The other day (it’s 2022 by the way) a Republican candidate for office thanked Donald Trump for protecting “white life” and the crowd cheered. Her campaign later said she meant the “right to life” but sometimes you say what you mean, instead of saying what you meant to say. It happens.
In rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am struck again by how profoundly dishonest Conservatives are. They are trying to preserve white life, and always have been, but they will just lie to your face about it. Christian-fascists are and always have been hand-in-hand with white supremacy and patriarchy as a totalizing force. Rereading this book also reminded of the ways in which the book feels like a fable (and the title “tale” supports this) but how detailed and stark the actual revolution that is described in the book is. Spoiler: it’s basically January 6th, but successful. So I start to think about the structures of reading this novel as a fable, and one of my funnier takeaways that Atwood puts into this book is how fucking corny conservatives are (Offred plays language games in her mind all the time; she remembers lots of little word games from the before; and the naming conventions of Gilead are based in Bible puns, and in the world before there’s a kind of Brave New World allusions with the names of things) . The society they set up is structured to act and look like a fable so that they can fabricate rites and rituals that seem like ancient practices, but are just there to mask the reality of the world they’ve created. There’s a clear element of them making it up as they go along, because they’re so early in the process. In the end section, “Historical Notes” we have to deal with the sad reality that the novel we’ve just read represents only the early years of the society, so things will simply get worse.
In Culture and Imperialism Edward Said says of Heart of Darkness and Conrad, that in describing the Belgian Congo in the way he does, Conrad can’t help but replicate the very attitudes he’s critiquing. This leads to a sense that he himself is flawed, but the novel takes on this secondary quality of understanding because it’s impossible to escape the colonial mode in writing the novel. It’s both a critique and an example. This novel works the same way. One of the very valid criticisms of this novel is that it borrows from the historical suffering of Black and Indigenous women (both from narratives of slavery and encounter/oppression), and like I said, the criticism is valid, but it also makes real through language and metaphor that same suffering. Atwood can’t help but be the problem of this appropriation while also writing the successful representation of it. The more successful version of this would something like Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which in many ways is The Handmaid’s Tale before the Handmaid’s Tale existed (down to the well-intentioned but completely clueless husband), where presence of historical violence enacted on a contemporary body allows for a more complex understanding of violence we tend to bracket off to the past.