and why not Polish mafia. That will produce Brexit eventually. But I just wonder how they would have been able to build the equipment for the Olympic Games if they had not had Polish workers to cast the concrete and move the stones.
We can maybe consider Atwood was good in 1985, still not bad in 1990. But in 2017 what can it produce when the authoritarian trend is in the USA itself and in the White House first of all. The authoritarians were elected, not with a popular vote though, but that proves nothing since Mussolini was elected, Salazar was elected, Hitler was elected. The only one who was not elected was Franco.
This book shows very clearly that democracy is not a protection against such trends because it is in New England that the evolution takes place. A little bit of white supremacist magic potion and magic powder and the best and most democratic American society can easily fall down into the chasm of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and definitely many more including here Margaret Atwood.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
MARGARET ATWOOD — THE HANDMAID’S TALE — 1985
I read the book after I watched a couple of timeS the old film with Faye Dunaway of 1990. And I do think it was a wise choice. The book is a lot more powerful because of the treatment of time. The book is often considered as a dystopia and that could be right if we considered the shift from modern time USA to that world a possibility. It is based on the idea that one day, because of all the manipulation of sexuality essentially by women’s liberation movements the country does not produce children anymore, women have become sterile and this very assumption is absurd because fertility is a dual carriageway. This sounds a lot like a society deciding to victimize women because some genetic accident prevents the production of children, and in the book, only the elite is considered.
The book is a constant movement from the past before the transformation (and the main character was married to a certain Luke and had a daughter, which does not sound like sterility); the time after this period when the society slowly and radically changed from what it used to be to a strict totalitarian state that aimed and still aims at getting women out of the public space, out of all professions, out of banks and financial dealings: everything has to be covered up by the authority of a man. At the same time, women are seen as the only way to survive as a species, to survive as a state, to survive as a society and as such their power is enormous.
Women are divided into several groups identified by the color they wear. At the top, you have the Wives and their Daughters (who are daughters produced by the Handmaids from the sperm of the Commanders) who dress in blue. Then the Aunts who are responsible for the training of the next group, the Handmaids. The Aunts are dressed in some kind of brown. Then the Handmaids who are the women who give birth to children for the only sake of the elite couples, here reduced to a Wife and a Commander, though we do not know what he commands. These Handmaids are dressed in red and their only task is to get pregnant and deliver a healthy child, normally from the Commander, but with wide possibilities to compensate the probable sterility of these Commanders. Commanders and most other security people who are only men are dressed in black. Then you have the Marthas who are the servants of this elite, dressed in grey. Then you have the Econowives who are poor women who are married and may have children: they do not work and they are the wives of all the men who work. They are dressed in rather nondescript colors and worn out dresses. Note there is also a clandestine group of women who are kept underground for the sole entertainment of the elite Commanders and foreign businessmen. Their fate is short lived most of the time since their function is to be “beautiful” and satisfy the fancies of the males that come to their special hotel. The mass of all other women are sent to the colonies where they are worked and contaminated to death within two or three years. Altogether then seven classes of women.
The corresponding hierarchy of men is not given. We only meet doctors, some shopkeepers, one driver (of a commander of course) and then security men called Guardians of the Faith and there is an allusion to spies named Eyes. Though political power is entirely in the hands of men, we hardly see it and the only power we know is that of the Wives and their Daughters. Note we here have the same pattern as in a Jewish society where women are transmitting Jewishness to the children (here reduced to daughters). They do quote the Old Testament and only the Old Testament, though they have modified a few verses. They are absolutely not of Christian inspiration as for this position of women.
To go back to the constant shifting of time, after the first two older layers we have the layer when the main character is captured when trying to escape from this country to go picnic on the other side of the border with her husband and their daughter. The daughter is of course immediately given to a Mother and becomes a Daughter. The mother, the main character, since she is fertile is turned into a handmaid. So we have the time of this long transition in some kind of center under the sole authority of Aunts.
Then the main character will be appointed — for the first time — to a Commander and his Wife and that’s where the timeline becomes blurred. The main character loses the perfect consciousness of the timeline that is hers. At the end she speaks as if she had been in that position for more than four months, which is the normal time allotted to a Handmaid to become pregnant, otherwise, she is moved to another Wife and Commander, or to the colonies. In other words, the vast majority of women are expendable and this fact is in total contradiction with the idea that women transmit life and guarantee the survival of the species.
The most interesting aspect of this book is the fact that it is all told by the main character and from her point of view. The flashbacks of varying depth and all descriptions of events and people are captured through her eyes and at times she wonders if she is telling the truth. Her liaison with Nick, the driver, arranged by the Wife she is supposed to obey, is thus at times described from different points of view, though always by the main character who says the first version is not correct, then the second version is not correct either, and we can doubt the third version is correct. This succession of three versions shows that this main character has lost all sense of identity and she is rediscovering some personal dimension within this liaison that will make her pregnant. If she can tell this episode in three different modes, it’s because it has little to do with the standard daily exploitation she is the victim of. Here she is entering a field of emotions that cannot be reduced to a cold inhumanity and has to be endowed with some richness.
