Freedom To and Freedom From: A Musing on The Handmaid’s Tale

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By: Glynis Neely

Margaret Atwood’s landmark novel The Handmaid’s Tale, about a futuristic, dystopian America, was recently adapted into a Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss as the titular Offred, a woman who has been torn from her family in the wake of a theocratic coup that took over the American government turning it into a fundamentalist theocracy. She is forced to live as a handmaid, serving as a surrogate for a high-ranking officer and his wife in what used to be a wealthy suburb in Massachusetts. In this new world, she is not permitted to read or go anywhere outside the home, save for scheduled, supervised trips to the market. Her world is shrouded in secrecy and suspicion, but she tries her best to fit in and survive while trying to hold on to a part of who she used to be.

When I read the book in high school, it profoundly moved me. I already considered myself a feminist, but the story felt tangible and relevant in a way nothing else I had read had done. It could have been written at almost any time in history and that is precisely why it still strikes such a nerve; it is timeless. The novel has been translated into over 40 languages and has been adapted into several different mediums over the years: a film from 1990, a ballet, a graphic novel, an opera and now a TV series. Atwood’s original title was Offred, but at some point during her writing she changed it to The Handmaid’s Tale, partly as homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as a reference to fairy and folk tales. The name Offred means literally ‘of Fred’ or the name of the man to which she belongs.

Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice. (Atwood, NYT)

When the novel was written in 1984, Atwood was living in East Berlin, at the time under Soviet control. The conspiratorial undertones and pandemic of fear she experienced there influenced her writing as she created The Republic of Gilead. Atwood felt she needed to convince Americans that this could happen in their country, a considerable task since the average American is the patron saint of believing “It can’t happen here.” Atwood always asserts that, “anything can happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” She wanted to prove she could tell this particular story through dystopian fiction, “but also to suggest ways that it has already happened, here or elsewhere.” (Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker)

The regime uses biblical symbols, as any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would: They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.

The new Hulu series is an incredible piece of television on its own, with a brilliant use of light and color that ultimately works because of Elizabeth Moss’s spectacular work, both on screen and in voiceover. The series opens with the soon-to-be-Offred (Moss) desperately trying to escape from the authorities with her family, husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake). There is a moment where she is holding her daughter and she breathes a sigh of relief, as though she thinks they will be ok, but it is over in seconds and the last thing she sees as she loses consciousness is her daughter being dragged away. The show’s visuals offer a beautiful contrast to the ugliness seen in plain sight in this new society.

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Life in Gilead is shrouded in a perpetual fear and distrust for one’s neighbor. Much like in 1984, there are eyes everywhere and Offred cannot afford to trust anyone. Black vans drive around, following the handmaids at all times. It is a constant reminder for Offred and her fellow handmaids as they are also expected to spy on each other. The fear consumes her waking life. The women utter the phrase “under his eye” whenever departing from each other’s company. This distrust is not misplaced, even in America,

“One of the keys to America is that your neighbor may be a Communist, a serial killer, or in league with satanic forces. You really don’t trust your fellow citizens very much.” – Margaret Atwood

Once the handmaids are selected, they are sent to a brainwashing facility called the Red Center. In a society where birth rates are dwindling from disease and pollution, they are forced to assimilate into their new roles as the breeding mares to high-end officials in the new establishment. They are “cultivated, like livestock” for the purposes of furthering this new twisted society. One such handmaid, Janine, is psychologically broken by the Center after she has her eye gouged out; later on she seems to have embraced this new ideology with unreserved malice.

All allusions to the new regime are rendered in vivid color: the handmaids wear bright red smocks with white winged hats, reminiscent of old nurse uniforms, and the wives wear muted shades of blue and gray. Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple — and many have ruled behind a religious front. It makes the creation of heretics that much easier.

