Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Comparing "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood with "If This Goes On..." by Robert Heinlein

The novel The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has attracted great attention since it was published in 1985. Some of the attention was in the form of awards--the Governor General's Award among them--and some in the form of adaptations, such as a Danish opera. I am sure that the most financially rewarding attention it has received was the film adaptation, released in 1990.

The book's setting is in an indirectly specified near future. Judging from the book's epilogue, the Handmaid wrote her tale at least 150 years before 2195, i.e. before 2045 (pg. 315). The Handmaid was a young woman at the time of the coup, working as a librarian, and she was still in her reproductive years during the story. A defensible estimate is that the Handmaid was born in the late 1990's, that the coup took place about 2020, when she when she was in her early twenties, and that the events of the story transpired around 2030 to 2040, when she was in her thirties.

The story is set in a dystopia instituted by a group called "The Sons of Jacob Think Tanks" which had seized power through a coup and reinvented the United States as the Republic of Gilead. Its repressive policies include a caste system, disempowerment of women to the point of depersonalizing them, deportation of blacks to areas contaminated with radioactivity, and death penalties against Catholics and other dissenting Christians. 

The coup is an unrealistic fantasy. Atwood states that the President and members of Congress were all killed by a massive conspiracy (pg. 318). Some unspecified person then suspended the Constitution, then a mysterious army of "Angels," which is not the US army (which is unaccountably absent from this story) suddenly appeared out of nowhere, "like Martians."
The political system of the Republic of Gilead is equally vague. Atwood never mentions whether there is a council of elders or a Supreme Leader or an Inner Party at the helm. Instead, she tells us that the heart of the Republic of Gilead lives within people (pg. 33). It is thus a state of mind, or a system of belief, rather than a place. In that, it resembles the Kingdom of Heaven, which cannot be pointed at because it is in our midst (Luke 17:21, Atwood 204). This vagueness transforms Gilead's leadership from a government as we know it in the real world to a symbol for a mode of thought.

Though Gilead's heart was unchanging, its boundaries had shifted. Originally, the Republic expanded to include Central America (pg. 35). Now, all that territory has been lost, and Radio Free America is based in Cuba (pg. 221). Some of the original United States are not part of the Republic, either. For example, the loss of California and Florida has imperilled the supply of oranges.

Beyond being a dystopia, it is tempting to classify the book as "science fiction" because it takes place in the future. However, in a radio interview, Atwood called it "science fantasy" rather than "science fiction." For what reasons is it not "science fiction"?

To answer that question, I'd like to compare The Handmaid's Tale to a science fiction story called "If This Goes On...," written by Robert Heinlein and published in 1940. In it, the USA has become a theocracy under the control of a Prophet. "If This Goes On..." is not greatly concerned with how the theocracy was established, but an odd essay called "Concerning Stories Never Written"--the postscript to a book called Revolt in 2100--fills in many details. Heinlein was clearly concerned that such a revolution was plausible.
I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of Mrs. Rachel Biggs, an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man who shared none of her religious myopia--she left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars with which to establish a television station. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state; they placed their affairs in the hands of a major advertising agency and were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtroopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name-sheets, passwords, grips and all. It was a "good gimmick" once and still served. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held. 
Thus, the first Prophet gained power due to television preaching (like that of Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale) plus violent support by a paramilitary force (like the army of Angels in The Handmaid's Tale), plus a rigged or, at least, controversial election. These methods are similar to those used by Adolf Hitler in his rise to power, with the exception of television, which could be replaced by other forms of mass communication. Heinlein clearly thought that these methods could work as well in the United States, under the proper circumstances, as they had worked in Germany.

The society in "If This Goes On..." shares many details with that in The Handmaid's Tale. Soldiers are called "Angels of the Lord." The "Virgins of the Prophet" are kept for sexual services, and are thus holy prostitutes, like Handmaids. In the Heinlein story, the principal enemy of the regime is a group called the Cabal, established by the Freemasons. Its natural allies include Mormons and Catholics, whose faiths had been suppressed, and a group called Pariahs, who might be Jews, although this is unspecified. In The Handmaid's Tale, the internal enemies of the regime include Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, and gays. 

