Convictions and Handmaids
“I like to terrorize my protagonist… and so I do!
We live at the sufferance of others.”
~ Thomas King, on The Next Chapter
Fiction writers often love to torture their main characters. They dream up the worst hells imaginable just to see if the characters might survive, all while testing the audience’s tolerance as well.
Margaret Atwood put her characters into a hell of institutional rape, uniformed clothing, compelled language and monitored movement in The Handmaid’s Tale. It looks like Elisabeth Moss is taking up that torture-your-protagonist idea with the tv series based on the book.
The fictional nation of Gilead is presented as theocratic with Christian roots, but the state is set up as a kind of anti-christ. Jesus is never mentioned, really. Some scenes are deliberately staged to bring certain gospel verses to mind in the audience, like stoning a judged women. But it is up to the audience to fill in what becomes an all-too-present-absence in the storytelling.
I’ve been watching the tv show on and off now. It surprises me how there are no explicitly Christian characters in leadership positions in Gilead (or against Gilead for that matter). No one in power seems to be wrestling with their god or gods from within an identified religious community or identity that would be familiar to us in the audience.
The Sons of Jacob in the story seem to be one-or-two-dimensional - mostly patriarchal tyrants playing power games (the dominator model of patriarchy, with very little mention of the fostering side of patriarchy). Wayward princes and perverted clergy. And on the main character’s side there are vague references to God and spirituality with no connection to institutions we would recognize in our world.
They say in storytelling that exaggeration triumphs over truth, and the exceptional exaggeration may prove the rule. Perhaps fiction exaggerates when it reproves as well.
As one character puts it in Season 4, “Gilead cares about power. Faithfulness, old-time values, homemade bread, that’s the just means to the end. It’s a distraction. I thought you would have figured that out by now.”
This almost seems too post-modern - fixed criticism on power dynamics, but with an almost timid, handwaving dismissal of religion’s role in changing people’s minds and motivations and ambitions - away from power and (we dare to hope) toward love. If anything, every character on both sides of the war ends up feeling righteous at some point, all while doing things to bring about collapse and ruin.
It turns out to be very hard work to turn people toward love. It often means sacrificing things dear to us, and taking on suffering rather than enforcing it on others. It would mean something is more important than righteousness and conviction and power. Perhaps love is not some kind of victory march.
Some people turn to religion (and to fiction) to find love. Some people do turn to religion (and ideology, for that matter) in order to find certainty, conviction and righteousness. There is something in that feeling of righteousness that gives permission to judge - we know better than others.
We can feel righteous anger in the presence of the “exasperating otherness of the other.” We can even convince ourselves that the lives of others would just be better if we controlled them, or triumphed over them in glory.
Perhaps this feeling of righteousness permits us to criticize the world more than it prompts us to clean our rooms.
It has been said that truth is the handmaiden of love. Not conviction or certainty. Dialogue is a pathway to truth. But a path of dialogue must make room for two to walk together, even when they are in opposition.
So if we walk this path, will a handmaid lead us? Shall we suffer the little children-makers, and forbid them not?
Here we are, like baffled kings or cold and broken families, competing and then torturing others, because we can’t seem to look the other in the face and bring ourselves to say,
“Despite my fears
and my convictions,
despite the righteous
imperfections and incompleteness
of my religion,
despite the addictive
glory of triumph…
I love you…
and I must
learn from a
handmaiden how to
bow to love…”
Perhaps there is no way out of this together but through… like bastard children in Gilead, opening the birth canals of handmaids, even after such torture…