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The older women who run the center are called Aunts and some of them truly believe that what they are doing is right, particularly Aunt Lydia, portrayed on the Hulu series with an unnerving mixture of compassion and vehemence by Ann Dowd. Many of these women feel like the girls should just be happy they’re even alive; they are fed and watched over; they haven’t been sent to a toxic waste farm where people’s skin falls off in sheets; and they are shielded from sexual violence from strangers. Of course, they still need to be brood mares for their respective officials, but isn’t that better than the alternative? Or so they are told.

Their identity is stripped from them until they no longer have a voice or personal autonomy. They are not allowed to read or speak of their previous lives. They are only valued for their breeding capability; this is their identity now. As Atwood writes in her piece for the New York Times:

“They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away.”

One’s identity in this new society can ultimately be one’s downfall, put on display for the entire world to see. When Offred and Ofglen walk by the water, they stop to look up at the three people hanged that day and Offred’s moment of thought is so brutal and matter-of-fact: “A priest, a doctor, a gay man; I feel like I’ve heard this joke before. This wasn’t a punch line.” She is afraid that one day she will see her best friend hanging up there with a bag over her head, signaling her outsider status as a gay woman.

The only solace for Offred lies in the moments something feels familiar to her; the remnants of her old life. At one point she muses to herself: “The moon’s the same. That’s something.” She also famously finds the phrase, nolite te bastardes carborundorum, scratched into a drawer in her room that becomes a mantra of sorts as she holds on to some semblance of who she used to be. In Gilead, women are forbidden to read so most of them have lost the understanding of the power of words, but not Offred. Her small acts of rebellion, like playing Scrabble, make her stand out. In America, some people see not reading as a badge of honor, so the idea of losing the privilege is not something they’ve ever had to consider. Yet Atwood understands the bigger picture and wanted to bring that perspective to American audiences.

“There are still places on this planet where to be caught reading you, or even me, would incur a severe penalty. I hope there will soon be fewer such places…I am no holding my breath.”

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Offred’s internal musings depicted through voiceover reflect the part of her personality that is free to wander and roam, as nothing is safe to say aloud. Conversations with other handmaids and especially the wives are carefully constructed, robotic responses. The narration element of both the book and the series represent the voice that she has lost. While her outer identity has been stripped from her, seen so starkly in the scene where she sits at her window reciting the names of items that populate her now tiny world, she still retains her internal life of intellectual thought and resolve.

The show expands her internal life by giving us a glimpse of who she used to be, and how her identity is not completely lost, like many others who have been brainwashed by the Center. Elizabeth Moss is doing some of her best work on this show and the narration works well thanks to her sardonic and self-possessed delivery that never feels intrusive like it has on so many other shows. This is partly because the story could not be told without this dimension, but likely wouldn’t work without such a talented actor at the helm.

Nick [to Offred]: “Are you going shopping?”

Offred: [to herself] No Nick, I’m going to knock back a few at the oyster house bar, wanna come along? [to Nick] “Yes.”

Moss’s voiceover work is evenly matched with her incredible facial expressions that subtly inform the viewer of the restrictions placed on her in this new world. The tortuous pain of living now is seen in every terse reaction or tight-lipped smile; small micro expressions betray the calm exterior she has clearly spent time perfecting as an oppressed woman trying to fit in. The ritualized rape scene is the most degrading thing I’ve ever witnessed where all three parties were completely clothed. Seeing her in flashback, broadly smiling only hammers home the true depths she has reached in this new regime.

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In Atwood’s vision of Gilead, the new world order is sexist, deeply homophobic and profoundly racist. Since it is a different medium, the show deviates from the book in very pointed ways, like the flashback of Moira and Offred smoking pot, mentions of things like Uber and credit cards, and more significantly, several main characters are gay. Offred’s husband Luke and friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are also black and her daughter Hannah is biracial. This grounds the story in the present, whereas the book used a fair amount of futuristic language that feels dated when it’s revisited now. These small details lend to the decidedly more modern feel of this new series.