Both books state how some groups are persecuted. In Atwood's book, blacks are exiled to Homelands, Jews are sent to Israel or death, and Baptists, abortionists, Catholics, and gays are killed in "Salvagings" (= savagings) or sent to the Colonies, which are war zones, ghettos, toxic dumps, or radiation spills (pg. 260). Also there went old women, sterile women, incorrigible women, and gay men. Similarly, Heinlein's book has this news report: "The Minnesota ghettos have been closed and all local pariahs will be relocated in the reservations in Wyoming and Montana in order to prevent future outbreaks."

In both books, parts of the old United States had become independent of the central government. I have already discussed the mentions of civil war in Atwood's book. Heinlein's mentions that a Republic of Hawaii exists.  

In both books, places are renamed to reflect the new regime. Atwood's theocracy has renamed the United States as the "Republic of Gilead" while Heinlein's has renamed the capital city, "New Jerusalem."

Another similarity between the two stories is that the theocratic faith is not Christian. Even the Wikipedia article on The Handmaid's Tale states that it is, but there is no evidence to that effect. The Handmaid's Tale has no references to Christ except, a couple of times, in swearing (pp. 168, 228). Its only references to a cross are as part of the female symbol (pg. 130) and the upside-down cross on executed Catholics (pg. 210). Even the graveyard has no crosses. The symbol of the faith, instead, is the winged eye.

The Handmaid's Tale has quotations from the Bible, of course, even though the Bible itself is kept locked away (pg. 98) where it cannot be consulted. As a result, many of the references to biblical passages are misquoted. Those references are, in addition, almost all from the Old Testament (pg. 99), though some are from St. Paul (72, 233), the most misogynistic source in the New Testament. The only quotation from Jesus, the beatitudes, is expurgated and altered. Accordingly, the Handmaid's prayer, though in Latin, is hardly Christian: "Nolite te bastardes carborundam" (pg. 101), means "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

Like the Bible itself, certain hymns are forbidden (pg. 64) as being too dangerous. Other hymns are deemed innocuous enough to be used (pp. 92, 94).

The Heinlein story, similarly, makes no reference to Jesus or to Christianity, even though people quote the bible often and correctly. However, the official interpretations of the biblical passages distort their meaning in order to justify the non-Christian practices of the official faith, such as the keeping of women for the sexual use of the Prophet. As a result, the only explicitly Christian groups in the story, Catholics and Mormons, largely oppose the state religion.

Despite their many similarities in setting, The Handmaid's Tale and "If This Goes On..." have some clear differences, of course. For one thing, the point of view characters are different (a man in the Heinlein story, a woman in the Atwood; a soldier, a handmaid), so only Atwood's book has the position of women in society as a major theme. It is a minor theme in the Heinlein book because two important characters are women: Sister Judith, a naive Virgin assigned to the Prophet's service, and Sister Magdalene, a strong, decisive member of the revolutionary Cabal. The protagonist is led to revolution because the misuse of Judith revolts him, but his own patriarchal views of a woman's role are challenged by Magdalene. 

The initial question set for this post was whether Atwood's book is science fiction. It is hard to argue that it is not, given its substantial similarities to Heinlein's story, which is clearly science fiction. However, it is better to avoid that argument and say that both works are twentieth century dystopias. We can save the larger argument about whether dystopias are a subset of science fiction for another time.

I have always wondered if the setting of Heinlein's dystopia directly influenced the very similar setting of Atwood's. In fact, I once wrote to Margaret Atwood, care of her publisher, to ask her whether she had read Heinlein's story before she wrote hers, but I received no reply. If Atwood had been influenced by Heinlein, it would be no surprise and no shame. He is a widely influential writer and "If This Goes On..." is a part of his largest literary project, the Future History.


  1. Watching the first episode of the TV series, I had the same thought--"I wonder if 'If this goes on...' influenced or inspired this story at all?"
    A quick google search led me here to your rather thorough exploration of the topic.
    Pretty cool someone else out there saw the (potential) connection.

  2. It is cool, and so thanks for your comment. It's a bit sad that the connection hasn't leapt out for most people. (It's not as though Heinlein is completely obscure, is it? Certainly he wasn't for my generation).