“The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender.
Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
I was recently reminded of C.S. Lewis’s words after reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 dystopian novel about a theocratic, totalitarian regime called The Republic of Gilead, which derives its values from a form of hyper-literal, Puritanical fundamentalism. I must admit, prior to reading the book a couple months ago, I had already formed an opinion of it – one largely shaped by the novel’s recent resurrection during the 2016 election when fears of far-right totalitarianism swelled to an audible uproar. The book (now also a hit show airing on Hulu) showed up at numerous women’s marches and political rallies across the country. The iconic red-robed garb and solemn Victorian-esque white bonnets worn by women attending the rallies served as instantly recognizable symbols for a slew of feminist messages, like reproductive rights and freedom from patriarchal religion.
It is not surprising that the book was resurrected. In the midst of turmoil, dystopian warnings often rise from the ashes, serving as explainers, mapping out our fears and frustrations, and incarnating our concerns in ways that help make sense of the world around us. In a materialistic culture increasingly deprived of a unifying religious metanarrative, more and more people are turning to books like A Brave New World, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale to account for the evil they see. Dystopian novels like these attempt to answer questions about who we are and where we might be headed, and they often explore those issues in a way that has mass appeal.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood imagines a society susceptible to tyrannical control because of poor environmental conditions and declining birth rates. The leaders of the theocratic regime, The Republic of Gilead, (incorrectly) interpret the Old Testament story of Rachel and Leah as a biblical sanction to force fertile women into the role of handmaids, reducing them to walking wombs through which their progeny will emerge and save the human race from extinction. When it comes to serving as an explainer for a chaotic culture, it would seem Atwood and her fans have something to say about both religion and women’s rights.
Whether or not I agree with Atwood’s political leanings is beside the point; I am typically dismissive of diatribes masquerading as art, even if I agree with the points being made. And the truth is, I expected little more from The Handmaid’s Tale than an ideological treatise, a shallow piece of propaganda written, not for the sake of a good story, but solely to issue a warning to those of a particular worldview and to assign blame for our current state of affairs. Well, two can play at that game. With my pen locked and loaded, I was ready to engage, and refute if necessary, any ideological claims made in the book.
But Atwood surprised me almost immediately. In the introduction, she admits her hesitancy to tackle a dystopian story because, in her view, the genre too often comes with undesirable side-effects such as “a tendency to sermonize, a veering into allegory, and a lack of plausibility.” It was upon reading this line in the introduction that Lewis’s words came to mind.
“The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender.
Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
Atwood seems to have understood his point. Engaging a work of art is an act of surrender, and the tendency to sermonize – to high-jack a work of art and use it primarily to elevate a desired moral message – is an inappropriate use of the medium. Good art will often have a moral component to it, but that message must be secondary. And, though Lewis’s advice here is specifically to recipients of art, both artist and audience have a responsibility to respect the dignity of the craft, each performing their roles with integrity.
Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, says it this way. “When an artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, so he often wrote better than he could write.” Even in imaginative literature, an artist has a responsibility to listen, to bring cosmos from chaos, and to depict truth to the best of their ability. Perhaps that’s why Atwood followed a strict rule to avoid putting anything in the book that hadn’t already happened in history. “No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.” I don’t think this is a commentary against imaginative or fantasy literature but rather an attempt to maintain integrity and avoid making the art secondary to the message. If the audience’s role is to surrender to the art, the artist should create something worthy of our trust.
After being disarmed by her insightful introduction, I heeded Lewis’s advice, relaxed my shoulders, and surrendered as best I could to the unfolding of the story. Despite Atwood’s strong personal convictions, what I discovered in The Handmaid’s Tale was not an overtly ideological bent, with a tendency to caricature the players, categorize people into sinners and saints, or punt to easy answers. As an artist first, Atwood seems to do her best to honestly portray what she sees, and in so doing, the book expands to make room for a broad and complex expression of humanity, men and women included, and avoids becoming an anti-religious, political rant.
It surprises me, then, that the novel has been used in service to such a partisan political message (and all this presumably with Atwood’s blessing, given she is an advisor on the TV series). It especially surprises me since Atwood seemed so intentional about avoiding exactly that kind of sermonizing effect. While many feminist values are universally lauded on both sides of the political aisle, the topic of abortion and its relationship to religious freedom continues to polarize our country. This sort of utilitarian approach to the book not only isolates many readers from engaging with it, it ultimately diminishes the novel as a work of art. To borrow from Lewis once again, stories and poems are not merely something said (Logos); they are something made (Poiema). And “to value them chiefly for reflections which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them, is a flagrant instance of ‘using’ instead of ‘receiving’” a work of art. In all of the politicizing, I’m afraid we’ve lost sight of a good story, one that is fully capable of transcending our political dividing lines and worthy of appreciation for its own sake.
Within the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale, I did not find a feminist manifesto per se, but an exploration of the way in which the dividing line between good and evil runs, not between political parties or “us versus them” categories, but through the center of every human heart. Though the premise of the book involves a turning back of women’s rights, this seems to serve more as a backdrop for characters to explore the depths of their own motivations, unflattering as they may be. The focus is not on the political fight against oppression or victimization but what it looks like to maintain one’s integrity in the midst of it. It is in this sense the book departs from being narrowly feminist. In fact, Atwood also says in the introduction that the book is not feminist at all, if by feminist one means merely that “all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice.” Atwood wants to show us that women are human beings; and being flawed, and morally responsible, is part of what is means to be human.
Though their choices are limited, the characters still have choices to make. Atwood does not let anyone dodge the consequences of those choices, which is a crucial element to any good story. The end result is a compelling cast of characters, many of whom cannot be easily pigeon-holed as either sinners or saints. Atwood’s most obviously feminist character, with her disdain for chauvinist men and passionate contempt for pornography, is certainly not painted in a flattering light or held up as a symbol of motherly perfection. She is something of an enigma to her daughter, well-intentioned perhaps, but also misguided. We also see women turn against women in the characters of “The Aunts”, those who’ve joined forces with the regime and keep the handmaids in check in exchange for their own self-preservation. Atwood frustrates our categories once more when the primary male character, The Commander, is revealed to want, not power or sex, but intimacy. Conversely, Offred, the female protagonist, must continuously wrestle with her own desires. We see one example early on when she walks by two young men and makes an admission. “I know they’re watching, these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women,” she says. “I enjoy the power.”
This human lust for power and control, and the ways in which it dehumanizes both victim and oppressor, occupies center stage throughout most of the story. If there is any message worthy of our attention, it is that one. In Gilead, the fight for bodily autonomy takes on a different weight when it emerges in the context of a tyrannical regime that would turn a woman’s gift of giving life into a commodity to be hijacked for its own purposes. Throughout the pages, we see men, women, babies, and religion used merely as a means to an end; they are not valued for their own sake.
The novel is not anti-religious then, either. Atwood has made it clear she is not opposed to religion; she is opposed to religion being used as a means of unchecked power and control. In an interview with Sojourners magazine, she states:
“So you can have bad iterations and you can also have the iteration in which people have got too much power and then start abusing it. But that is human behavior, so you can’t lay it down to religion. You can find the same in any power situation, such as politics or ideologies that purport to be atheist. Need I mention the former Soviet Union? So it is not a question of religion making people behave badly. It is a question of human beings getting power and then wanting more of it.”
Why choose to showcase a theocratic regime then? Atwood believed it was more plausible, given the religious heritage of our country. But, it also makes for a gripping story. There is something true about the terror of this particular kind of tyranny. Here we might turn to Lewis yet again, for theocracies were the form of government he loathed most. In “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” Lewis tells us that “The Inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience.” If there is anything worse than a lust for power, it is cloaking that lust with “thus saith the Lord.”
As I closed the final pages of the book, I felt the satisfaction one gets after reading a good story. But, I also sensed a tragic irony. It seems to me that Atwood’s novel is broader than the narrow portrayals we currently see in culture. While I take responsibility for my own preconceptions, my views were shaped, in part, by the presentation of the book as something less than it really is. First, The Handmaid’s Tale is a respectable work of art, deserving of our appreciation as something made, not merely something said. Second, throughout Atwood’s story, the deeper meaning that emerges is more than a narrow, political message; it is about the way we human beings, in all our brokenness, can seize just about anything and manipulate it for our own purposes. It is about dehumanization in all its forms. It’s about the way all of us, men and women, can mix up love with usefulness.
Taking something that is inherently valuable and grounding that value merely in terms of functionality is one of the most dangerous things we could do to our fellow human beings. Valuing others as an end in themselves, rather than just a means to an end, is a prerequisite for human dignity and all true justice. Inherent worth is the foundation upon which women’s rights, and indeed all human rights, are built. If that’s the case, then The Handmaid’s Tale transcends the political categories and tribal politics that mark so much of today’s culture. It is not a partisan book; it has something to show all of us – those on both the left and right sides of the political aisles.
This is what engaging with True, Good, and Beautiful art trains our imaginations to do – to gaze at something made and see beyond its usefulness and practicality. To let go of our instinct to conquer and manipulate and choose to surrender instead. To lean in to the whispers we hear when we hold our ear up to the world. When we learn to appreciate art in this way, we catch a glimpse of the magnitude of what it means to be human beings born of the Divine imagination and made in His image. We are, all of us, creatures loved by an Artist worthy of our trust.
Look, Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. Why? Because, it is in losing ourselves we discover ourselves. As L’Engle tells us, “stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named.” It intrigues me that Offred’s true name, her true identity, is never revealed in the novel. Gilead is a culture without a Name. Perhaps we are, too. We seem to have forgotten what it means to be human, and we forget that we’ve forgotten.
Overall, I am thankful for the great pleasure of reading Atwood’s book. Did she fully succeed at avoiding sermonizing, allegory, or implausibility? Maybe not. It is true that dystopian novels have a tendency to sermonize. It is true that art and politics often become shackled to one another in a stifling alliance. And it is true that good art will almost always have something to say. But as I continue to chew on Lewis’s words, the question I’m left asking is:
Are we listening?
Nicole Howe is a wife and homeschooling mother of four and currently resides in Illinois. She has a Masters of Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, exploring nature, and performing improv comedy at her local theater.
Nicole Howe. “C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and The Handmaid’s Tale: A Reflection on Art as Poiema.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 3. (Fall 2019): 107-120.
 C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 19.
 Genesis 29.
 Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Anchor Books, 2017), XIV.
 Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections of Faith and Art (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016), 14.
 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, XIV.
 Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 82.
 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Volume I, Trans. by Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973), 178.
 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, XVI.
 Ibid, 22.
 Margaret Atwood, “Christianity, The Handmaid’s Tale, and What Faithful Activism Looks Like Today,” Sojourners Magazine, https://sojo.net/articles/margaret-atwood-christianity-handmaid-s-tale-and-what-faithful-activism-looks-today, accessed August 8, 2019.
 Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, XVII.
 C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1975), Kindle Edition, Location 1253.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 351.
 C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 22.
 L’Engle, Walking on Water, 36.