“This many not seem ordinary to you right now, but in time it will. This will become ordinary.”

Surprisingly, this is not a line from our modern times but in fact what Aunt Lydia tells the girls to reassure them that they will fall in line just like everyone else. The series premiering now feels especially apropos. The story of The Handmaid’s Tale may feel unfamiliar and foreign, but it is not a far cry from the direction we have been heading in, from the time even before Margaret Atwood put pen to paper and wrote the original novel. We have seen numerous iterations of dystopias, this story most reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 951. The novel has resonated with readers no matter the political climate, partly because it is an incredible work of feminist fiction and partly because it has been considered simply one of the best books ever written. In today’s political climate, this future does not seem impossible in America or elsewhere –

“In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries… hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes”

Many Americans have lost faith in our system; some have rejected science outright and rejoiced in the anti-intellectual trend creeping its way through our government. Atwood noted that American society has experienced a “catastrophic devaluation of intellection…the willful repudiation of rigorous thinking, and objective facts, that helped propel Trump to victory.”

During the election, fear was shoved down people’s throats and they allowed those fears to guide them to the voting booths. There were women during the election that would have willingly given up their right to vote just so Trump could be president, but then their votes ultimately put him there anyway. Since the election, fear has risen in American society and your political identity could alienate you from any manner of person in your life, be it a family member, significant other or co-worker. Many are increasingly afraid that his or her livelihoods will be negatively affected by this new administration, and with good reason: the attacks began day one and haven’t let up since.

Atwood herself has noted that women today are noticing that the rights they have always taken for granted are under attack and could be taken away.

“Look at the kind of laws that people have put through the states. Absolutely they want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and they will have to deal with the consequences if they do. You’re going to have a lot more orphanages, aren’t you? A lot more dead women, a lot more illegal abortions, a lot more families with children in them left without a mother. They want it ‘back to the way it was.’ Well, that is part of the way it was.”

For centuries, mankind has been contemplating the question of freedom and what it means for society as a whole, but more importantly what it means for the individual. The concept of personal freedom that is granted by society allowing us to make our own decisions and choose how we want to live our lives is called “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is meant to insulate everyone from the chaos of society through rules and regulations, providing safety from harms that happen in a more free society. In reality, there needs to be a balance between the two. There cannot be unlimited freedom to without freedom from: one leads to anarchy and the other leads to oppression and both have seen their fair share in the world’s history.

In America today we try to strike a balance between the two, but the solution presented by Gilead is to simply take away all the women’s freedom. They claim the rules are put in place to keep them safe. Freedom from those horrors is what Gilead sees as the ultimate freedom: their strict rules and regulations eliminate harassment, rape, or violence at the hands of strangers. Of course, they still have to endure their state-sanctioned rape at the hands of their commanders, but they are free from the everyday horrors of life as a woman before.

Just as it was for the women in Gilead, this possibly imminent patriarchal takeover has been bubbling under the surface for years. A young Canadian writer name Michelle Dean said, “The struggle we presently find ourselves in is not a mistake, and not a fluke… It crept into our lives while we were napping. Power sometimes works that way, but I still wish we hadn’t missed it.” We cannot become complacent ourselves if we wish to avoid a similar fate. Fear is a powerful tool that has been wielded in American from time immemorial. The new administration used it to get into the White House and will continue to force it down willfully ignorant throats when it suits their purpose.

There is a reason that this show feels so timely, and why it is not easy to watch. I recommend that everyone does watch the show, however brutal, as it truly brings Atwood’s enduring story to life. Offred’s story is a warning: the takeover will happen while everyone is watching and we shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to do something about it. We can find comfort in language and intelligent thought, science, and questioning authority, but we cannot subsist as the brainwashed masses if we wish to continue this democratic experiment. The freedom to live as we choose could be taken away in an instant, so we must stay vigilant and know our truth, as Offred knows her own. And don’t forget: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

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