The story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, as told in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 bestseller, has been sparking debate again with the recent television adaption. Shown in Australia on SBS, The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a terrifying vision of the future: a totalitarian, Christian theonomic government has established rule in the former United States, women are considered property of the state and have been stripped of all their freedoms, and natural disasters have plunged the planet into environmental chaos. With fertility rates rapidly declining, the remaining fertile women have been assigned to the homes of the ruling elite and forced into sexual servitude in a desperate attempt to repopulate mankind.
In the eighth episode, Commander Waterford surprises his handmaid Offred by taking her to ‘Jezebels’, a former hotel turned brothel, the existence of which is technically illegal under Gilead law. Of course it’s fine for the men of the elite to bend the rules, as the Commander tries to explain to Offred, since men naturally desire multiple partners and it’s a useful setting for trade and diplomatic negotiations. The alcohol is flowing, drugs are readily available and the women are suitably tempting in their pre-Gilead attire.
Offred cannot contain her shock, prompting the Commander to utter one of the most evocative lines of the entire series: ‘We’re all human after all.’ The Commander’s words reveal a system rank in hypocrisy, where, paradoxically, the word ‘all’ is used to differentiate some from others. Only the elite men are allowed into ‘Jezebels’, the same way that only the elite men are allowed to have handmaids.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt, in her 1963 book On Revolution, surmises that hypocrisy is the worst of all vices since it destroys integrity, the only thing that allows the individual to reclaim their incorruptible self: ‘Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil, but only the hypocrite is rotten to the core.’
One of Arendt’s most famous works is her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, lieutenant colonel in the Nazi SS. Despite receiving criticism for highlighting Eichmann’s normalcy, she makes some interesting observations on Eichmann’s character. Her incredulity at his participation in the Final Solution – ‘as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world’ – shows the continuous reincarnation of the hypocrisy that underpins how humans are treated as a form of currency.
The Handmaid’s Tale is frequently compared to George Orwell’s 1984 – both are dystopian novels concerned with physical and emotional oppression and the control and manipulation of human thought as a necessary means of governing society.
The power of the Party in 1984 rests on its ability to maintain fear through a perpetual state of war, ensuring the discontent of its citizens is turned towards Oceania’s rivals, Eastasia and Eurasia. The ruling elite of The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other hand, dress up their desire for power in a radical ideology, with religion acting as both a smokescreen and a justification for an insidious regime based on inequality, where the only way these men can sleep at night is to reassure themselves that they are creating a better world, a world that God himself would be proud of.
In both novels, people are organised into factions and roles based on class, gender and power status. Both the inner members of the Party and Gilead’s elite enjoy privileges not afforded to the rest of the population, such as O’Brien’s lavish apartment and the loose morals of ‘Jezbels’.
A more interesting comparison might be with another of Orwell’s novels, Animal Farm, and a particular phrase that aligns closely with the words of Commander Waterford. When the animals of Manor Farm begin their revolution against the drunk, irresponsible farmer, it is founded on seven commandments of Animalism, the most important of which is ‘all animals are created equal’. As the pigs elevate themselves to positions of leadership, they start to abuse their power and manipulate the other animals for their own gain, resulting in a violent tyranny and a revision of the commandments into a single statement: ‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ The pigs even adopt human traits and characteristics, such as walking on two legs, highlighting their corruption of the Animalist ideals and transformation into their original oppressors.
When one of the horses on the farm is injured and unable to work, the pigs sell him to the knackers, the same way women in Gilead are sent to forced labour camps called ‘The Colonies’, where life expectancy is very short, when they have nothing to offer men. Power is a vehicle for taking what you want and discarding anything not of use, even when the transaction concerns human (or animal) life, and both texts highlight the horrifying hypocrisy of tyrannies that base themselves on, and owe their initial power to, ideologies of liberation and morality.
A more recent dystopia presents itself in the form of David Eggers The Circle (2013), a novel concerned with the effects of technology on our collective consciousness and the right to privacy in the digital age. For the first half of the novel, the United States in which The Circle is set appears more dreamlike than sinister, and its protagonist Mae Holland can’t quite believe her luck at landing a job in the world’s powerful technology company, which shares its name with the title of the book.
In the same way that the Christian fanaticism of Gilead’s ruling elite props up their self-appointed moral superiority, those who work at The Circle are able to manipulate Mae into handing over control of her own life to the corporation by convincing her, through rational-sounding questions and answers that lead to increasingly ridiculous and unnerving demands, that those who are good have nothing to hide.
The inventions of The Circle become more and more outrageous, such as the tiny ‘SeeChange’ cameras that can be planted everywhere, and plans to embed tracking chips in children’s bones. These inventions are cited as a necessity to prevent rape, kidnapping and other atrocities, similar to how the personal freedom of the women in Gilead is restricted for their own protection.
Margaret Atwood actually reviewed The Circle for the New York Times and she writes that one of the purposes of the novel is ‘to remind us that we can be led down the primrose path much more blindly by our good intentions than by our bad ones’.
Unfortunately it is hard to argue that any of the people in power in these novels have good intentions. The fact that the problematic social and political practices explored in the three texts mentioned relate so easily to real-world issues highlights that, despite all our societal advancements and technological innovations, we are nowhere near as progressive as we think. In this way, dystopian literature remains an important vehicle for criticising contemporary values and conditions.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the men blame the corruption and sin of pre-Gilead as the motivating factor for their strict implementation of traditional morals and values, yet their idealistic claims are based on reestablishing positions of dominance and submission.
The Commander tries to show kindness to Offred, but as with all his actions, it is a selfish kindness, a kindness that is not about having compassion for her but about convincing himself that he isn’t a monster. While he may see everyone as physically human, through Gilead he has constructed such rigid definitions of humanity that he is able to fool himself into believing that anyone who oversteps those boundaries deserves their fate, however harsh. To admit that Gilead is a system that affords privilege to few at the expense of many, a system the cloaks its sexist and racist intentions in the guise of religious salvation, would be admitting something far more disturbing about his own humanity.
The day after Donald Trump’s election, sales of Atwood’s literary classic increased 200 per cent on the previous year, propelling it straight to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. The television series has received worldwide acclaim and dozens of articles have been written about its timeliness, about its relevance to Trump’s America and an increasingly unstable world order.
What struck me most about that line in Jezebels was the realisation that there was nothing new about the character of the Commander, both in literature and in real life.
The Commander is a living, breathing entity, existing as many different identities: the governments who detain asylum seekers in offshore detention centres or assail refugees trying to enter their borders with tear gas, while contributing to the wars they are fleeing from; the policemen that assert their authority by shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protesters; the westerners adamant in their knowledge of the ‘real’ Islam without comprehending that their Islamophobia is founded more on racism than interpretations of the Koran; men’s rights activists who believe feminism is too quick to see women as victims, yet jump at the chance to portray themselves as the ones being victimised. All these are examples of the hypocrisy that festers within our society, a hypocrisy that negates the diversity of humanity and the human experience by enforcing rigid stereotypes and ways of categorising people that make some more worthy, more valuable, more human than others.
The Commander may be a figure on a screen or a character in a book, but he also exists all over the world, hiding behind a veil of hypocrisy.
Image: Still from season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale