The U.S. Is Too Ornery for Totalitarianism, According to Margaret Atwood

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale discusses the continued impact of the bleak 1985 novel, now being adapted into a series on Hulu

Elisabeth Moss dons the iconic red robe and white bonnet of the handmaid for the new series debuting April 26. (Hulu)
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Margaret Atwood never questioned where The Handmaid’s Tale would take place. Her disquieting 1985 novel about an extremist religious republic of the near future had to be set in the United States, and, moreover, it had to be set in one of its most liberal strongholds—Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We tend to pride ourselves on liberal democracies, that such things couldn't happen here, but actually they could because they already have and they are right at this minute,” says the Canadian poet and author. She will be speaking at a sold-out Smithsonian Associates event on April 19 in anticipation of the upcoming Hulu adaptation of her most well-known story.

Elisabeth Moss brings the bleak novel to life in the new 10-episode arc, delivering a hauntingly understated performance as the story’s narrator, an unnamed woman forced into sexual servitude by a fundamentalist religious order that has overthrown the United States.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, the Republic of Gilead dictatorship could be read as a cautionary tale about the rise of Christian right, grounded on the foundations of America’s puritanical past. Today, the story’s resonance is perhaps even stronger. This spring, fans took up the handmaid’s uniform of a red robe and white bonnet as a symbol of protest, wearing the clothing of subjugation to the Texas Senate chambers to make a statement about anti-abortion measures being considered by lawmakers.

Atwood views the United States as having two foundations: one 18th-century Enlightenment and the other 17th-century puritan theology. It was the latter she says that fit for the question: “If the United States was going to have a totalitarian regime, what kind of totalitarian regime would it be?”

Why a Canadian writer born in Ottawa, who grew up in northern Ontario and Quebec, and in Toronto, wrote the tale of a totalitarian religious regime out of the ashes of America, can be traced to the two people listed on the story’s dedication page.

One is Perry Miller, the late scholar of American Puritanism. Atwood studied with him during her postgraduate work at Harvard University, where she immersed herself in 17th-century Puritan theocracy. Atwood’s interest in Puritan America was arguably in her blood; Mary Webster, the second person on the dedication page, was accused of practicing witchcraft in New England years before the Salem Witch Trials. Atwood’s family on her mother’s side claims Webster as one of their ancestors. A scapegoat of the religious hysteria, Webster, who is also the subject of Atwood’s 1995 poem “Half-Hanged Mary,” was lynched, but the rope didn’t kill her. In many ways, Webster’s grim story of survival physically embodies the rallying cry embedded into The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” slang Latin for “Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

The bones of The Handmaid’s Tale had been in Atwood’s head when she traveled to Germany in 1984 as part of a program bringing artists and writers and scholars into West Berlin. It was there, in the proximity of Communist East Germany that she began writing her famous tale.

Atwood crossed the border into East Berlin and, at the invitation of the Canadian government, also visited Czechoslovakia and Poland. “It was a really good up close demonstration of what people felt they could say to you and what they felt they could not say to you, and under what circumstances they felt they could say those things,” she says.

Paranoia followed her on her travels—when the bellboy brought up her bags in one hotel, he pointed to the chandelier to indicate it had been bugged. She jokes that if she needed it fixed, all she needed to do was stand under the chandelier and say: "Hello, chandelier, my light bulb is broken."

When she was in Czechoslovakia, she remembers that people would head to a field if they needed to share private information, a detail that was incorporated into The Handmaid’s Tale as the narrator’s waterside walks.

The situations the characters are placed in throughout the book, as well as the Hulu adaptation, are pulled from real life. It’s undoubtedly one of the reasons the cautionary tale has already had such a lasting legacy. (In addition to the Hulu series premiering on April 26, the book has been reimagined as a film, an opera and a ballet; it will also be given the graphic novel treatment through a work that Atwood herself is collaborating on with artist Renee Nault set to debut in late 2017.)

Atwood serves as an executive producer on the Hulu production and participated in discussions with series creator Bruce Miller about the differences between the show and the book.

While she’s only seen the first three episodes, she says that fans of the book will find that the adaptation answers some questions the book left up in the air. “They went further than I went in the book, but it all makes sense,” she says. For instance, the use of first person limits the book to the point of view of the narrator. So when one character vanishes, there is no way for her (and thus the reader) to learn what exactly transpired. “You can't ask, and you don't know, they just vanish, but in the show, we can follow those characters off on a path of their own and find out what has been happening to them,” says Atwood.

Considering the body of her work, it might be tempting to imagine that Atwood sees the world from a bleak perspective, but she calls herself an optimist. “I just think that I'm a naturally cheerful person,” she says. “I just was always that kind of a child. I was never very gloomy, odd as though it may seem. But on the other hand, I grew up amongst the scientists and amongst the scientists, you're supposed to look at real reality, you know, what's actually there rather than hopeful fantasies. I think the combination of those two things is what people can't quite get into their heads. Why would I, a naturally optimistic person, look at such gloomy scenarios? The answer is because they're there.”

When asked if she’s ever considered what her escape route would be if she needed one, she points to her home. “I live in Canada. Unless the United States invades Canada, for the moment we are a cheerful, jolly, small country unused to our recent spotlight prominence,” she says, referencing the upsurge in people who have recently fled across the border from the United States. “As usual in these kinds of scenarios, involving bad things happening in the United States, Canada is a place that people escape to.”

Sobering scenes captured by photographers of people walking in subzero temperatures to Manitoba in February drew quick comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, as Atwood also uses Canada as the place for asylum seekers from Gilead. “It was the land of Canaan, the Promised Land in the days of slavery and that's where people were trying to get when they were going north. Of course, during the Vietnam War, we had a huge influx of Americans. Yet again, there we are,” she says.

Atwood has always pushed back against the suggestion that The Handmaid’s Tale is some kind of futuristic prophecy. (“You can't prophesize, as we have seen, people who were in the prophecy business in 2016 didn't do so well,” she quips.)

Today, she speculates that it would be much harder to escape from a totalitarian world than it would have been when the book was first published. “They would be able to shut down all of your digital, so you would not be able to phone anybody, have any money, really function in today's world at all,” says Atwood.

When The Handmaid’s Tale last appeared on the screen almost 30 years ago, the narrator records her thoughts on a tape instead of in a diary, something that Atwood says likely wouldn’t be used today. “I think now if she had access to one, she would probably be recording on some other device, but it would be tricky because you wouldn't want to be on any kind of Wi-Fi. You would be too traceable,” she says.

When asked what warnings that people revisiting the story in 2017 can take away from the tale, she quips, “Apart from sew some diamonds into your hems or have an escape route planned?” before more straightforwardly answering the question. “I don't know,” she says. “The moment at which a totalitarianism gets serious is the moment at which the army fires into the crowd. We haven't seen that yet. We did see Kent State some time ago, but that was slightly different and it caused a huge amount of uproar. I'm kind of counting on the United States being ornery enough and diverse enough that it would not lie down easily for totalitarianism.”

While the Smithsonian Associates exclusive evening preview of The Handmaid's Tale is sold out, you can still get on the waitlist by calling (202) 633-3030.

Editor's note, April 14, 2017: The story has been updated to correctly reflect that Elisabeth Moss, not Elizabeth Olsen, will be starring in the Hulu adaptation.

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