The end has only a vague connection with the end in the 1990 film and I won’t tell you what it is. We just have to wonder what the main dimension of this story is. We could make it a dystopian metaphor for the real world. This metaphor could be seen as feasible in 1985 at the end of the USSR, but it was no longer valid in 1990 since the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR was going to dissolve. Nowadays it is just plainly difficult to consider it as a metaphor for what is happening in some countries that are heavily under military control and operations, including from foreign powers, or of countries that the USA wants to classify as dictatorships, like Iran and North Korea, though as for women Saudi Arabia is a lot more backward than any other country in the world, and yet Saudi Arabia is a privileged ally of the USA.
Then we can wonder if it is a parable. But the tale does not lead to any positive ending for the society at large. It is a lot more the description of segregation, racism, slavery, concentration camps, exclusion and exploitation, supremacy in one word, white of course: there is NOT ONE BLACK person in the whole book. The only minority that is actually present is the Quakers who are seen as dangerous because they help people to evade from this prison. There is a mention of Jews but they have been forced to emigrate with a choice between emigration or genocide.
It is definitely a supremacist society but after all non-whites have been eliminated. Then it is the supremacy of an elite shared between women on one hand and men on the other. All along all those — here women — who want to step out of this society only have one option: suicide by killing themselves or suicide by having themselves executed in a way or another. That’s a really dehumanizing, devitalizing and decerebralizing society with no escape, no future, no salvation. And as such, it is an extraordinarily fascinating book in the present trump times of ours.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
MARGARET ATWOOD — HAROLD PINTER — FAYE DUNAWAY — THE HANDMAID’S TALE — 1990
I will only consider here the 1990 film with Faye Dunaway, not the novel beyond, nor of course the recent adaptation as a TV series that is not available on the DVD market.
We are in the United States of America after it became the Republic of Gilead. I will not enter the Biblical meaning of this word that can be used to designate some regions of the old Biblical Israel and three characters in the Old Testament, among them the father of Jephthah, that crazy general who swore to have the first person coming to him after the battle if it is a victory sacrificed to God. He thus has to put his daughter to death.
But that gives you the flavor of the story. In this Republic of Gilead, men are absolutely dominant and they have reinstalled or reinstated the standard total submission of women to go against the total dissolution of society before due to sexual promiscuity, abortion, family planning, contraception, artificial insemination, gender orientation, etc. Women have to go back to their main and only function in that male-dominated society: to give birth to babies conceived in the normal natural good old intercourse between a man and a woman. And that’s where the story becomes bizarre or even squalid.
Women are, like for men in Brave New World, divided into clearly defined groups that have to dress in a particular color. Grey is for the plain servants. Then, red is for the handmaids, those whose sole function is to procreate babies with the master of the household they are attached to. White is for some kind of religious characters who participate in various rites. Maroon is for the women who are controlling the handmaids, assigning them wherever they are needed, and of course punishing them when “necessary.” Blue is for the ladies of the various households whose babies are produced by the handmaids attached to them and their husbands. All men are in black. There is a last category of women: those who cannot be integrated into any category, particularly as handmaids and are the “girls” of some parties for the masculine elite. In other words, they are the escorts or working girls of the elite men of the society.
The disease that is the cause of this situation is purely surreal, causing the sterility of most women and those who are not sterile are used as reproductive human chattel. The film though seems to hint that the man, Fred, Kate, the handmaid the story is centered on, should provide with a child, is sterile, and his sterile wife, Serena, suggests Kate should use the services of her husband’s chauffeur, Nick. All that is of course sordid. During that time Fred, the Commander, is systematically hunting down the resistance with the clear objective of exterminating them. Today we call that genocide. Apart from Blacks and gays, the concept of resisting people is rather vague and we can wonder how this elite can live if there is no proletariat, even lumpen-proletariat to work for them.
Fred falls in love with Kate, but that brings no pregnancy. Nick, on the other hand, falls in love with her too and she with him and that brings a pregnancy as if without equally shared love there is no pregnancy possible. When Serena learned that Fred had taken Kate to one of the elite’s parties and that she had worn her own black clothing instead of her red dress, she becomes furious and wants a vengeance. On the other hand, Nick and Kate want to escape Gilead with their future baby.
That’s the dramatic knot in the thread of that story, a Gordian knot actually and it will have to be cut, but how and for what future?
The fact that this old novel and this here old film have been remembered for a TV series has, of course, to do with the election of the present President of the USA. The rise of bigotry and populism in the USA today is seen as dangerous. Just the same way The Man in the High Castle, an old novel stating the same type of dystopia centered on men essentially has been brought back to life by Amazon Prime, this Handmaid’s Tale, centered as it is on women, had to be brought back to life too. The present period in our globalized world is bringing up the question of refusing change and even dreaming of a full U-turn and going back to what the world was in the past, the Old Testament, in this case, A victory of Japan and Germany in 1945 in The Man in the High Castle. The pessimist are going to say that will lead to the Third World War. The optimist will say that God or man’s rational wisdom will prevail and the Singularity of Intelligent Machines will bring humanity eternal life and absolute peace with no work what so ever to do. The dream of a permanent siesta or farniente. Though it may very well be a Matrix that leads to eternal slavery and war.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU