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Lire Margaret Atwood

Marta Dvorak

I. Texte et témoignage. Text and testimony

The Handmaid’s Tale and American Protestant Fundamentalism: Submission and Discipline

Priscilla Morin-Ollier

Texte intégral

  • 1 All biblical references in this text are from the Saint James Version of the Bible, the translation (...)
  • 2 Bob Jones III is the president of Bob Jones University in Greensville, South Carolina, an ultra­fun (...)
  • 3 In Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, The Glory and the Power, The Fundamentalist Challenge to t (...)
  • 4 Beverly LaHaye, The Spirit-Controlled Woman (Eugene, Or : Harvest House P, 1976) 71. Mrs. LaHaye is (...)

1As the commander at the Prayvaganza in The Handmaid’s Tale proclaims : « Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence » (I Timothy 2 : 11-12)1, so do the fundamentalists, men and women alike, in the present-day United States, affirm that by the will of God society is patriarchal, with wife and children obeying the man as God’s representative. Beneth Jones, the wife of Bob Jones III2, recently avowed, « God’s word says that the man is to be the head of the home, and frankly as a woman I delight in that. I would hate to have to make the decisions for the home that he has to make. And I’m very thankful that I can lean on my husband and submit to him3 ». Beverly LaHaye, founder of the conservative women’s group, Concerned Women for America, has also declared, « The woman who is truly Spirit-filled will want to be totally submissive to her husband… This is a truly liberated woman. Submission is God’s design for women4 ». It is in the light of such declarations that I propose to study Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

  • 5 Jerry Falwell, Strength for the Journey (New York : Pocket Books, 1987) 424. Jerry Falwell is a fun (...)

2Atwood’s text intensifies the notion of the subordination of women through the use she makes of women controlling other women. The Aunts with their quasi-religious sounding names – Lydia (Jerry Falwell mentions Lydia as one of the women of the New Testament who heard God’s voice and followed)5, Elizabeth, Sara, Helena – are a vital necessity in the new state. They are the instruments who will propagate the language and slogans designed to brainwash women into accepting their new reproductive role. The Aunts we are later told in the Historical Notes bear, in actuality, names of commercial products like Sara Lee Cakes, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, etc. thus « familiar and reassuring » (321), like the fundamentalist women leaders. Many women would assuredly have wanted to serve as Aunts because they believed in the so-called traditional values or because they simply wanted some form of power in a society where women had little.

  • 6 The exact text read : « Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the Uni (...)

3The new leadership of conservative women who joined in the battle against feminism and greatly strengthened American fundamentalism in the 1970’s and 1980’s played a role very similar to the Aunts. The main message of these wom en was that women’s liberation or the feminist movement took away from the real power women exercised in a true patriarchal society. The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and the threat of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)6, which called for the legal equality of the sexes, were the forces that pushed the religious right in the United States to focus on feminism as a deadly destabilizing force in the country. In chapter thirty-two of Atwood’s novel the Commander expresses a similar conviction about the difficulty the new woman presented to the male element of society. « The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore… the sex was too easy… There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. » (221)

4Feminists, like secular humanists, the term the fundamentalists coined to designate their enemy, i.e. anyone who doesn’t believe in God in the way they do, were to blame for all of the nation’s ills ; social, moral and even economic. In answer to these problems the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank set up in 1973, drafted The Family Protection Act and through the efforts of Senator Paul Laxalt introduced it to Congress in 1979 and again in 1981. The Act contained twenty clauses designed to protect the family, items such as ; require marriage and motherhood to be taught as proper careers for girls, forbid the intermingling of the sexes in school activities, and deny federal funding to any school using textbooks portraying women in non-traditional roles, etc. The bill, however, was never passed. Atwood was well aware of what was happening in the United States during this time, as she herself informed one of her audiences that she wrote the last part of The Handmaid’s Tale in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the home of the Klu Klux Klan. Consequently, in her novel she explores the frightening aspects of people capable of formulating such a law and their eventual impact on the country.

  • 7 Susan Faludi, Backlash, The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York : Doubleday, 1991) 244. (...)

5Two leading female voices in the conservative women’s movement, Connaught (Connie) C. Marshner and Beverly LaHaye, have worked tirelessly to promote the traditional woman or as Jerry Falwell calls her « the Biblical wife », the one submitted to her husband and family and her faith. Marshner who held an important position in the Heritage Foundation, all the while giving birth to four children, and who was one of the key people who helped write The Family Protection Act, has asserted many times that she has gotten by through her own merit and sheer talent, thus, she is the exception that proves the rule that women lack ability to be successful in public life7. Marshner’s statement recalls to mind what Atwood says about Aunt Lydia. « For every rule there is an exception : this too can be depended upon. The Aunts are allowed to read and write. » (139)

6Women like the Aunts and Marshner, an ardent and skilled organizer and gifted writer who has done much to try to dismantle the gains women have made, were used by the men of the New Right to do the dirty work in the campaign against their own rights, very much like Gilead used the Aunts to control the handmaids. The preachers of the Christian Right had found that in their anti-feminist stance, they were fighting against women, a position they could ill afford and which proved embarrassing, therefore, it was essential to draw women to their battle. Since men had been designated as the enemy by the feminists, the conservative male point of view had better chances of being listened to if women did the attacking. Gilead on the other hand had serious problems of a rapidly declining birth rate and needed to enlist a great number of women to help resolve this critical situation. Thus, Christian men hid behind New Right women and let them face the onslaught of criticisms and attacks and the Commanders let the Aunts do the disciplining and brainwashing. Control is more effective when it comes from one’s own kind.

7Beverly LaHaye set up her organization, Concerned Women for America, in 1979 with the express purpose of allowing women to voice some of the female aspirations they felt while at the same time maintaining their traditional roles of devoted spouses and mothers. LaHaye feels it is vital for women to remain in the home otherwise they will be unprotected. The Christian Right’s social discourse on women and Gilead’s founding ideology bear many similarities. Some appear in Offred’s remembrance of the warnings women had to take into consideration in the past because : « Women were not protected then. » (34) Later, when looking at a film at the re-education center about the Unwomen, Offred questions : « Or is this a thing we’re intended to see to remind us of the old days of no safety. » (129) Also, the Commander explains to Offred that women had a much more difficult and unsettling life before Gilead, and now : « They’re protected, they can fufill their biological destinies in peace. » (231)

8LaHaye, also a mother of four children, argues further that Concerned Women is reiterating women’s right to stay quietly at home in a secure environment. While urging women to remain in their homes she and other conservative women run around the country organizing, giving talks and in general being busy businesswomen. They see no conflict in saying one thing and doing another because they are emphasizing the happiness and harmony that exists in a family where the husband is the head. They are the exceptions again. Fundamentalists like Marshner and LaHaye believe that feminists have propagated myths about the oppression of women in America. According to them the greatest lie of the century is the claim that women are unfairly treated and in a position of inferiority in the United States. Is this not the social discourse of Gilead ?

  • 8 « Les femmes en Afghanistan », France 2, 26 mai 1998.

9In keeping with this line of thought and of Atwood’s repeated affirmation that there is nothing in this book which hasn’t or couldn’t happen, one can’t help but think of the plight of the women in Afghanistan today. When the Taleban, the Islamic fundamentalist soldiers who control the country, took over the women were told they were going to be protected, and their virtue preserved but they would have to submit to the rules. Then the Taleban proceeded to make schools off-limits to females, to forbid them to learn how to read and write and to make health care unavailable to them. As one Afghan women declared, « They keep us illiterate to control and govern us better8. » The remarks attributed to Judd in the Historical Notes reveal a similar viewpoint : « Our big mistake was teaching them to read. We won’t do that again. » (320) The Commander tells Offred : « We’ve given them (the women) more than we’ve taken away. Think of the trouble they had before. » (231)

  • 9 The American fundamentalists are often referred to as the New Christian Right or the New Religious (...)

10Examining briefly the fundamentalists’ manipulation of the symbolic and the epistemic is particularly useful in helping us understand Atwood’s satire of Gilead’s religious totalitarianism. The religious worldview of the New Christian Right9 which is communicated in an absolute, serious and literal fashion through biblical images and stories allows them to consider the apocalyptical ending of the Bible as an exact truth. This belief in turn encourages a tendency towards intolerance of others as well as doctrinal fanaticism. Only those that believe as they do have the light and the truth. Translating symbolic references to literal identifications and motivated by such thinking, fundamentalist ideology forces its followers to seek out and identify threatening conspiracies. This can be the devil or the destructive forces in society which are undermining their beloved American way of life. Fundamentalists live in a Manichaen world of polar opposites : good or evil, light or darkness, truth or error. There is no in-between, no middle ground. In this vision few distinctions are made between the image and its referent or between the symbol and that to which the symbol refers. Their literal reading of the Bible also allows them to interpret all the events described in it as applying directly to the United States today. The Bible in turn has become for American fundamentalists a basis for contemporary political commentary. Undoubtedly, this is one of the reasons Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in this country. Canada does not have the same biblical vision.

11Atwood represents this moral absolutist vision in her portrayal of Moira and Offred’s mother. Both of them are judgmental and intolerant in their dealings with those who disagree with them and both use language that tends in the long run to reinforce the very discourse against which they are struggling. In chapter 28 in their argument about Offred’s affair with Luke, Moira expresses her disapproval in peremptory terms. Offred’s mother reveals her dogmatism in relation to men when she says, « A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women. » (131) Both of these are more submitted to the demands of their cause than to a more open-minded rationalism. The chilling totalitarian society which Atwood parodies in her novel closely parallels, therefore, this fundamentalist mind-set where Biblical Law is implemented as the standard for everyone and where women are subject to the patriarchal precepts of both the Old and the New Testaments. The fundamentalist life-style like Gilead’s is highly disciplined with strict rules regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior. There are no grey areas. Greyness does not make for good discipline.

  • 10 The Liberty Way (Lynchburg, VA : Office of Student Affairs, 1990), 4.

12The Handmaid’s Tale exhibits other aspects of fundamentalist thought especially in their common unequivocal defence of homogeneity. Dress codes, symbolic of conformity and sameness, have often been ways in which regimes have sought to gain willing obedience from their subjects. Heterogeneity, fundamentalists believe, encourages relativism in moral and religious beliefs. By imposing similar norms of dressing on various categories of society Gilead also functions very much in the realm of fundamentalist absolutes. The dress code for the handmaids : « The skirt is ankle-length, full gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full » (18) recalls the prescribed dress code found in Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University student handbook : « Women cannot wear skirts or dresses with slits shorter than two inches from the middle of the knee. Anything scant, tight, backless and low in the neckline is unacceptable10. » As in Gilead where men are also forced to conform to uniform ways of dressing, the Eyes, the Angels, and the Guardians, even the Commanders in their dark suits, the men at Liberty University must also comply with the rules : « All men must wear neckties on the campus until 4:30 p.m., and the wearing of shorts is stric tly forbidden. Hair must be cut so that it does not come over the ear or collar and beards or mustaches are not permitted. » In these two worlds it is the negatives which are strictly enforced.

13To intensify its biblical way of life and its discipline Gilead imposed the wearing of first a veil then of a wimple or wings on the handmaids. The Bible in I Corinthinians 11 : 6 says : « For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn : but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven let her be covered. » Aunt Lydia reminds the handmaids of this : « Hair must be long and covered… Saint Paul said it’s either that or a close shave. » (72) Offred’s nun’s habit is so much a part of her that when she sees the Japanese visitors in their short skirts, nearly naked legs, and their uncovered heads with their exposed hair she feels repelled. « They seem undressed », she says. (38) Later on, in her bath in chapter twelve she finds her nakedness strange.

14Young women at Bob Jones University, brought up to believe in Genesis 3 : 21 which states « Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them », would feel a similar distaste and strangeness for anyone not dressed in accordance with God’s law. God, the fundamentalists are told, has given them clothes to cover themselves and not be a source of sin to any man. « To be seen », Aunt Lydia said, « is to be penetrated ». (39) Furthermore, this conviction is reinforced in classes entitled « God’s Dress for Success Program ». Every young woman at Bob Jones and at Liberty conforms (it is an accepted part of the discipline of the soldiers for Christ), to the norms of behavior and appearance by wearing calf-length dresses with full skirts and high necklines and those who don’t, appear as in Offred’s words as « shameful and immodest ». (72)

  • 11 « The Glory and the Power : Fundamentalism Observed », PBS television, 10 June 1992.

15In addition to their prescribed dress codes common « ladylike » behavior or should we say docile and accepting comportment is required. As is the case for the handmaids for whom tobacco, alcohol, and stimulants like coffee are forbidden (24) these are not allowed in fundamentalist circles. Men are also bound by these rules. Moreover, in Gilead the handmaids have a prescribed ritual speech they must follow when greeting each other : « Blessed be the fruit », « May the Lord open », « Praise be ». This practise serves essentially to restrict communication and fosters a quasi religious discourse whose purpose is to reinforce the religious nature of their new destiny. Women of the Christian Right also operate in the linguistic system of religious speech. Although they are not encouraged to think for themselves and must defer to their husbands in all matters, they are allowed to quote from the Bible and to seek answers therein. A frequent form of greeting among these people is « Praise be God ». In a video tape made on fundamentalism the Dean of Students at Bob Jones University reminds the student body what is meant by the line of authority by defining the roles of the husband and wife. The manner in which a woman influences her husband is by getting in line, by doing what he says and showing him she recognizes his lordship11. She does this in a subdued and humble fashion, much as the handmaids who « walked with heads bent down, our eyes on our hands or on the ground ». (143)

16When Gilead first started to impose its world-view, women were fired from their jobs. They couldn’t use their Compucards, nor have access to their bank accounts, nor could they hold property any more ; only their husband or male next of kin could do these things for them. (187) In many fundamentalist households this is very much the case. The family’s house is often only in the husband’s name and the wife may or may not have direct access to the bank accounts. Even if she does she wouldn’t dream of withdrawing or spending money without first getting permission from her spouse, the head.

17In an attempt to abolish heterogeneity and to better control their subjects Gilead established a new construct of female identity in which all sense of personal being was removed. They did away with and erased all trace of the handmaids’ real names. By cleverly assigning to these women the preposition « of » plus the name of the commander they were serving, Gileadean authorities made the handmaids into virtual appendages of their masters. In a similar context when the feminist movement in the 1960’s and 70’s urged abandoning the practice of taking the husband’s name conservative women and men strongly resisted and openly criticised this step. The symbolic functioning of this convention which in essence denotes possession was not lost on the fundamentalists. A married woman they felt could only fufill her role of submitted wife and mother if she shed her own name and in a sense thus her personal and social definition and became a part of her new husband, having come of course from the possession of another man, her father. Conservative women see this practice as offering them security and comfort. They have someone who will take care of and protect them. Thus, the instituted codes of behavior in both worlds emphasize homogeneity as an instrument of battle against the mortal enemy, moral relativism.

18The absolutist worldview of fundamentalists which leads them to talk of normative faith, correct teaching, indispensable doctrine, enduring values, and permanent truth appears to be a calculated effort to reassert a particular way of life against a variety of menacing threats. Gilead also faced, in addition to its low birth rate, several threatening problems such as pollution and nuclear waste. The obvious attraction of a Manichean type philosophy in times of such befuddling, unsettling, and destabilizing events is the reassurance and security it extends to its followers or the « freedom from » that Aunt Lydia mentions in chapter 5 (34). Disciples have freedom from worries and from thinking. They do as they are told. Life is also much simpler in fundamentalist circles as the answer to all problems lies in « God wants » or « God wills ». Women in Gilead also had freedom « from » the violence, desires and desperations they had been victim of in the past. The ordered and structured way of life offered in both realms attracts many people as the need for individual autonomy, a burden for some, is diminished and working for the collective good is accentuated, much as is the case of the handmaids, « the collective murmur » (287) at the Salvagings. Aunt Lydia told her charges : « Women united for a common end ! Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task. » (172) The same rallying cry uttered by both the feminist and the conservative women’s movements, each to encourage followers to their separate agendas.

