Dr. Bill James
School of Religion
The Handmaid’s Tale is all over the place these days in a remarkable resurgence that Atwood herself declares as “weird.” It feels a bit that way to me too, as I recall the novel’s appearance in the mid-80s. I taught the book for several years in RELS 161, Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Its immediate referents were, as I recall, the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and feminism. Then and now, the strong underlying themes of religion and the state and of totalitarianism loomed.
This retrospection got me to dig up an article I had written and published in Japan in the early 90’s, “Narrative as Prayer and Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was reissued in 1994 for students in RELS 161. A scanned version is available here. I was relieved to reread it and find that it isn’t entirely an embarrassment. In fact, its focus on the narrator’s inner monologue as a form of prayer strikes me as perennially relevant. Augustine, in The Confessions, first helped us understand that one’s relation to the deepest aspect of the self is akin to the relation to the divine.
This inner monologue—which novels represent so well and which movies often fail at or ignore—disappeared as a feature of the 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff. Though the film starred an illustrious quintet of principals, and though the screenplay was written by renowned playwright Harold Pinter, it was lamentable in many respects. Due to changes in midstream, Pinter felt the film became a “hotch-potch.” Natasha Richardson, the female lead, thought the Offred’s interior monologue would be handled by voice-over narrations, but then these were cut out, reportedly because Pinter was against them.
The American television series of The Handmaid’s Tale by Bruce Miller just began airing in April 2017, in Canada on the Bravo network. The tv series is acclaimed as a visually impressive and an emotionally suspenseful drama representing the best of what television can offer. Elisabeth Moss, in the role of Offred, expresses her innermost thoughts in voice-over in assertion of rebellion against the totalitarian control and distortions of the regime. From the beginning as a viewer I felt that the novel had been restored to life.
The discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale continue in various media, usually revolving its relevance in the Age of Trump. But some of the tangential issues are fascinating too. For me it’s the revival of challenges to Atwood’s feminism as she continues a decades-long resistance against being called a feminist. An article in Jezebel recently challenged Atwood’s view that women’s rights are human rights. The Jezebel piece went on to query how Elisabeth Moss could belong to Scientology while portraying a woman living under oppression. Moss has refused to talk about the negative aspects of her religion, with the allegations of forced abortions, confinements, and various accounts of physical and sexual abuse.
Again, memories of old controversies return. It was in 1988 that I reviewed Russell Miller’s critical, though popular and unauthorized, biography of Scientology’s founder, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. At the time I wondered whether the religion would survive the founder’s death but here it is, still with us, and still the subject of movies and articles and investigations. Atwood’s feminism and Moss’s religion are versions of the old question of whether a bad person can produce good art. Or of literature and belief: What’s the fit between the worldview of the text and its author’s beliefs? In the Church it was the Donatist controversy: Is the Sacrament still efficacious when received from the hands of an unworthy priest? In some ways contemporary celebrity culture, which reveals all about about any public figure, augments the problem. The answer, too, may be an old one. As D. H. Lawrence said: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Fascinating, recurring, and age-old questions.