Knowing her to be an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful person – an opinion I base almost entirely upon her brilliant novel, Fluency, since of course I’ve never met her or communicated with her – I was somewhat dismayed to read Jennifer Foehner Wells’ review of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I will here insert a shameless plug, namely my review of Fluency, which appears HERE.
Jennifer’s review is short and to the point, and I don’t want to excessively multiply words over it, so in order to help me keep this review likewise short, please go visit her review and read it before continuing here. I’ll wait.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it came out, possibly before Jennifer was born, and I have to say that I was as dismayed as she is about the story in the book. Calling it “dystopian” is like calling a hurricane “bad weather”. But in its very extremity lies a deadly flaw, for which Jennifer has clearly fallen. This is in evident in her assertion and prediction that “[t]he fundamentalist religious right already has so much power, if our country were to splinter, civil war could erupt allowing pockets of this kind of evil to proliferate.” With this, it is clear that author Atwood, an especially feminist writer, has achieved her purpose one more time, successfully warning of the dangers of patriarchy.
I should like to parenthetically note here the ironic juxtaposition of Jennifer Foehner Wells with Margaret Atwood, since the latter once stated that science fiction is “talking squids in outer space.” This is smile-inducing in view of Fluency, which features an important character that is, in fact, a talking squid in outer space. Or, at least, a telepathic squid. But I digress.
The deadly flaw of The Handmaid’s Tale is that something which would be, at worst, an unlikely and certainly short-lived aberration or deviation from the norm, is presented as a distinct possibility. Atwood herself does not characterize Handmaid as science fiction, but as speculative fiction, since, as she believes “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” In this she ignores, of course, that much of today’s modern technology, including spaceships, nearly sentient computers, and the like, used to be solely the realm of science-fiction.
And this is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale a case of extreme irony. Science fiction is what could really happen. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Fluency’s scenario of a derelict alien spaceship orbiting the sun could prove to be true. There is literally no chance that the power of the “fundamentalist religious right” could lead to The Handmaid’s Tale in reality. That which she seems to have forgotten entirely is that far from descending into it, the “fundies” would apoplexically choke at the practice of polygamy or concubinage – which is the primary pot that Atwood is attempting to stir.
What Jennifer seems to have inexplicably swallowed, hook, line and sinker, is the message the political Left has been putting out for years, and that is that the political Right’s dearest desire is to take women’s contraception away, to relegate them to the kitchen, sans shoes, and turn them into baby-making machines. Not to mention that they want “to put ya’ll back in chains” – speaking of another group whose loyalty the Left tries to ensure through wild and baseless fearmongering.
I’ll just say it clearly, that the political Right’s dearest desire with respect to contraception is that those whose religious sensitivities forbid their own use of it not be forced to pay for others’ use of it. There is a slight difference between this and a fanciful “war on women”.
I don’t understand how an intelligent and thoughtful person, which Jennifer Foehner Wells certainly is, could imagine that the “fundamentalist religious right” had power that is increasing. She is perhaps too young to realize that the attitudes of what she characterizes as the “religious right” used to be the attitudes of virtually everyone in the entire country. An old fart such as myself does remember, however, that there was a time when nearly everyone in this country attended church at least several times a year, and a majority attended church every week. And at least half of those people were not Right, but Left. Of course, now that the Left has largely left off attending church, they are quite comfortable now calling those who still do “fundamentalists”.
The thing is, so many fewer now attend church regularly, that those who still do so are more evident than they used to be, standing in greater contrast to the irreligious or areligious, who are perhaps now a majority. And these folks, having suddenly noticed that there are still those outliers who profess to follow a religion, disingenuously mischaracterize them as increasing in power. It is to laugh. Hollowly, perhaps.
I’ve gone overboard again, I see. My apologies to you, dear reader, for professing a desire not to “excessively multiply words”, when I should have known I could not forbear. My apologies as well to Jennifer Foehner Wells, who probably doesn’t deserve being subject to this barrage of words I have been pleased to pour out.
And I am really looking forward to Fluency II. Talking squids in space, indeed!
Hey, I only have a second to comment, but I’ll just say this. Yes. Atwood’s work is fiction. And I never said, nor do I believe, that the entire country could be converted to this kind of patriarchal power-structure. Nor did Atwood. Her tale is set in ONE state in a shattered Union.
I do believe that pockets of this could rise up, though, briefly. All it would take is one cult leader in a position of power during a natural disaster and a police state. Atwood does mention that there was an ongoing war for power underway and that from the lens of history, that tale came from a very brief time. The patriarchal state in her story did not endure. Nor do I think it would.
I am not as young as you seem to think. I was 14 when Atwood’s book was published. I grew up in the Midwest and I remember the US that you remember.
That said, the religious right HAS made some terrifying strides over the last few years. The most startling is the fact that they’ve managed to shut down nearly every abortion clinic in the huge state of Texas. Each toehold they get, they will not give up easily.
Perhaps you don’t see it as terrifying, since you see it from a different perspective, as an adult white male. But as a woman, I can tell you that watching Mitt Romney get so close to the presidency was frightening. That may have had lasting and damaging repercussions for the entire nation.
I could go on and on and site example after example, but I’m late for a lunch date! I’ve never heard that quote from Atwood about SciFi, but I do agree that Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction and NOT science fiction.
All my best! I’m glad you enjoyed Fluency! There is much, much more on the way.
Thanks for your response! As to terrifying strides, I still think you forget that there was a time when abortion was illegal everywhere, and as to my being an adult white male, well, my wife is an adult white female and she has always been measurably more opposed to abortion that I ever was. My take on abortion is that calling it a fetus is a cop-out. It’s a baby. It’s a human child, not a cancer.
I believe there are occasions when abortion may be allowable, including rape, incest, the health of the mother, and severe congenital defects in the child. But for the mere convenience of the mother? No. Choice begins before conception — if pregnancy is undesirable, there are still some choices available: don’t have sex; or don’t have unprotected sex. It is surprising sometimes that many of the most vociferous opponents to the death penalty for vile murderers are OK with killing unborn babies. If I saw a child who was crossing the street in danger of being run down by a vehicle, I would risk my life to try to save the child. How then should I give my assent to a child being destroyed merely because the mother forgot to take her birth control pill in a timely fashion? I expect that I haven’t convinced you; we may have to agree to disagree on this subject.
As to Mitt Romney, I’ve heard others express similar sentiments, including a friend and neighbor of ours who said she HATED Mitt Romney. I still haven’t figured that one out. So what on earth did Mitt do to make you fear him so? Or rather, what did you expect he was going to do to you?