Banned Book Week 2011: The Handmaid’s Tale

I don’t get book bans. I’ve never encountered a book I wanted to see expunged from the collective human knowledge base. I’ve read books I have absolutely hated for a variety of reasons ranging from crappy scholarship, outright falsehood, awful or just dull writing, or boring subject matter. But I’ve never felt the need to deny a writer their say. I’m not alone in this: Banned Book Week is a shrine to the idea that all writing is valid, even if it’s not welcome on a given bookshelf.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is an old favorite of those who would make unpleasant books go away, and was listed 37th on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Banned Books from 1990 to 1999. It was challenged in 2001 in Dripping Springs, Texas by a group of parents who declared it anti-Christian and pornographic. Also quite recently, the Judson School District Board in San Antonio, TX overturned a ban of The Handmaid's Tale by the superintendent. Ed Lyman had ordered the book taken out of the advanced placement English curriculum when a parent complained it contained sexual and anti-Christian content. A committee comprised of teachers, students, and a parent had recommended the book remain in the class, but Lyman said he felt it did not fit in with the standards of the community.

To be fair: violence, certainly. Sex, absolutely. Anti-Christian, perhaps, if you happen to believe that Jesus was all about wielding obscene levels of wealth and power against the meek. Pornographic, no. There is nothing arousing about the situations found in this book.

The world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a grim one. Women are second-class citizens in the recently formed Republic of Gilead. Women may not own property or carry money. All dresses and hats come with veils. They may not read, write, or (occasionally) speak unless spoken to.  Older women are often pressed into service as domestic Marthas, ruled over by Wives. Working class women, known as Econowives, do not get servants, or Handmaids, or anything other than a life of back-breaking labor. Because of falling fertility rates in Gilead the younger and hopefully more fertile women are sometimes assigned as Handmaids, expected to produce children for the elite rulers of Gilead. Early in the book, it’s suggested that the suicide rate among Handmaids is quite high.

It gets worse. Older women, barren women, homosexuals and criminals are declared Unwomen and sent to colonies to enjoy hard labor cleaning up environmental disasters, toxic chemical spills, or other similar work. Secret police, known as Eyes, are everywhere.

All this is told to the reader through the eyes and voice of Offred, a Handmaid who’s assigned to an older military officer known as the Commander. Her job is to produce a child for the couple, which is unlikely, as the Wife believes that her husband is actually sterile—a dangerous thought, as Gileadan law says that only women can be sterile. Desperate to manage the situation, the Commander’s Wife arranges for Offred to sleep with Nick, her husband’s driver, in an effort to get her pregnant. Nick and Offred become attached to each other. Eventually, Nick tells her that he can get her out of the country if she’s willing to trust him. The book ends with an assumed contact of Nick’s leading her into an unmarked van, although whether she’s being saved or led to her doom by Eyes is left unsaid.

You don’t read a lot about the men in this society directly, since Offred’s dealings with them are sharly limited by the rules she lives by. Men are in charge, as the Commander is; or they serve those in charge, as Nick, his driver, does; or they populate the military and police forces that maintain order. The pecking order is extreme and there is no escape. Men conform or die, their bodies to be hung in a public square as a testament to the Gileadan manner of justice. Simple.

The most frequently cited reasons for banning this book are the description of Christianity found in its pages. However, anyone—certainly any actual Christian—should be able to tell the difference between the teachings of Jesus and the religious fundamentalist government depicted in the book, which is using certain imagery found in Christianity as a tool to maintain militarily enforced rules of society. There is a difference. The world Atwood describes is a world founded on a uniquely American form of biblical law. For an environment supposedly espousing Christian values, Christ himself–who commanded his followers to love the poor, tend the sick, comfort those in prison, and abhor excessive wealth–is nowhere to be found.  

The folks who complain about the sheer brutality of the book’s worldview may have a point: violence is at the center of the Handmaid’s world. Society at some point in the not too distance past was disrupted when a cabal of fundamentalist-minded military officers essentially executed the civilian government and declared themselves rulers over God’s kingdom. Wars against the infidel are endemic; a news show described by Offred mentions the execution of Quaker and Baptist rebels, and the forcible uprooting of “Children of Ham” (i.e., Blacks) to North Dakota. Jews are given a choice: convert or leave for Zion. There’s some question as to how many of those put on the boats ever arrived at their destination.

The violence that Offred experiences is more psychological than physical, although she says at one point the Wives are allowed to beat Handmaids as long as they use bare hands, since “there’s scriptural precedent.” Handmaids have no names except for those assigned (Offred, Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc.) by the management. Money has been replaced by pictograph tokens they can use to buy food at the local grocery; even the store signs have been replaced by wordless logos. The ostensible reason for this—the reason the Handmaids are told during their training as state-sponsored breeders—is that it’s for their own protection. Women are too valuable, they’re told, to have to deal with such types of stress.

So here we are. 2011 and Handmaid’s Tale is every bit as creepy as it was when it was published in 1985. In a way it’s worse now. The Commander’s Wife, a genteel lady named Serena Joy, was, in her prime, a televangelist who railed against the horrors of modern life and worked tirelessly to bring about the world she now lives in, a world directed by “Christian” values and enforces “traditional” family life. One imagines that she’s resigned to being the head of a household rather than a self-directing individual in a world of business, power, wealth, and religion. One expects that she’d imagined herself being rather more free and/or powerful than she is allowed to be by the leaders she helped bring to power.

And the really interesting is the fact that there are women in American politics even now—Michele Bachman and Beverly LaHaye spring to mind — who are seeking such a world on one level or another without understanding that in such a world, women like themselves are not allowed.

For their own good, of course.

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About Jonathan Frater


  1. Atwood draws you in and creates this world that is not so far fetched. I enjoyed this book ever so much, and I’m not surprised it is not liked by those who seek to exert influence over EVERYTHING. I view this book as a warning for our society. It only takes a few people to introduce radical change. Hello, how do you think America became independent.
    Brilliant review :)

  2. This was one of those books I read in college and was enthralled. Started reading all of Atwood, etc. Just read it again a couple years ago as a ‘grownup’ and was riveted by the story once again.

  3. Awesome awesome awesome thoughts on this… the book has been on my shelf for over a year – unread. It may be time to pull it down.


  1. [...] here is going to be something similar to what I did last year. Then, I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a creepily prophetic story of a future America controlled by a brutal Christian Fundamentalist [...]