Pray Tell: What made The Handmaid’s Tale?
Margaret Atwood’s account of her past experiences that influenced her novel
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, delivered a lecture entitled, “The Handmaid’s Tale: The Sources” for the Christian Culture lecture series in O’Laughlin Auditorium at Saint Mary’s College. The Christian Culture series was started by the Humanistic Studies department, then the Program for Christian Culture, in 1957.
President Jan Cervelli introduced the speaker, “Margaret Atwood transcends labels, genres, and form of media. She’s a novelist, a poet, an inventor, an environmentalist, even an organic farmer. And perhaps, most significant to us at Saint Mary’s, Margaret Atwood is a woman who breaks open the limits that society imposes on her.”
Attempting to place the novelist within a Catholic context when quoting an April 28 America Magazine article from earlier this year, Cervelli continued, “[This article] explored how The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes of how too narrow a view a woman can be, saying the story reveals, ‘the terrible things that happen when there’s only one acceptable religion to practice. Or when there’s only one way to be a woman’.”
“That America article situated Margaret Atwood’s work in the context of Catholic’s understanding of Mary, which should be as complex and multifaceted as womanhood itself,” Cervelli said, “As Sister Elizabeth Johnson put it, also writing in America, ‘There is no eternal feminine. There is no essential feminine nature. There is no ideal woman. An adequate theology of Mary must be clear on this point.’”
“Margaret Atwood inspires us … to enrich the world with who we are, not who the world would presume us to be,” the President concluded.
Margaret Atwood, clad in sanguine spectacles, took the stage. “First, The Handmaid’s Tale of 1985/6 was published before there was a internet, before there were cell phones, before there were lattes. Well, at least before lattes were deployed as a stealth weapon from Europe to the extent they are now.”
“The iconic red and white outfit has now popped up all over the internet as an understandable meme, popping up in state legislatures and cosplays conventions alike.” She went on to list the various pop cultural references to her 1985 novel, eliciting many laughs from the audience with her comedic pauses. Atwood afterward affirmed, “This novel which had ought to become quaint and archaic, has become more believable over time, not less … For something to become so recognizable it has to … tale with the hopes and fears of the moment.”
“Now a word from our sponsor. Namely, Christian Culture over the past 2000 years.” Atwood then proceeded to take a look at Christian Culture(s), in the plural, from the point-of-view of a Martian, a point-of-view she herself is familiar with. She spoke of how Christians had gone to war with others over doctrinal differences, “[Christians] slaughtered and oppressed others not because they are Christians, but because they are human beings.” Other religions have done the same, including Atheism, which in itself is a dogma, she continues.
“You may be wondering, why a Martian such as myself may be interested in this subject at all. Cards on the table, I am a strict agnostic. I do not hold science as a religion … it is a tool to know the physical world. Religion on the other hand concerns itself with the things unseen, requiring faith.”
As a teenager, Atwood was curious about religion, so she attended as many services as she could find. Next she recounted the pros of the denominations she had gotten to know, and continued her hilarious motif. She concluded that no one has really got it all; she paraphrased Groucho Marx, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a church that would have me for a member.”
“Religions are evolved adaptations,” Atwood continued. Those who had religion had a better chance of survival than those who did not, if one looked from the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist. She continued to speak in jest on different soteriologies then interjected, “Marxism, by the way, is a subset of Christianity when the classless society takes over the New Jerusalem.”
Eventually, Margaret Atwood affirmed that she has her own Christian culture from her upbringing in Canada and from present-day America. She attended Christian schools in Canada, which has no separation of church and state. She went to Sunday school growing up, though her parents were afraid that she would be brainwashed. “That’s why I can sing a lot of hymns,’ she joked, then demonstrated for the audience.
“The reason why the Bible has held the attention of people for thousands of years is not just the piety, it’s the HBO factor.”
In college she studied English Literature, and spoke of a class she had taken, “The Bible as Literature.” She arrived at Harvard as a grad student in 1961. There she learned of Puritan New England under Perry Miller. She talked about the Salem Witch Trials, in which one of her ancestors, Mary Webster, who had been accused as a witch, but was found not guilty in Boston. Thenafter Webster was half-hanged by neighbors in her Massachusetts burrough who had found the trial as not good enough.
“We have now arrived, as you can see, at The Handmaid’s Tale proper … Is The Handmaid’s Tale anti-Christian? No, my anxious brethren. It is not,” Atwood said. The novel examines what America would look like if it were to ever become Totalitarian Dictatorship. It would not be Atheistic, Buddhistic or Hinduistic. It would be Puritanical, going back to America’s roots. It would not be Christian; Gilead in the book observes none of these teachings. Instead, “it would use religion as hammer, as religion has before in so many different contexts.”
Atwood further stated that, “the other sources are taken by human history. I will put nothing in it that had not been done by human beings at some time in some place. There is nothing in the book that is beyond our capabilities.”
Atwood wanted to end with a more positive literary embodiment of Christian culture, so she spoke about the MaddAddam trilogy, which she herself wrote. Her lecture concluded with a mole-day homily from Adam One with she herself singing the traditional mole-day hymn.
Some Saint Mary’s students had some input following the lecture. Senior Christina Herrera said, “It was interesting that Saint Mary’s chose to bring a guest speaker in a Christian Culture Lecture who was an agnostic … But knowing Saint Mary’s it was not surprising.”
Freshman Grace Gaueninger said, “I thought she was iconic. She’s very well spoken with a great sense of humor, which was shown through her references to the memes to all of her works she has seen over the past 32 years regarding her book The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“I love Margaret Atwood, and I’ve read Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx Crake multiple times over,” said Professor Meghan Sullivan, “I loved Atwood’s dry wit and her humaneness and her fearlessness. I think—like many diehard fans—I was hoping for more gory detail about what she was thinking as she crafted Handmaid’s Tale. And as a philosopher of religion, I am curious as to why she thinks religious faith is particularly susceptible to being twisted by totalitarian forces. And are certain faiths more susceptible than others? The Q&A was wonderful, and I wished we’d had another hour to hear the back and forth between Atwood and the Saint Mary’s students!”
Bea Cuasay is a freshman philosophy and theology major minoring in music. She loves incense so much, that sometimes she suffers from a phantosmia of sorts, and smells incense that isn’t actually there. If this has ever happened to you, you can contact her at email@example.com.