Sickening rewriting of Little Red Riding hood when the WOLF is king
MARGARET ATWOOD’S RED RIDING PROPHETESS
A FEMINIST CRY IN THE DENSEST OLD COLD WAR IN 1985
& IN THE NEW HOT TRADE WAR IN 2019
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
Margaret Atwood committed a major crime against male-dominated society as well as female-descending society. She imagined a society in which women are entirely marginalized and rejected except a small elite minority but since they are sterile they have to find a way to get children they cannot conceive children or carry them to anything looking like birth.
So Margaret Atwood imagines a society in which a class of surrogate mother will have to be ritualistically impregnated by the Commanders, the elite men of the elite families, in public and following clear rules. This solution is absolutely obscene. No medical assistance and no checking if the Commanders, the elite men in these elite families are fertile or not.
That’s absolute absurdity.
This book has been adapted to the silver screen in 1990 and was still valid in that Cold War period in which it appeared, targeting, of course, a possible communistic evolution of the USA towards such a society. But today we are no longer in this simple-minded situation: The Cold War has been out for more than 25 years. But the West cannot survive if they do not have a scapegoat, an enemy and the West is the best manipulator in history and they can always manage to produce an enemy out of nothing, thus negating all natural laws of chemistry.
They were told it was not good to target Islam, so now they target Shia Islam. Is it better? Of course not. And then they target women in Islamic society . . . Unluckily women in Iran are an essential class of workers at all levels, though women cannot be imams or the masters/mistresses of ceremonies in public executions. Shucks! Nothing is that simple.
And North Korea or China are not even easier. There might not be many women in the political elite but women are vastly present at all levels of the economy, including at the executive level. Shucks! Again. Nothing is simple. Then they try Russia. Same remark and the rich males we know in the west are executives who want to move out of Russia, with all their assets and money, hence who want to emigrate and steal, loot, pillage Russian capital at the same time. Shucks! A third time! Nothing is simple.
So American television insists as much as possible on the existence of a Russian mafia, of an Armenian mafia who bring drugs to the US and cheap women for prostitution. In an older period, it was the Georgian mafia and Schwarzenegger was the main Soviet bully that brought them down in the USA. Things have changed then and yet are always the same: these rotten Russians not only are good at hacking and computing, but they can even hack American missiles and compute their trajectory into the sea. Shucks! One more time! The missiles were not Russian but American. So who pretends to be the cop of the world?
There was the same tendency in Great Britain in the late 1980s under Thatcher and the Conservatives: the country was invaded by Russian, Armenian and why not Polish mafia. That will produce Brexit eventually. But I just wonder how they would have been able to build the equipment for the Olympic Games if they had not had Polish workers to cast the concrete and move the stones.
We can maybe consider Atwood was good in 1985, still not bad in 1990. But in 2017 what can it produce when the authoritarian trend is in the USA itself and in the White House first of all. The authoritarians were elected, not with a popular vote though, but that proves nothing since Mussolini was elected, Salazar was elected, Hitler was elected. The only one who was not elected was Franco.
This book shows very clearly that democracy is not a protection against such trends because it is in New England that the evolution takes place. A little bit of white supremacist magic potion and magic powder and the best and most democratic American society can easily fall down into the chasm of H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and definitely many more including here Margaret Atwood.
MARGARET ATWOOD — THE HANDMAID’S TALE — 1985
I read the book after I watched a couple of times the old film with Faye Dunaway of 1990. And I do think it was a wise choice. The book is a lot more powerful because of the treatment of time. The book is often considered as a dystopia and that could be right if we considered the shift from modern time USA to that world a possibility. It is based on the idea that one day, because of all the manipulation of sexuality essentially by women’s liberation movements the country does not produce children anymore, women have become sterile and this very assumption is absurd because fertility is a dual carriageway. This sounds a lot like a society deciding to victimize women because some genetic accident prevents the production of children, and in the book, only the elite is considered.
The book is a constant movement from the past before the transformation (and the main character was married to a certain Luke and had a daughter, which does not sound like sterility); the time after this period when the society slowly and radically changed from what it used to be to a strict totalitarian state that aimed and still aims at getting women out of the public space, out of all professions, out of banks and financial dealings: everything has to be covered up by the authority of a man. At the same time, women are seen as the only way to survive as a species, to survive as a state, to survive as a society and as such their power is enormous.
Women are divided into several groups identified by the color they wear. At the top, you have the Wives and their Daughters (who are daughters produced by the Handmaids from the sperm of the Commanders) who dress in blue. Then the Aunts who are responsible for the training of the next group, the Handmaids. The Aunts are dressed in some kind of brown. Then the Handmaids who are the women who give birth to children for the only sake of the elite couples, here reduced to a Wife and a Commander, though we do not know what he commands. These Handmaids are dressed in red and their only task is to get pregnant and deliver a healthy child, normally from the Commander, but with wide possibilities to compensate for the probable sterility of these Commanders. Commanders and most other security people who are only men are dressed in black. Then you have the Marthas who are the servants of this elite, dressed in grey. Then you have the Econowives who are poor women who are married and may have children: they do not work and they are the wives of all the men who work. They are dressed in rather nondescript colors and worn out dresses. Note there is also a clandestine group of women who are kept underground for the sole entertainment of the elite Commanders and foreign businessmen. Their fate is short lived most of the time since their function is to be “beautiful” and satisfy the fancies of the males that come to their special hotel. The mass of all other women are sent to the colonies where they are worked and contaminated to death within two or three years. Altogether then seven classes of women.
The corresponding hierarchy of men is not given. We only meet doctors, some shopkeepers, one driver (of a commander of course) and then security men called Guardians of the Faith and there is an allusion to spies named Eyes. Though political power is entirely in the hands of men, we hardly see it and the only power we know is that of the Wives and their Daughters. Note we here have the same pattern as in a Jewish society where women are transmitting Jewishness to the children (here reduced to daughters). They do quote the Old Testament and only the Old Testament, though they have modified a few verses. They are absolutely not of Christian inspiration as for this position of women.
To go back to the constant shifting of time, after the first two older layers we have the layer when the main character is captured when trying to escape from this country to go picnic on the other side of the border with her husband and their daughter. The daughter is of course immediately given to a Mother and becomes a Daughter. The mother, the main character, since she is fertile is turned into a handmaid. So we have the time of this long transition in some kind of center under the sole authority of Aunts.
Then the main character will be appointed — for the first time — to a Commander and his Wife and that’s where the timeline becomes blurred. The main character loses the perfect consciousness of the timeline that is hers. At the end she speaks as if she had been in that position for more than four months, which is the normal time allotted to a Handmaid to become pregnant, otherwise, she is moved to another Wife and Commander, or to the colonies. In other words, the vast majority of women are expendable and this fact is in total contradiction with the idea that women transmit life and guarantee the survival of the species.
The most interesting aspect of this book is the fact that it is all told by the main character and from her point of view. The flashbacks of varying depth and all description of events and people are captured through her eyes and at times she wonders if she is telling the truth. Her liaison with Nick, the driver, arranged by the Wife she is supposed to obey, is thus at times described from different points of view, though always by the main character who says the first version is not correct, then the second version is not correct either, and we can doubt the third version is correct. This succession of three versions shows that this main character has lost all sense of identity and she is rediscovering some personal dimension within this liaison that will make her pregnant. If she can tell this episode in three different modes, it’s because it has little to do with the standard daily exploitation she is the victim of. Here she is entering a field of emotions that cannot be reduced to a cold inhumanity and has to be endowed with some richness.
The end has only a vague connection with the end in the 1990 film and I won’t tell you what it is. We just have to wonder what the main dimension of this story is. We could make it a dystopian metaphor of the real world. This metaphor could be seen as feasible in 1985 at the ‘end of the USSR, but it was no longer valid in 1990 since the Berlin Wall had fallen and the USSR was going to dissolve. Nowadays it is just plainly difficult to consider it as a metaphor for what is happening in some countries that are heavily under military control and operations, including from foreign powers, or of countries that the USA wants to classify as dictatorship, like Iran and North Korea, though as for women Saudi Arabia is a lot more backward than any other country in the world.
Then we can wonder if it is a parable. But the tale does not lead to any positive ending for the society at large. It is a lot more the description of segregation, racism, slavery, concentration camps, exclusion and exploitation, supremacy in, one word, white of course: there is NOT ONE BLACK person in the whole book. The only minority that is actually present is the Quakers who are seen as dangerous because they help people to evade from this prison. There is a mention of Jews but they have been forced to emigrate with a choice between emigration or genocide.
It is definitely a supremacist society but after all, non-whites have been eliminated. Then it is the supremacy of an elite shared between women on one hand and men on the other. All along all those — here women — who want to step out of this society only have one option: suicide by killing themselves or suicide by having themselves executed in a way or another. That’s a really dehumanizing, devitalizing and decerebralizing society with no escape, no future, no salvation. And as such, it is an extraordinarily fascinating book in the present trump times of ours.
MARGARET ATWOOD — HAROLD PINTER — FAYE DUNAWAY — THE HANDMAID’S TALE — 1990
I will only consider here the 1990 film with Faye Dunaway, not the novel beyond, nor of course the recent adaptation as a TV series that is not available on the DVD market.
We are in the United States of America after it became the Republic of Gilead. I will not enter the Biblical meaning of this word that can be used to designate some regions of the old Biblical Israel and three characters in the Old Testament, among them the father of Jephthah, that crazy general who swore to have the first person coming to him after the battle if it is a victory sacrificed to God. He thus has to put his daughter to death.
But that gives you the flavor of the story. In this Republic of Gilead, men are absolutely dominant and they have reinstalled or reinstated the standard total submission of women to go against the total dissolution of society before due to sexual promiscuity, abortion, family planning, contraception, artificial insemination, gender orientation, etc. Women have to go back to their main and only function in that male-dominated society: to give birth to babies conceived in the normal natural good old intercourse between a man and a woman. And that’s where the story becomes bizarre or even squalid.
Women are, like for men in Brave New World, divided into clearly defined groups that have to dress in a particular color. Grey is for the plain servants. Then, red is for the handmaids, those whose sole function is to procreate babies with the master of the household they are attached to. White is for some kind of religious characters who participate in various rites. Maroon is for the women who are controlling the handmaids, assigning them wherever they are needed, and of course, punishing them when “necessary.” Blue is for the ladies of the various households whose babies are produced by the handmaids attached to them and their husbands. All men are in black. There is a last category of women: those who cannot be integrated into any category, particularly as handmaids and are the “girls” of some parties for the masculine elite. In other words, they are the escorts or working girls of the elite men of the society.
The disease that is the cause of this situation is purely surreal, causing the sterility of most women and those who are not sterile are used as reproductive human chattel. The film though seems to hint that the man, Fred, Kate, the handmaid the story is centered on, should provide with a child, is sterile, and his sterile wife, Serena, suggests Kate should use the services of her husband’s chauffeur, Nick. All that is of course sordid. During that time Fred, the Commander, is systematically hunting down the resistance with the clear objective of exterminating them. Today we call that genocide. Apart from Blacks and gays, the concept of resisting people is rather vague and we can wonder how this elite can live if there is no proletariat, even lumpen-proletariat to work for them.
Fred falls in love with Kate, but that brings no pregnancy. Nick, on the other hand, falls in love with her too and she with him and that brings a pregnancy as if without equally shared love there is no pregnancy possible. When Serena learned that Fred had taken Kate to one of the elite’s parties and that she had worn her own black clothing instead of her red dress, she becomes furious and wants a vengeance. On the other hand, Nick and Kate want to escape Gilead with their future baby.
That’s the dramatic knot in the thread of that story, a Gordian knot actually and it will have to be cut, but how and for what future?
The fact that this old novel and this here old film have been remembered for a TV series has, of course, to do with the election of the present President of the USA. The rise of bigotry and populism in the USA today is seen as dangerous. Just the same way The Man in the High Castle, an old novel stating the same type of dystopia centered on men essentially has been brought back to life by Amazon Prime, this Handmaid’s Tale, centered as it is on women, had to be brought back to life too. The present period in our globalized world is bringing up the question of refusing change and even dreaming of a full U-turn and going back to what the world was in the past, the Old Testament, in this case, A victory of Japan and Germany in 1945 in The Man in the High Castle. The pessimists are going to say that will lead to the Third World War. The optimist will say that God or man’s rational wisdom will prevail and the Singularity of Intelligent Machines will bring humanity eternal life and absolute peace with no work what so ever to do. The dream of a permanent siesta or farniente. Though it may very well be a Matrix that leads to eternal slavery and war.
POUL RUDERS — TJENERINDENS FORTAELLING — THE HANDMAID’S TALE — MICHAEL SCHONWANDT — ROYAL DANISH THEATER — 2000
This recording of this opera is rather frustrating since the visual part of it which are important and autonomous as for the whole musical production are not provided of course. There is no full recording of the opera available on the market, or YouTube. We are thus reduced to this audio version which is luckily attached to an important booklet that provides descriptions of all the visual episodes, most of them without music at all. I must say though that the newly produced TV series adapted from the novel has motivated Norman Frizzle to release a short section a later production of the opera, in an English version, on YouTube, published on Sep 30, 2017, (2006) The start of a complete performance preservation from the English National Opera’s first production in English of the powerful opera version by Poul Ruders (music) and Paul Bentley (libretto) of the Margaret Atwood novel. The camcorder was a first-generation digital Canon, the primitive video processed and bumped up to HD (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlixRXz17ME).
Another musical adaptation of the novel was produced in January 2013 by Chris Garrard who put on YouTube on March 28, 2013, three highlights of the three parts of his chamber opera. It is interesting to see that more modern version of the story, even if we cannot have the whole opera. The three highlights are available as follows. The Handmaid’s Tale — Highlights (Part 1) Part 1 of the edited highlight of The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. Composed by Chris Garrard. Dramaturgy by Lore Lixenberg with the cast and crew. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACY8BKATx0I&t=91s. The Handmaid’s Tale — Highlights (Part 2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtwDRwRHhzk. The Handmaid’s Tale — Highlights (Part 3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvnrJESvsjM&t=8s. The composer gave an interview on January 15 to The Oxford Culture Review, https://theoxfordculturereview.com/2013/01/15/the-handmaids-tale-an-interview-with-chris-garrard/.
To add another adaptation in October 2013 I will choose the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of The Handmaid’s Tale, Choreographer Lila York, Composer James Macmillan, main dancer Amanda Green (as Offred). You can see a short presentation of a rehearsal at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVQOzKGFE0c. There are also a few excerpts published at the time in the press of by the RWB.
But it remains a fact that the first musical adaptation is Poul Ruders and it is worth a lot in the way it deals and processes the problem of women’s sexual exploitation, if not enslavement. It all starts with a Biblical quotation from Genesis, the story of Jacob. The opera only quotes Genesis 30:1–5 but the reference is, of course, clear to every listener and they have a wide excerpt in mind. Let me quote Genesis 30:1–13:
“30 When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ 2 Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ 3 Then she said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah; go into her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.’ 4 So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went into her. 5 And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. 6 Then Rachel said, ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore, she named him Dan. 7 Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 Then Rachel said, ‘With mighty wrestlings, I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed’; so she named him Naphtali. 9 When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10 Then Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11 And Leah said, ‘Good fortune!’ so she named him Gad. 12 Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13 And Leah said, ‘Happy am I! For the women will call me happy’; so she named him Asher.”
I quote this longer passage because of the repetition of the situation: using a handmaid, in those days a servant was closer to a slave than to a salaried worker, and these handmaids, servants or slaves were not Jewish. They were “Arabs” or “Egyptians” as they are called in the Old Testament. Jacob uses his wife’s maid twice and gets two sons. Then he uses his wife’s sister’s maid to produce two more sons. This double duality is extremely heavy in the Old Testament. We must also keep in mind that Abraham will do the same thing with his wife’s maid to get his first son, Ishmael and that then his wife will give birth to Isaac. This wife will request the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother to the desert, clearly to die there, but they were saved by God and Ishmael became the ancestor of all Muslims later on. This reference to the Old Testament is of course discussed and criticized by many, though it is difficult to really ignore that the Old Testament considered this situation as rather banal and Solomon will also have some kind of a love affair with a certain Queen of Sheba who was not a Jew and this love affair is referred to with reverence in Jewish, Islamic and Ethiopian traditions. Strangely enough, the Christians are more or less minimizing these stories.
The end of the story is more ambiguous than in the novel and in the 1990 film. Offred is arrested but the Commander has not been assassinated by her and Nick does not play a big role. She is more or less arrested for her “fornication” though it was imposed on her by the Commander. So we don’t know where she is going and what is going to happen. She says herself: “Whether this is my end or a new beginning >I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over in the hands of strangers. And so I step into the darkness or else the light.” Strangely enough, she seems to be the only one who believes there is maybe some light. The society that had been described here is absolute as the fate of failed Handmaids. Either the colonies to die under toxic and excessive work, or the Jezebel’s, the entertaining shady house where the male elite and male foreign visitors can relax in forbidden goods, comfort and pleasures. There is no light in that.
Apart from that, the opera follows rather well the story, though closer to the novel than to the older film. This enables the composer of keeping many flashbacks to the “time before” when Offred was a woman married to Luke and having a daughter. These flashbacks also portray the transformation of the old society into an absolute puritan and fundamentalist regime governed by males, excluding blacks, homosexuals, welfare people, and women. This transformation is visually ^provided by the opera (we only have descriptions of this visual presentation) but the words are particularly clear and Offred is Offred in the time of the story and a (body)-double plays her role in the flashbacks. This splitting of Offred into two characters is also very pregnant about the total uprooting of handmaids who are supposed to forget their past.
At this level, we have to consider the production and the music. The production runs into a problem without the visual show in front of our eyes. Female characters are by far dominant in numbers and they are apparently all of them very close in range with five mezzo-sopranos and four sopranos. That makes it difficult for us to follow most of the scenes. Since this version is the original in Danish it is also slightly difficult to follow what is being said, if you are not used to Danish. But apart from this difficulty (due to the fact it is a live recording and not a studio recording that could have slightly differentiated the various voices), we must say the music is often surprising and even disturbing. It uses in many transition moments noise as well as music. These noises could correspond to something projected onto the screen used on the stage, but it also creates a universe of metallic strong powerful at times discordant noises that wrap us up into a very frustrating sound universe. On the other hand, the music is quite modern in its lack of harmony and often softness. It is hard just like the suffering of these women. It is distant and cold just like the fate of these women. It can even be erratic and disturbing just like the split of these women between their remembered past and their submission to a life that has no past and no future. The system would like them to become nonchalant in this doom, but it is impossible and the music reminds us of this impossibility in its very shrill and often broken discordance.
This remark of mine has to be applied to the flashbacks in which the music or the noise is not becoming in any way softer or sweeter. The flashbacks are not sweet memories and soft recollections. They are dramatic nightmarish haunting visions that cannot in any way either be tamed into virtual souvenirs of a happy time, or eradicated and uprooted and expelled from the handmaids’ memory. It is in no way the memory you could cherish. It is a read-only repetitively-random haunting memory that can never be stopped, curbed or pushed aside. The music is perfect for that purpose. And when we watch the small section uploaded online by Norman Frizzle we really think the whole video should be edited and provided to the public. The sound recording of the opera makes us think it should be a priority.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
THE HANDMAID’S TALE — SEASON 1–2017
The first season of this series starts with the failed escape and ends with the arrest under the “plotting maneuvering” of Nick, the driver, the lover of the Handmaid and the father of her unborn child. That’s the beginning and practically the end of the original novel. But so many things have been changed.
First of all, special insistence is used to show this Gilead Republic as particularly brutal against any opponents who refuse their reading of the Christian Scriptures, but also against the handmaids themselves who are constantly suffering punishments and sanctions and hostility from everyone or nearly. The book was clear and at the same time more discreet about physical violence. Nowhere there was the allusion to one handmaid being stoned to death by the assembled handmaids under the authority of the aunts, this Kapos of this concentration republic. What’s new is also the fact that anyone among the elite can be submitted to some harsh treatment like the amputation of a forearm for some lustful “mistake.” Pleasure is of course banned. Sex is only performed as a public ceremony, note the servants are not present in this series, to impregnate the handmaid with a child that will be the child of the commander and his wife, after weaning.
That’s another change. The outing to the clandestine brothel for the elite and foreign visitors was a unique occasion in the book. It is performed twice in this adaptation because the Handmaid’s friend from her previous life is not only met here but she escapes and has a pack of letters from handmaids collected over time delivered to our Handmaid, Offred (note the ambiguity between “of-Fred” and “offered”) and that is essential to explain and set up some resistance among them, resistance that leads our Handmaid to refuse to cast the first stone on the handmaid that is supposed to be stoned to death, and all the handmaids present do exactly the same.
Here is a twist in the story. The commander’s wife became jealous in the book when she discovered her husband had borrowed her own discarded clothing from her previous time to “disguise the Handmaid for the outing to the brothel. Little of that here since the wife who could have gotten violent is pacified by the discovery the Handmaid is pregnant.
No real contact with some organized resistance like in the book and no attempt of a request for the handmaid to assassinate her commander who is the head of the military operations against this organized resistance. Yet, Nick, the driver, is ambiguous since he organizes the arrest of the Handmaid and let her know she has to submit because that’s the only way out for her. We come to the end of the season with the Handmaid in the Black Maria.
So far it looks more like an enriched storyline rather than a completely changed storyline.
The real change is in the fact that the handmaid’s husband is alive and managed to escape when he was left alone behind to confront the police. In the book, it is clearly indicated he was killed. In the series, it is clearly indicated he is alive and living in some Little America colony in Canada with all sorts of survivors from the Gilead Republic. That’s a change because it is the framework of a lot of science fiction films on such an apocalyptic end of the world: some survivors rebuild the USA in order to reconquer their lost fatherland. We can think of Matrix, Stephen King’s The Stand, and first of all the never-ending saga of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. That’s a great change from the novel.
The novel was a direct reflection of the Cold War. This series is a direct reflection or anticipation of what is happening under Trump, the transformation of the USA into an international bully, an irrational whimsical dealmaker who is getting no deals at all. Think just five minutes. Tariffs against China. China responds with blocking their purchasing soya beans, corn, and pork, just at the time when the crops are harvested and when the pigs are entering the fattening period. A catastrophe for the people who have borrowed money from their banks to pay for the harvests of soya beans and corn and the raising of pigs. And these people voted for Trump. One-third of the production of soya beans had been reserved by China. The order is canceled or blocked with tariffs. On the other hand, China has tripled their soya bean order to Russia and will pay hard currency for that crop, providing Russia with a good outlet for their own agriculture that will prosper on that — and there will be no return to the USA — and providing Russia with good hard currency cash flow. Bye, Bye, Sanctions! That’s only one example and this series is reflecting this new reality: what will the USA become when they start feeling the harshness of the situation they have created themselves?
And the latest news is about unemployment. In spite of a high level of job creations (213,000) unemployment went up from 3.8% to 4%. That’s the proof people who had abandoned the idea of ever getting a job are coming back onto the labor market that is not able to provide the necessary jobs. And wait one more month and you’ll see inflation. Like in this series they will have to introduce rationing tickets. Maybe not but yet…!
We are waiting for the second season since then it will be beyond the book. The descent into total destruction or the renascence of freedom? In Stephen King’s terms: Las Vegas or Boulder? Randall Flagg, the white evil man in black, or Abagail Freemantle, the old black lady playing the guitar and calling upon God’s grace? A nuclear warhead and the sacrifice of four, Glen Bateman, Stu Redman, Ralph Brentner, and Larry Underwood, reduced to three when Stu Redman breaks his leg en-route to Las Vegas. Three crucified men will die in Las Vegas when the nuclear warhead gets off.
I just hope the next season or seasons is or are not some liquefying and dissolving of a good story into follow-up peripeteias that break the tenseness and the density of the original tale. It takes a Frank Herbert to produce several volumes after the original Dune, and yet the density of the message was lost and David Lynch had the wisdom not to go beyond the original novel with his film adaptation.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
MARGARET ATWOOD — THE TESTAMENTS — 2019
This second — and probably last — volume has been expected for quite some time to see how the original author could deal with the end of Gilead, because at the end of the first volume which was absolutely open as for the future the only question in the mind of the reader was about the end of Gilead. How can such a puritan Christian dictatorship come to an end? From inside? From outside? From both sides? Who could be the ending forces inside and outside? How could these forces make Gilead fall?
In this volume, Margaret Atwood answers all these questions but with such a distance that we do not have any detail about the fall itself. This year when we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall that came from inside mainly, though two insides, the East German inside with the fall of Honecker and the Russian or Soviet inside with Gorbachev. In this case, the fall of the wall that will bring the fall of the regime came from an extremely long citizen movement for democracy and freedom in East Germany led by the rank and file (mostly) of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the main dominant party, followed by the simple unaffiliated people who might have been, like Angela Merkel, members of some small token parties in DDR. From the second inside, the main push came from Gorbachev, the leader of the main ally of the East German regime, main ally, and supporter. We could also consider the fact a similar regime in Hungary played the role of a wide-open leaking or running faucet that enabled a lot of East Germans to cross to Austria. But there was little that could be comparable to what Margaret Atwood imagines with Gilead, which is, by the way, a Biblical name. Genesis 31:25: “25 Then Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the mount: and Laban with his brethren pitched in the mount of Gilead.” Genesis 31:47–48: “47 And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.48 And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed;” Numbers 32:1: “1 Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle;” 1 Kings 17:1: “1 And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” Note this Elijah or Eli for short is one essential character in Stephen King’s Children of the Corn (1978), and it is a basic reference in The Dark Tower: “Gilead is the capital city of the barony of New Canaan in In-world. Its most important residents are Roland Deschain, Steven Deschain, Gabrielle Deschain, Cortland Andrus, Abel Vannay, and its main appearances are in The Gunslinger (1982) and Wizard and Glass (1997), adapted from stephenking.fandom.com. Apart from the last reference all others are anterior to Margaret Atwood’s original novel, and since the action is mainly situated in Maine and other New England states in the USA, she could not ignore these references, not to mention the Bible since she uses the place name herself.
This set of references is not here to disparage Margaret Atwood’s work but to show that she wrote within a context and the horror she describes in the original novel and this sequel to it, not to mention the horror depicted in the various adaptations for the cinema and more recently for television, is quite comparable to the horror you find in Children of the Corn, though not at all in The Dark Tower which is more of a long picaresque heroic fantasy saga. In the Bible, there is also quite a lot of horror similar to that of Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood uses in this volume a Biblical episode from Judges 19 to 21 concerning the war between all the men from eleven tribes of Israel against the men of one tribe, the Benjamites. But it is necessary to look at it more closely. She calls it “the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve pieces.” (page 78) It appears here in the official version of the Gilead Republic in which Aunt Vidala, a vicious cruel fundamentalist Aunt, pretends the concubine “deserved” the punishment of being raped by a gang of people and being cut in twelves pieces by her own master. “She shouldn’t have run away.” But just afterward another Aunt comes in to pacify Becka who took the story very badly, and this Aunt Estrée suggests: “The concubine was sorry for what she had done, and she wanted to make amends, so she sacrificed herself to keep the kind traveler from being killed by those wicked men.” (page 79–80). Margaret Atwood though puts in-between these two interpretations a short summary of the whole three-chapter story that comes from Judges 19 to 21, whose reference is only identified page 302. The summary makes the story gruesome. “The traveler cut the concubine’s body into twelve pieces [after having found the concubine lying on the threshold of the house in the morning dead due to the severe collective intercourse she was submitted to] and sent one to each of the Tribes of Israel, calling on them to avenge the misuse of his concubine by executing the murderers, and how the Tribe of Benjamin [to which the murderers belonged] refused because the killers were Benjaminites? In the war of vengeance that followed, the Tribe of Benjamin was almost obliterated, and their wives and children were all killed. Then the other eleven tribes reasoned that to obliterate the twelfth tribe would be bad, so they stopped killing. The remaining Benjaminites couldn’t marry any other women officially to make more children since the rest of the tribes had taken an oath against that, but they were told they could steal some girls and marry them unofficially, which is what they did.” (page 79)
Note the term “handmaid” is used in this long episode in Judges 19:19 to speak of the concubine, and it is not a simple equivalent to a servant. It implies servants, and a handmaid is a maid, hence a servant, were at the free disposal of the men who controlled them. This explains that there is no crime from the Benjaminites requiring the girl who was supposed to be given to them. The master of such a handmaid or any of his servants could do what he wanted with them, like Abraham’s wife who gives Abraham her own servant, or handmaid, in order for Abraham to have a child she could not provide. This element is not used by Margaret Atwood. This community is regressing to the state of affairs in the Old Testament without changing the slightest comma and the smallest interpretation detail. Handmaids are justified by this very episode and if the handmaid is killed, by her own promiscuity or fornication authorized by her master, it is nothing but justice, and in a way a sacrifice to protect the master. This reveals the regressive level of these Gileadeans. They are regressing to a social level anterior to the fundamental turn in Biblical history represented by King David and King Solomon, which seems to be normal for them because those two kings are definitely attached to Judaism because of David’s star that is also a symbol of Solomon’s wisdom, not to mention the Song of Songs. They reject this Jewish interpretation, or even twisting distortion, and prefer the older version of total submission of women and a fundamentally hierarchical and segregative social order in which God is the only reference. “God always made the punishment fit the crime.” (page 79) And this is a least in open contradiction with what Aunt Lydia writes: “To err is human, to forgive, divine. As someone once remarked” and Commander Judd replies: “You are so erudite.” (page 179) The someone is Alexander Pope, and Margaret Atwood seems to be deeply nourished by his wise poetry, though she avoids the witty racism of the man when he says: “Lo! The poor Indian, whose untutored mind sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind.” Pretty soon after him the poets were to all turn Indian altogether with Sturm und Drang and Romanticism but for sure Margaret Atwood’s characters are no Indians. Nature is not exactly the confidant of her characters.
But in a later passage, the story of the Concubine Cut into Twelve Pieces is reinterpreted when Agnes or Aunt Victoria tells us of the real story she found in the Bible when she was finally authorized to access this book, too sacred to be entrusted to unskilled minds, meaning skilled minds believed the faith of Gilead. But the change of interpretation was only the refutation of Aunt Astrée’s heroic conception in favor of a clear vision of punishment. And yet the real meaning is missed. This kind of problem, the free use of a handmaid, a servant, authorized by her master, and the subsequent gross dismembering and war of eleven tribes against one, is not really captured the way it is in the Bible itself in the very last verse of the Book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did as it pleased.” (Judges 21:25) and this is the best justification of any authority, authoritarian power. There cannot be any social or political peace and harmony if there is not a central power, in a way or another, imposing its own rule over everyone. It would have been so much pertinent if the author had used the contradictory reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. But of course, the only common point would be the non-respect of hospitality rules by the men outside the house, but these outside people requested two angels they took for men and thus had a homosexual project, and in spite of Lot putting his two virginal daughters on the table, or on the sidewalk, the people outside kept their demand. We all know the next episode. Lot, his wife and his two daughters are authorized to escape by God who destroys the two cities. Unluckily Lot’s wife looks back and she is turned into a block of salt. That’s where the real lies of the Republic of Gilead are: the broken rules are those of hospitality, but then the giving of the two pure daughters by their father would be very shocking to these puritanical Gileadeans. But what about their insistence to get the two angels/men? That’s a theme that is very carefully never alluded to in Margaret Atwood’s books. And that makes the Biblical reference and even discussion at the level of interpretation very weak.
The official discourse of Gilead why the old society had to be gotten rid of, as expressed by Commander Judd page 174 is at least evasive and even clearly superficial since he is trying to force an ex-judge to pass on their side and accept to organize the “separate sphere for women.” (page 175) Here is his summary: “We have seen the results of too much laxity, too much hunger for material luxuries, and the absence of the meaningful structures that lead to a balanced and stable society. Our birth rate — for various reasons, but most significantly through the selfish choices of women — is in free fall. You do agree that human beings are at their most unhappy when in the midst of chaos? That rules and boundaries promote stability and thus happiness?” (page 174) That is very weak. All fundamentalists of any religion or philosophy insist heavily on the elements they consider both against the rule of God and against nature which is the same for them since the natural order was established by God. Too much laxity is by far too weak and the rejection of consumerism is also very weak. We are expecting here the rejection of free sex, of any kind of sex that is not narrowly heterosexual and procreative, in fact of any sex that is not with only one objective, to procreate. We are surprised in this society that the handmaids are only for the elite. How then can the Econo-people, wives, and husbands reproduce if the general explanation of a total loss of female fertility is the explanation of the institution of handmaids? This explanation is only feasible if handmaid’s survival is provided to ALL men in Gilead, which is not the case. How then can only the elite be concerned? What about the wasteful use of women as Marthas and Aunts who are banned from procreation, be they fertile or not? In this second volume these shortcomings are dramatically visible and that takes away of lot of credibility. So, Commander Judd’s program for the first three aunts he recruited at the very start of Gilead is pure overuse of meaningless words: “We want you to help us to organize the separate sphere — the sphere of women. With, as its goal, the optimal amount of harmony, both civic and domestic, and the optimal number of offspring.” (page 175) Handmaids for the elite would not be enough, far from it. And there never is one other concrete suggestion to get the “optimal number of offspring.”
But the most mysterious Biblical quotation is Psalm 90. It reveals a Furious, angry, punishing God that does not accept — never mind forgive — any mistake on the side of men, mistakes, that are called sins of course, but the psalm does not even justify God’s wrath: it is his privilege. I will expand the quotation a little bit, the real quotation in Margaret Atwood’s book is in red bold italics, the same as the quotation in the book.
[Prayer Of Moses, man of God]
1 Lord, you have been
our refuge from age to age.
2 Before the mountains were born,
before the earth and the world came to birth,
from eternity to eternity you are God.
3 You bring human beings to the dust,
by saying, ‘Return, children of Adam.’
4 A thousand years are to you like a yesterday
which has passed, like a watch of the night.
5 You brush men away like waking dreams,
they are like grass
6 sprouting and flowering in the morning
withered and dry before dusk.
7 For we have been destroyed by your wrath,
dismayed by your anger.
8 You have taken note of our guilty deeds,
our secrets in the full light of your presence.
9 All our days pass under your wrath,
our lives are over like a sigh.
10 The span of our life is seventy years –
eighty for those who are strong –
but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble,
they are over in a moment and we are gone.
11 Who feels the power of your anger,
or who that fears you, your wrath?
12 Teach us to count up the days that are ours,
and we shall come to the heart of wisdom.
13 Come back, Yahweh! How long must we wait?
Take pity on your servants.
14 Each morning fill us with your faithful love,
we shall sing and be happy all our days;
15 make our future a²s happy as our past was sad,
those years when you were punishing us.
16 Show your servants the deeds you do,
let their children enjoy your splendor!
17 May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us,
Make all we do to succeed!
(Jerusalem Bible, several versions)
This is the psalm that Agnes’s (Aunt Victoria’s) adoptive mother in Gilead used to recite with her before dying. Agnes, though she does not know it yet, is the natural daughter of the handmaid in the Handmaid’s Tale that was abducted from her before she was turned into a handmaid. Her adoptive mother is Tabitha. The psalm expresses very well the absolute submission to god’s will, anger, wrath, fury, or whatever makes him take and impose irreversible decisions against men and women who are just supposed to accept their fate in the hands of such a barbaric God. Here we could say the psalm’s author is able to reach the same level of cruelty and barbarity as the various gods of let’s say the Maya to find a reference in America. In the very same period the author or authors of the psalms think a god that is as awe-inspiring in his (and there is no possible “her”) wrath, fury, and anger, and the collective authors of the mythology of the Maya invent Gods who require blood self-sacrifice and human sacrifice to just grant men and women the favor of honoring their hard work with a good harvest. I would say this Gilead is regressing to Stephen King’s Children of the Corn’s god He Who Walks Behind the Rows, except that this here story is locked up in the elite of this schizophrenic society. You can understand why the whole psalm is not given in the book: it would reverberate on the religious practices of standard Americans too much: submissiveness, total lack of initiative, gullibility if not even worse, hatred of women since the psalm does not even contain one single female reference, blind and relentless rejection of anything that is not absolutely in conformity with what God wants, though we do not really know what his last-minute caprice might be in his wrath, fury, anger and terrorizing absolutism.
In the case of the Concubine story, the summarized quotations or allusions were not really going to the real stake behind it, here the quotation is reduced to a small extract that prevents us from widening our interest and questioning our daily practices. I am not talking of the various extremists against abortion or gay rights. I am talking of everyday behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of simple Americans who want normal, simple, clear things in their life, that is to say only things and people who do not make them ask existential questions that lead to the fundamental dilemma in everyday middle-of-the-road conformity: “Is it right or is it wrong to do this or to do that?” As a Democratic candidate in the present period of primary elections and local by-elections said recently: “It is not a question of right or left. It is a question of right or wrong.” And that is just the bedeviling question that leads directly to a Republic like that of Gilead. The question is not to know if it is right or left, nor right or wrong. The question is to know whether it is humane or not, whether it brings comfort and encouragement to everyone or pain and suffering to some who are rejected in order to justify the measures concerned. Separating children from their parents for so many people is right as long as the parents and the children are not White Anglo-Saxon or West European Christian and preferably Protestant people begging for asylum at the southern border. Little to do with WEIRD, though partly quite similar. “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Developed,” or “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic,” but certainly not “Wonderful, Exciting, Independent, Real, Different.” Yet “rich” in the first two interpretations of the acronym is not necessarily compulsory since many blue-collar, hardly qualified or educated and low-income people can be found in this anti-immigrant category. That’s not really captured by Margaret Atwood. Her social vision is western blindness that is at times irritating. In her Canada those who cannot fit in the model of her liberal capitalistic hierarchical society, can survive, one way or another, including surviving in death, under bridges, in squats and begging on the sidewalks, totally free to go on surviving like that, as long as they do not in any way impair or endanger the tranquil peace of the middle and upper classes.
Of course, and to conclude, I will say that I regret the fact she did not even try to depict how the fall occurred. But how can she when her vision of such a fall is that schematic: “Totalitarianisms may crumble from within, as they fail to keep the promises that brought them to power; or they may be attacked from without; or both. I say it is schematic because any logical spectrum on the pattern of “either-or’ and “neither-nor” brings for possibilities: either they crumble from within, or they are attacked from without, or both together, or none of these solutions altogether. Totalitarianism is not a fair concept in the field of sociology, anthropology, history and even politics. The worst dictatorships came after severe wars like the two world wars, and at times not connected to such wars but coming from inner phylogeny of good liberal societies. Franco was brought to power by the excessive, divisive and exploded Popular Front that was more of a pot filled with spiders than a happy democratic debate. From it came the civil division, then the civil war, then Franco. Mussolini games from a similar situation in a country were the standard political forms could not come to some kind of working together with a deep division between the communists and possible left allies and the Christians and their democratic allies. Mussolini brought an alliance of all the center-moderates. As someone from Germany said recently about the fall of the wall, Germany was divided between west Germany where the people thought they had to assume the atrocities of the Nazi regime and compensate for them, whereas in East Germany the people considered they were the descendants and continuators of those who were imprisoned, incarcerated and/or exterminated in the camps, hence the victims of the Nazi regime. Both sides are wrong historically and both sides were not able to come together and the danger is this division that has survived entirely the fall of the wall, is right now producing a situation in which the worst principles of the Nazi regime are finding a new life and the old anti-Jewish antisemitism is simply replaced by a new anti-Islamic antisemitism (slightly open onto some Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia who are speaking Indo-European and Turkic languages instead of Semitic languages like the Jews or the Arabs. The transfer is easy since it is religious, it is geographical, and it is cultural. We have found our new anti-Semitism of the 21st century and it might produce exactly the same evil as the antisemitism of the 20th century. Nothing new under this sky. In 1933 the German Communist Party refused any alliance with the Social Democratic Party, though both together had a comfortable majority in the country. A fire in the Reichstag brought that potential majority to a heap of smoking incinerated ashes.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
MARGARET ATWOOD — THE HANDMAID’S TALE — SEASON TWO — 2018
This second season seems to be slightly difficult to follow at the beginning. A very dramatic sequence opens it with a great number of handmaids going through a sham hanging execution and being released after the fake event but being at once, one by one, one after the other, punished brutally. We assume they had done something bad, probably spoken out of place. In the series, it is said somewhere that reading is totally out of place for women. It sounds banal for handmaids and Marthas, and the person who reminds a handmaid about the rule says that things are changing since it used to be punished with the amputation of one hand, and now it is only one finger. And later on in the series the wife of Offred’s commander gets one finger chopped off because when asking for a change in the constitution or the law about girls and boys having to be taught equally how to read (it is forbidden for girls and women to learn) with a delegation of thirty wives or so, she dares read an excerpt from the Bible, mind you. Their request is refused and the spokeswoman, Serena Waterford, is taken away to have one finger chopped off.
