British television is sadly not what it once was, which is one reason why everyone needs Netflix, but every now and again, something good comes along, and now is such a time. Don’t miss Channel Four’s Sunday evening offering, The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel.
I must have read several thousand novels over the years, both for pleasure and books sent to me to review, but The Handmaid’s Tale is one that sticks in the memory. If you have not read it, please do. If you need a plot summary, one can be found here.
The Guardian gives the new series a very positive review, and deservedly so, but not altogether unsurprisingly, it seems to think that the Tale is an anti-religious tract. Well, it isn’t. It is far too subtle to be reduced to that. It is perfectly true that Gilead, the dystopia in which it is set, draws from the Bible and the Puritan past of America, but the Republic of Gilead is nothing like any contemporary Christian group. Moreover, the book (as did the first episode) makes clear that Gilead is deeply opposed to Catholicism. One memorable scene in the book concerns a nun being forced to renounce her vow of chastity in order to become a child-bearing handmaid.
The Guardian, along with others, also connects the Tale with the advent of Trump. This too has some sense in it, but the strength of the Tale means it transcends one particular time. To link it to the Trump era alone would be to do it a disservice.
Like 1984, and like P.D. James’ similarly themed Children of Men, Atwood’s novel is primarily a provocation to thought. We need to think about the question of fertility, and we need to think about what would happen if fertility rates were to collapse. That is not likely, but it is at least possible. It is possible enough for it to command out attention, and to make us ask ourselves whether we value fertility or not? Indeed, put like that, we must value fertility, for without it the human race cannot continue; but we do not value it at any price. One thing the novel ‘proves’, if we can talk of a novel proving anything: the price paid in Gilead for the continuance of the human race is not a price worth paying.
This is an important point. We cannot sacrifice human dignity on the altar of reproductive imperatives, however grave. Breeding programmes, whatever form they take, are immoral. It is quite interesting to consider that breeding programmes seem to be a constant in history. The Ancient Greeks approved, indeed mandated, the exposure of what they considered to be defective children. Augustus legislated to encourage the upper classes of Rome to breed, without much success. Hitler and Mussolini went much further than Augustus.
In the twentieth century a whole movement arose dedicated to pseudo-scientific eugenics. The People’s Republic of China has only recently modified its one-child policy. All these tendencies represent the state’s invasion of the private sphere. It is up to a couple to reproduce without outside interference. The only acceptable breeding programme is that laid down by God and enshrined in nature: marriage.
The most disturbing scene of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was ‘The Ceremony’: this represents the horrific intrusion of the state into the most private of human activity, namely procreation. And why does this disturb us? Because it has already happened to a certain extent.
Humanae Vitae says in its 17th paragraph:
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favouring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Just as the way the state, in China, for example, makes contraception mandatory by law, which is wrong, it is equally wrong to force people into reproduction as happens in fictional Gilead. The state must stay out of the bedroom and it must respect the autonomy of conscience. It is failure to do so that makes Gilead so terrifying; and which makes our own world, where contraception has become a way of life, so dispiriting as well.