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Book Review: 'The Handmaid's Tale and Philosophy'

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

Introduction

Having read the “Handmaid’s Tale” and watched much of the show, I respect the complex research and detailed world-building without weighing itself down with long, descriptive dialog. “The Handmaid’s Tale” show is going to be studied thirty years from now for its skill in visual story telling.

The book “The Handmaid’s Tale and Philosophy” delves into the philosophy behind the book and lessons that can be drawn from it. Interestingly, there are examples of their concepts they are seemingly blind to that would be good modern case studies. Disclaimer: The provider gave me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Cover of "The Handmaid's Tale and Philosophy"

The Cover of "The Handmaid's Tale and Philosophy"

Chapter 1 discusses the sources for “A Handmaid’s Tale” and the theory of social cycles. Chapter 2 compares “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “1984”. Chapter 3 analyzes how authoritarian regimes erode the divide between public and private life. Forget the abortion debate, and look instead at Islamic theocratic regimes that outlaw blasphemy and jail rape victims.

Chapter 4, “The US of Gilead”, is a distilled example of liberal privilege. The philosopher looks at conservative Christians as wanna-be Taliban. At the same time, there’s no discussion of actual systemic oppression of women in ISIS territory, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Iran, and Saudi Arabia per the Koran’s mandates and Shariah law. This the first example in the book of pointing at Christians as the threat while ignoring the combined religious and political system that truly oppresses women around the world. However, it isn’t the only one.

Chapter 5 proves the immorality and harm enabled by multi-culturalism, though the authors cannot bring themselves to outright condemn modern multi-culturalism’s mantra “don’t judge”.

Chapter 6 is back to the decent, philosophical discussions. It is an analysis of the character Serena Joy. It discusses responsibility relative to oppression. The author remarks at one point that those who are against feminism are against their own interests. Never mind that their desires and interests may be different than latest-wave feminism. The philosophical blind spot here is damning.

Chapter 7, “Remix in Gilead”, looks at the cultural elements borrowed from the Old Testament while applying other concepts as well. Here is the first author to admit that Gilead isn’t representative of Christian beliefs. The author discusses post-modernism, but they miss how social justice has brought back the same severe penalties for violations of social norms as are applied to severe literal crimes like murder and assault. It is when a society equates social rule violations with literal violence that it is permissible to execute “gender traitors” or atheists, whether in Gilead or Saudi Arabia. The same refusal to analyze their own worldview and its fundamentalists leaves out the discussion on how equating words with violence by SJWs leads directly to “kill the blasphemer”. I suggest reading Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” for better understanding of these phenomena.

Chapter 8 parallels the Book of Job with “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Chapter 9 is an analysis of branding in the Handmaid’s Tale, especially through dictating word usage. The scene in the TV show where June is slapped for saying lesbian instead of gender traitor is emotionally jarring, but it encapsulates this concept. Yet the author ignores the parallel issue of “you will use these faux pronouns”, at risk of fines, charges of hate crimes, loss of employment, and threats of violence. Then the author injects criticism of Trump at the end.

Chapter 10 is a discussion of Foucault’s concept of bio-power. The same analysis is given by another author in the book. One quote bothered me. “Splitting up the population, surveillance, and control of reproduction makes people conform quickly and easily.” You can write this and leave out the same impact of identity politics?

Chapter 11 is titled “What about the men?” Here is the first discussion on how oppressive Gilead is to the men. For example, it analyzes how men are coerced and forced to have sex with partners they don’t want. It is the first analysis of the major male characters in the book, though “Branding” includes a partial analysis of Commander Waterford.

Chapter 12, “Gilead as Palimpsest”, is written by the first contributor to address Islamic theocracies. This is damning given that ISIS had Yazidi sex slaves and sex slave markets within five years of the book’s writing. Instead, multiple contributors scream “oppression” and whirl to point at Christian neighbors. This chapter also addresses the pain of living between the past and the present when society has radically changed.

Chapter 13 is titled “Gilead versus the Self”. It is a discussion on how oppression erodes the self, drawing entirely from Kantian feminism.

Chapter 14 is called “The Value of a Handmaid”. It analyzes the moral, economic and cultural value of the show. It also discusses how the actions of the regime demonstrate the relative value of each group and person. For example, Handmaids are kept alive for offenses that lesser women are executed for, but even a fertile Handmaid will be executed for harming a child, showing that Handmaids are worth more than infertile women, but children are considered even more valuable.

Chapter 15 analyzes June as a Stoic and how Stoicism could be a survival tactic in such an oppressive regime. Chapter 16 is an interesting discussion on the banality of evil, focusing mostly on “The Handmaid’s Tale” but provides other examples as well.

Chapter 17 discusses the symbolism of color in the TV show, down to the emotional impact of “teal” in the Wives’ outfits. Chapter 18 looks at the injustice and inherent flaws of Gilead society.

Chapter 19 seeks to describe how language shapes reality. It reminds me of George Carlin’s comedic rant on euphemisms. Homosexuality becomes “gender treachery”. The author leaves out any modern examples like “traditional values” are redefined to various “phobias”, denying that anyone can have a reasoned opposition to those things. Executions become “salvaging”, implying that they’re protecting society from the executed person and saving their soul while killing the body. A modern example is the suppression of the term “illegal immigrant” in favor of “undocumented migrant” or promotion of “gender identity” over biological sex.

Chapter 20 is another essay drawing from Foucault, though the author also pulls from Kantian ethics. And it is weighed down with yet another swipe at Trump while unfairly equating conservative views with evil oppression. Check your privilege.

Chapter 21 was an excellent analysis of the epilogue of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Many people forget the epilogue exists. Earlier essays touched on the little plays built into the epilogue. For example, “Denay, Nunavut” can be read as “deny none of it”. Yet the academics in the last chapter of “The Handmaid’s Tale” focus on trying to identify those involved and question its very legitimacy, while the author begs you to take it all seriously.

Summary

Where the book is good, it is good. Where modern far-left politics is injected, it pulls down what would be a classic analysis of a master-work of fiction. I can only give this book three stars. "The Twilight Zone and Philosophy" was far better.

© 2018 Tamara Wilhite

Comments

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on December 21, 2018:

Having read this book and currently watching the show on Netflex, some things are quite obvious to me. For example, by engaging in the philosophy of "Don't judge," people have already judged. Therefore, society has already been made to act a certain way. These are control tactics used by both the extreme right and the fanatical left.

I was fascinated with the way the book portrayed education: a tool to help those in power remain there by manipulating the populace as to who is and who isn't considered a "murderer."

Recently, I watched in surprise when I saw our President speaking to a group of people in the skilled trades portion of the labor force and proclaim: "You are the elite." Of course, only if they are repairing his electricity, cars, performing construction. But would he have one of them date his daughter if she was single? (He's not the only one who skillfully plays on the intellect of those who have not been informed. He's just extraordinarily good at it. I can't dislike our president for that.)

However, the Handmaiden's Tale brings up fictional issues. These issues have similar counterparts in our reality. We must deal with them before they become something more than fantasy.

Tamara, you did an outstanding job on this review. I couldn't stop reading it. Brilliant analysis and right on the mark with every word.

Much respect and pleasant New Year,

Tim

Kashaf Ghaffar on December 19, 2018:

Nice contents i like your point of view