Offred is spared a corporal punishment because she is pregnant. The Aunts are reduced to only one, Aunt Lydia. And Offred is clearly and repetitively reminded of the fact she is protected by her pregnancy but after the delivery of the child, she will have no special treatment and will be separated from the child at once. The child is born. There are some difficulties that require special measures. So, Offred is authorized to come back to the Waterford’s house and to be pumped her milk there. Of course, that proximity and the difficulty Mrs. Waterford encounters enable Offred to even breastfeed the baby. She is Holly for Offred, after the name of her own mother, and she is Nicole for the Waterfords. You are of course authorized to find that ironical since the real father is the driver of the house, Nick. But, true enough, the Waterfords do not know this detail.
The series starts too with one handmaid blowing up an enormous inauguration of a new building with a bomb she is carrying under her “uniform.” Twenty-six commanders and thirty-one handmaids are killed. Mr. Waterford is severely injured and replaced in the top commanding position by someone else who is a real sadist and he establishes some terror atmosphere in the community considering that Marthas and Handmaids are the prime suspects, executing some including one or two in the Waterford’s house. But Mr. Waterford comes back and recaptures power and settles things, but he reveals himself as being a vicious misogynist with his wife and the female personnel. He hates women, to the point of applying the “natural” method when the child goes through a false delivery alarm. That means he brutally rapes Offred, true enough as suggested by his wife and Offred is held by his wife as if it were one of these impregnating ceremonies. Of course, it brings nothing, certainly not the delivery of the baby.
At the same time, he yields on Offred’s demand to be able to see her daughter, Hannah. He accepts and organizes it far away in the mountain in the country house of the “adoptive” parents of the child. It is, of course, dramatic and Nick who is driving her to the place in the middle of the winter is “captured and taken away” by two military Guardians accusing him of breaking and entering, after Offred has been able to meet her daughter and have a short moment with her. The sequence of events seems to imply the Guards had seen the circulation of the two cars and that they might have intercepted the first car leaving with the child and her Martha. But sloppy work indeed since they only take Nick and do not search the premises for Offred, the Handmaid. Then the episodes develop various peripeteia.
But the main topic that is developed at length in the episodes is the way women are in all possible ways pushed aside in this society with a tremendous contradiction, or two. In the colonies, there are practically only women, or at least we are only shown women. Procreation cannot really bring in children when great numbers of women are isolated from all men and exploited by slave work that brings them down like flies, especially since they are working in contaminated areas. Then, we have the case of simple workers, Econos, who are married and have children, which means that there does not seem to be any shortage in procreational power among them, or if there is, then this society is doomed since the number of workers will go down steadily year after year. Only elite women married to commanders have the privilege of having Handmaids. And do not play around, please, meaning it’s forbidden, with other men than your own husbands, ladies or rather Econowives, because infidelity means death by drowning. We are provided with one public execution of that type.
The series insists practically only on one element, one main topic: the exploitation of women at all levels, including among the elite. That kind of fascism is absolutely absurd in its own architecture. It is absolutely suicidal. It is systematically founded on what is written in the Bible, but the quotations might not be exact, and anyway, the Bible can only be read and discussed, meaning repeated and quoted, by men and only men. Reading is a sin for women, like many other things, and quoting the Bible might be interpreted as heresy, especially if you add a comment on top of the quotation. Suicidal because women are indispensable for the survival of the species and all we are shown is going against that survival. Then it means extinction and very fast shortage of labor at all levels.
It sure is a dystopia but the dystopia is too heavy, too thick to be even simply believable, not to speak of possible or probable. He who hits too hard on the nail may very easily break it or twist it instead of driving it down into the wood. And that’s what this season of the series is doing. At the same time, we can see that the second book of Margaret Atwood is continuing some elements like the central role of Aunt Lydia and the kidnapping of Nicole, but it is too much centered on only women, apart from the driver. Mayday, the resistance movement, remains very vague, fuzzy, and as such it is immaterial. In this fundamentalist society, evolution cannot come from women alone. It has to come from a wider section of society, and men have to be part of it. I am a little bit disappointed because in any situation it will either be an execution in a way or another or rejection, deportation, marginalization, even if it is by simple indifference. One of the most famous handmaids in the Old Testament is Abraham’s wife’s slave with whom he gets his first son, Ishmael, with the benediction of his wife. We know the result: We know the result for Hagar and Ishmael, and for the Jews who exploited this woman slave and then condemned her and her son to a slow death in the desert, the rise of two religions that will be, and still are, in many ways antagonistic to Judaism. We know the result, more than twenty centuries of this curse because it was, and still is, a curse.
I am expecting the third season may alter this one-sided dystopia.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
THE HANDMAID’S TALE — SEASON THREE — 2019
The message some actually expressed after the second season that the series was getting humdrum, episode after episode, is given the lie to with this third season. The episodes sure have some unity one by one, but at the same time the suspense of a wider objective is more visible, and we, of course, have read Margaret Atwood’s second volume, The Testaments, and we are trying to see how the characters and events in this series fit with this second volume that takes place a long time after the fall of Gilead. Aunt Lydia is nearly killed in this season, but she survives, though the circumstances should have killed her. But she must be alive since she is the one who is going to bring Gilead down fifteen years later. But apart from this, what density do we find in this season?
First of all, the daughter June had with Nick for the Waterfords is extracted from Gilead along with one Handmaid’s, though not June who decides to stay behind to be as close as possible to her own daughter Hannah. To achieve that extraction some complicity was necessary from Commander Lawrence who actually brought the Handmaid’s who had nearly killed Aunt Lydia to the escape point while June brought her second daughter, the famous Nichole, that Mrs. Waterford accepts to let go to provide her with the freedom she would never have in Gilead. And we know this Nichole is going to be the central character of The Testaments. But we wonder how June is going to be transferred to Canada since she has to be there when Nichole is fifteen in Canada. That’s, in fact, the last and main point that has to be solved for these Testaments to be possible. This extraction brings up the idea that children have fundamental rights even before being born, and definitely as soon as they are born. This season insists on the fact that a baby needs his or her biological mother to be breastfed by her, to be loved by her, etc. At the same time, the extraction of Nichole from Gilead goes against this very principle that is heavily emphasized in other episodes.
The second element is that some complicity is necessary to be able to resist Gilead’s moral order and political dictatorship. Some complicity among women, the basic four types of women in Gilead. First Handmaids, and at least one case of treachery among them is described and dealt with in length. Second Marthas, these normally unmarried servants in the houses of Commanders. They are plain slave servants with no rights whatsoever. They resent their position and are ready to do something about it. They resist very systematically, most of the time in some hidden way, even clandestine way. They inform the Handmaids about what is happening in the Commanders’ families and households. They protect Handmaids against some repression that may come at any moment and repression is either being sent to the colonies (working concentration camps in polluted and dangerous areas for the extraction of some minerals) or being hanged publicly and the Handmaids are collectively associated to these executions by pulling the rope that will release the trap under the feet of the victims. This point brings up the idea that women have to be supportive of one another beyond their “class” differentiation. That brings up then the case of the wives of the commanders.