  • 12 « The Glory and the Power… », op. cit.
  • 13 Ibid.

19Gilead, however, takes the notion of the group a step further by imposing group discipline on the handmaids in the form of the collective rope ceremony at the Salvagings. After the hanging of the guilty party the handmaids have to place both hands « in time with the others » on the rope wound like a snake around the rows of cushions they are kneeling on and leading up onto the stage, symbolically showing their consent and unity with the Salvagers. (288) Although fundamentalists do not hang dissenters they do not, however, tolerate them inside the circle of the faithful. Those who do not wish to conform are shunned by the others. In some churches shunning is a ritual which involves the whole congregation taking part in what in their eyes is the spiritual death of one of its members. Jim Pitts, a student at Bob Jones, was one of those who was asked to leave. He said : « It can be a formidable task to conform to being a good Christian and very difficult to being on the outside12. » John Vaughan, a fundamentalist pastor, also declared : « A man must be broken like a horse and submit to the control of his master13. » Otherwise, Vaughan went on to say he should not be admitted to the sphere of the select believers. Aunt Lydia delivers a similar message : « All of us here will lick you into shape » (124) and what is implied is « or else ».

  • 14 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York : Knopf, 1976) vol. 1, 304.

20Atwood’s novel also points out a kinship between what is sometimes referred to as « cultural » puritanism and the sequestration of women in Gilead. Cultural puritanism first made its appearance in the early nineteenth century and manifested itself as a reticence in society that inhibited open speech or discussion in front of women, who were considered inappropriate voices of the sexually specific. Such expressions as « not in front of the children » or « there are ladies present » are forms of control over what is properly said. Respect can also be seen as a form of oppression and repression. Matters of sex, morality, and the family were the domain of women and of pastors, who were of course withdrawn from the worldly, political arena. When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 the division of life into a female sphere (culture, morality, family) and a masculine sphere (business, public affairs, government) was already taking shape14. By the end of the nineteenth century women were the breeders (Offred’s two-legged wombs) and the religious models, sequestered in their homes, reduced practically to pure function. Love and family it was believed would now keep women complacent, resigned and acquiescent much as in the end Offred’s sexual desire for Nick seems to (283).

21Domestic bliss and the division of sexual labor in the society between the breadwinners and the breadmakers fostered a state of self-oblivion for the women. The « traditional family » with the father as head of household, making the basic decisions, and with the wife and children subject to his wishes was now the rule at the dawning of the twentieth century. Today in fundamentalist families obedience is still stressed for both wives and children and physical punishment is generally approved for both. Justification for this conviction is found in Ephesians 5 : 24 in the Bible : « As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. » In addition the Genesis account of creation, « God created Adam then Eve », is the basis of a social agenda deeply opposed to liberation from the patriarchal family. Fundamentalists talk about the absolute power of the husband and the women’s duty as the preservation of the male seed. Aunt Lydia advises her girls to « Think of yourselves as seeds » (28).

22Women who refuse or who can’t conform to this disciplined lifestyle are considered whores. There are no in-betweens in this world. Offred tells us, « There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law. » (71) There’s no middle ground in Gilead either. Prostitution in Gilead was used as a form of discipline to punish women who had had successful careers in the past and were not able to submit to the new feminine ideal. At Jezebel’s the Commander tells Offred : « That one there, the one in green, she’s a sociologist. Or was. That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position ; some sort of fast-food chain or maybe it was hotels. » (249)

23Gilead is an amplification of how regimentation and discipline put to the common cause can function in society. Schools, an obvious source of indoctrination, were taken over by the new government in order to stress the new ideology, the importance of keeping the sexes apart, and the necessity of the new rules and the new world order. When Christians became dissatisfied with how American public schools were developing into Godless institutions, they set up their own schools to teach their own beliefs and discipline. They also demanded the subordination of women along with the sacred right to paddle children. Schools of this type continue to strengthen the separation of the society into male and female realms and to underline working for the common good.

24The rituals in the novel for the Ceremony, the Birthing Day, the Prayvaganzas, the Salvagings are also highly regimented institutional forms meant to eliminate emotions and transform them into events cleansed of eroticism or humanity. The preservation by fundamentalists of the two distinct spheres of influence, male and female, the prescriptive space allotted each and the rituals in the rules of the church itself signify in conservative Christian circles that sex is codified and contained in a denial of spontaneity that is absolute. In a sense the world of Gilead and of the fundamentalists could be qualified by the word « absence » as opposed to « presence ». The suppression of sentiment and the emphasis on control is so complete in Atwood’s novel that the society gives an impression of emptiness, of « blank spaces », of something missing. Is it love that’s absent as Offred claims it is or is it simply that a society supposedly founded on biblical principles lacks a realistic presence of God ? In His place there are only the somewhat pathetic, almost ridiculous figures of the Commanders. American fundamentalism in its repeated insistence on absolute truth achieves such a level of intolerance and fanaticism that it also manages to eliminate much sentiment and emotions from its world. However, for the New Christian Right the presence of God through the Bible which they know by heart and can readily quote, is a real thing and a source of profound belief and motivation in their lives. If the Bible says the man is the head and the woman submitted to him then it is so.

25Although Atwood’s novel has been said to be a warning against the dangers of the inflexible, rigid world view of the religious right in the United States, their rise to prominence is reflective of some comprehensive shifts in contemporary American life and cannot be relegated to the margins of society. They may not have convinced a majority of Americans of the rightness of a submissive woman but they have initiated questions about the desirability of a working mother. Their boisterous incessant arguments on the role of women has contributed to cast doubts on the value of the gains of women in the United States. They have now moved into the mainstream of American life and cannot be ignored. Fundamentalists, like religious movements all over the world for that matter, are also changing the balance of power in national and international affairs. Their significance cannot be denied.



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1 All biblical references in this text are from the Saint James Version of the Bible, the translation approved of by fundamentalists.

2 Bob Jones III is the president of Bob Jones University in Greensville, South Carolina, an ultra­fundamentalist school.

3 In Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, The Glory and the Power, The Fundamentalist Challenge to the Modern World (Boston : Beacon P, 1992) 78.

4 Beverly LaHaye, The Spirit-Controlled Woman (Eugene, Or : Harvest House P, 1976) 71. Mrs. LaHaye is also the wife of Tim LaHaye, a prominent fundamentalist minister and author of several books on fundamentalism.

5 Jerry Falwell, Strength for the Journey (New York : Pocket Books, 1987) 424. Jerry Falwell is a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Lynchburg, Virginia who founded a political religious organization, the Moral Majority in 1979. Falwell is a very well known outspoken critic of the non-fundamentalist world in the United States. Fundamentalism as defined by Falwell is the belief in five fundamental principles, the essential of which encompass a Manichean world view and give fundamentalists absolute values by which to live.

6 The exact text read : « Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex. »

7 Susan Faludi, Backlash, The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York : Doubleday, 1991) 244. Faludi examines the role of the conservative women’s movement in the feminist struggle in chapter 9 of her book. (229-256)

8 « Les femmes en Afghanistan », France 2, 26 mai 1998.

9 The American fundamentalists are often referred to as the New Christian Right or the New Religious Right.

10 The Liberty Way (Lynchburg, VA : Office of Student Affairs, 1990), 4.

11 « The Glory and the Power : Fundamentalism Observed », PBS television, 10 June 1992.

12 « The Glory and the Power… », op. cit.

13 Ibid.

14 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York : Knopf, 1976) vol. 1, 304.


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