Image: George Kraychyk/Hulu
Why do we fear the power of empire? Why do we hope for resistance? Here, Brittany Deininger, a recent graduate of The Seattle School, shares how dystopian literature like The Handmaid’s Tale calls us to examine these questions while speaking to our current cultural moment.
Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, has entered my life three separate times in the past three months. It was assigned as reading for two classes in graduate courses at The Seattle School: once for Feminist/ Womanist Hermeneutics taught by Dr. Angela Parker and once for Dystopian Literature taught by Dr. Kj Swanson. Finally, I couldn’t help but engage with the wild sensation of the Hulu Series as it translates Atwood’s tale from literary language into cinematic rhetoric.
The Handmaid’s Tale, though published in 1986, has had a resurgence of readers and re-readers. There are no remaining dogeared copies at Goodwill. Trust me, I’ve looked. In this particular cultural moment, this text, both in its cinematic and literary iterations, has captured our imaginations as a dystopian tale that expresses both our contemporary fears of empire and our deep hopes for resistance.
As dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres find a greater place within contemporary reading lists, it is important to ask why we are consuming these stories. Why the draw? Are we merely wallowing or ruminating in disaster and terror for its own sake? Or, as I suggest, is there perhaps something much deeper going on here?
As with any text, what we read is bound up in how we read, our hermeneutic, the context and lens from which we are drawing interpretive meaning from any text.
After reading a handful of dystopian novels back to back this summer, including The Handmaid’s Tale, I was learning to read not just apocalyptic content, but to read with an apocalyptic lens. Both apokalypsis and aletheia are Greek words that have to do with opening up the conditions for disclosure, for uncovering and revealing truth.
While speculative fiction sets up a disturbing world in the not-too-distant future, it has something to reveal about the not-too-distant past and the realities, power dynamics, and behaviors of our ever-unfolding present.
In her essay “Writing Utopia,” Margaret Atwood reveals that she didn’t include anything in The Handmaid’s Tale that hadn’t already been done to someone, somewhere, at some time in the past or present. Atwood is participating in the tradition of apocalyptic art, which is concerned with our vision and how we read the world.
Reading with an apocalyptic lens has the potential to wake us to the present reality and ask us to engage with ultimate concerns in the face of it. The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant example of how dystopian novels reveal or make explicit, those phenomena within culture that are implicit and hidden.
Empire & Resistance
Dystopian literature is one of those places where culture and theology intersect for me. In novel after novel, I was stuck by the recurrence of themes that portrayed how the power of empire works. In fact, it became clear that the very things that were perverted and used to gain power in dystopic systems were the indelible tools of hope and resistance.
I am using the word empire as a symbol to talk about any corrupt power that oppresses, undermines, and co-opts life and humanity in the world. The Handmaid’s Tale, like many other dystopian novels, depicts how empire (in this case the Gileadean theocratic regime) seeks to close down the vision of the world in such a way that possibilities are reduced and people are systematically controlled and ordered. If you haven’t read the book or watched the series yet, I won’t include any spoilers, but here are four themes to watch for as you make your way through The Handmaid’s Tale or any number of dystopian works of fiction:
Language Shapes Consciousness:
Empire creates its own language and banishes all other speech in order to reshape the world and the possibilities of thought. The hallmark feature of language is that it categorizes what we see into a worldview. It shapes both what we attend to and how we perceive it. Consciousnesses shaping can come in the form of creating new language, but it also includes the restriction of language outside of the new dialect. Watch for the ways in which resistance is enacted by stepping outside of the approved dialect, breaking the boundaries of permitted reading, and reshaping meaning and language through consciousness raising..
Catastrophe and Order:
Empire always takes advantage of catastrophe to gain power. Many of the societies who are taken advantage of in dystopian texts are dealing with a post-traumatic state after war, terrorism, environmental disaster, or other catastrophic breakdowns of order. Empire often consolidates power and shows up as a savior figure in the way they falsely simplify a complex world. The privacy and autonomy of certain people are often exchanged in the name of safety and security. Watch for how security and order are used to justify the existence of the dystopian world. Also pay attention to the ways that trauma is sustained rather than reduced and healed in order to maintain power. Resistance often looks like stepping outside of the paradigm to see how fear is created and manipulated.
The Role of Memory:
While apocalyptic art is concerned with aletheia (the disclosure of truth), empire is concerned with lethe (forgetfulness, concealment, and erasure). By concealing the past, the present and future become available to be controlled. Watch for the subtle and direct ways that collective and personal memory are obliterated or re-narrated by those in power. In turn, remembering is an act of resistance in that it gives another reading of reality outside of the closed system of empire. Walter Brueggemann even suggests that the role of the prophet/poet is to mine the people’s memory in search of hope.
One of the most haunting lines that appears in both the book and the series comes from the Commander, a mouthpiece for the empire. He says, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.” Dystopias are often the result of empire attempting to create a utopia for a select few in power. Remember here, that utopia translates as “no place,” meaning we never establish or arrive there. You might ask yourself, for whom is this dystopia an attempt at utopia? How does this dystopian world ask us to forget the humanity of certain sets of other people?
A Robust Hope
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred says, “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” While reading dystopian novels has not made me an optimist, I’m increasingly interested in robust hope. Inn his essay “Prisoners of Hope,” Cornel West argues:
Optimism adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evidence in order to infer that things are going to get better. Yet we know the evidence does not look good…Hope enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence in order to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group xenophobia, and personal despair…To live is to wrestle with despair and yet never allow despair to have the last word.
Reading dystopian literature through the apocalyptic lens should drive us not to despair but to active hope. We read the shadow and the light because resistance calls us to both see and see otherwise. The Christian imagination does not call us to be spectators, but to bear witness to reality and to hold a profound hope for a Kingdom reality to come as we are active participants of this Kingdom in the world.
Classic and Contemporary Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Literature:
- The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forester, 1909
- Brave New World, by Aldus Huxley, 1932
- 1984, by George Orwell, 1949
- Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, 1953
- A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, 1962
- The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, 1986
- Children of Men, by P. D. James, 1992
- Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, 1993
- Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2006
- The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, 2006
- On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee, 2014
- Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, 2015
- March, graphic novel trilogy by John Lewis, 2013-2016 (presents a historical dystopia)