This series brings up a third type of woman with a short exploration of what life is for normal people, the Econo people whose function is to be married and to work in all kinds of jobs. They cannot have handmaids and they have to make their own children. At least we think so, otherwise, this society would be condemned to disappear. This is not really explained and we still keep the idea that there has been a drastic drop in the fertility of heterosexual couples, the only authorized couples anyway, but only the commanders have handmaids, which sounds more like bringing new genes and new blood into their bloodline than anything else, to avoid inbreeding that was so drastic with Egyptian Pharaohs and that probably caused the extinction of Neanderthals whose mixed children with Homo Sapiens men and their mothers were integrated into the Homo Sapiens communities and thus extracted from the Neanderthals communities. In such a narrow and exclusive class, that of commanders, inbreeding becomes the rule if Handmaids are not brought in to diversify the genes. But the series is not that clear about the children of the Econo people. No children or a reduced number of children and this society would naturally fall into decline.
This season also brings up some vision of the colonies with only a fourth type of women being deported. That sounds strange again because it implies that only women resist this social order, which is highly improbable since most men are just in the same dependent, if not even more than dependent, situation that is close to regulated “free” slavery if we can call that in any way free. They have their apartments, but they have a daily schedule to respect and they are under constant surveillance, though Big Brother’s televisions are not clearly specified. Yet it is rather clear that they are submitted to audio surveillance with microphones in all apartments, and yet it is not entirely sure. There is some fuzziness about the black delivery man who helps June and takes her to his home. The family goes to church since it is Sunday or something like that, and they do not come back which implies they have been arrested, but their apartment is not at once searched which would have caused June’s arrest and destroyed her explanation later on that she was kidnapped by the resistance.
Of course, we can wonder now about the wives of the Commanders, the fifth type of women. Two wives are vastly described. Mrs. Lawrence, Commander Lawrence’s wife, who is highly unstable and refuses to take part in any ceremony with Handmaids. Her husband is deeply in love with her and does not practice any ceremony with any Handmaid’s. June is the fourth or fifth one and she is the first one who will have to have a ceremony. The refusal from Mrs. Lawrence and the reluctance from Mr. Lawrence make it crucial since the other commanders have sent the Waterfords, one higher Commander, Aunt Lydia, and a doctor, to make sure a ceremony takes place, the doctor being there to check June afterward. Mrs. Lawrence will eventually commit suicide, and June is instrumental in the success of this suicide. She might even have caused it by blocking Mrs. Lawrence from going out to speak about the plan to extract 52 children from Boston.
Mrs. Waterford accepted her “child” to be extracted from Gilead with a lot of tears. Mr. Waterford used the situation to put Canada under pressure diplomatically. But it fails because Nick Blaine, a veteran of the Gilead revolution called a crusade, and also the real biological father of Nichole, delivers a pack of letters from Handmaids entrusted to him by June for him to bring them to her real husband. The revelation of these letters and the curse under which Handmaids are raped regularly to produce children for the commanders who are supposed to be unable to do it with their wives who are assumed to be sterile breaks up the diplomatic discussions with Canada who requires the Waterfords to leave Canada at once. But in the meantime, Mrs. Waterford had met a representative of American refugees who had promised to help her expatriate herself from Gilead. She will, later on, use this connection to organize a crazy move that is highly improbable anyway. The Waterfords drive alone, with no security to meet that man in Canada and have access to Nichole. Of course, they are ambushed, arrested and taken into custody by the Canadians. Mrs. Waterford, mind you, betrays her husband who is the only one kept to be tried for all sorts of war crimes. But Mr. Waterford reveals to the Canadians he is not the father of Nichole, but Nick Blaine is, and that Nick Blaine had been ordered to impregnate June by Mrs. Waterford. And that is a rape of course. So, she ends up in prison too to be tried later on for ordering June to be raped.
Yet the final event of this series would never have been possible if Commander Lawrence had not been an accomplice. He cannot move to Canada himself because he is the one who devised the social and sexual architecture of Gilead; hence he is a war criminal and he committed crimes against humanity. But the other commanders would like to get rid of him. His wife’s death saves him and saves June who is his Handmaid then. She managed to bring to their house more than fifty children and a good number of Marthas and a few Handmaids to board a contraband plane, tolerated as a contraband plane by the Gilead authorities, and be flown to Canada. June stayed behind. She killed a soldier who was chasing her, and she was having herself chased by this military patrol to enable the children to get to the plane, and she was wounded by him before she killed him with a handgun provided by Commander Lawrence. She is brought home to Commander Lawrence’s house by six other Handmaids, revealing how loose surveillance is in this absolute dictatorship, and we have to wait for the fourth season to know what will happen next because June has to be extracted from Gilead and brought to Canada. How? That’s the question and the rub actually.
I will yet criticize one aspect of this season. The graphic visual vision of Gilead is so extreme at times that it sounds and looks like a caricature, and as such it weakens the arguments about the resistance of women. The escape essentially concerns girls, all dressed in light pink, and a very few boys, I more or less counted two or three in light greyish blue. This is a sexist point, or does it mean boys would have refused to be extracted? Or would they have told their official parents or authorities? This is at least not specified and discussed, and it should have been. The series then becomes some kind of feminine or feminist manifesto that joins this feminine a priori idea that they are the only ones to resist or nearly the only ones, and Nick is just taken out of the picture by being sent to some war front; joins this first idea to the idea that boys are raised in such a way that they can only dream of being commanders one day, and hence they accept this homogenization of their minds on a fundamentalistic reading of the Old Testament, distorted if necessary, and a few letters by Paul if I got the references properly. This vision of religion is so extreme that we wonder if the authors and directors are not turning this series into an anti-Christian manifesto, and I insist on this term anti-Christian going along with an absolute rejection of Judaism and Islam, and the systematic elimination of Jews, and we assume Muslims. When they call the war that brought Gilead a Crusade, we can understand the meaning of this word here in the good old medieval context. This is probably too much. It could have been rebalanced on the Canadian side and it is not one Christening that does the job. It is nearly folkloric. But it is in continuation of Margaret Atwood’s own prose. The Testaments are clear: the couple that raised Nichole is clearly described as anti-religious, against any divine concept, though they are not expressing it openly because they are dealing with the female agents from Gilead and they want to be seen as neutral on the point. Note that it did not prevent them from being terminated by the said agents and their male counterparts. That leads this series to the idea that we have to get rid of all religions to be free. That’s the same fundamentalism as that of Gilead, but this time on atheism. This is just as bad as Gilead’s fundamentalism on an old sectarian Old Testament concept of god, the unnamable Yahweh.
We are waiting now for the fourth season to see how the link with The Testaments is finally built but the end of Gilead will happen when Nichole is fifteen. So, there is some water to run under many bridges if the series wants to reach that period, hence cover the next fourteen years.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU