The Handmaid’s Tale: Dystopia by Proof Texting

Karen Swallow Prior

Imagine the words of scripture being taken entirely out of context and used to advance an evil action, such as a husband and wife seeking God’s blessing in bringing a third person into the marital bed. Imagine the names of historical figures from the Bible being applied to wicked deeds, such as indoctrinating and maiming female sex slaves.

Imagine the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Or better yet, imagine the real world today, one in which biblical hermeneutics are often so weak that even Christians can be prone to proof texting and failing, for example, to distinguish between prescriptive passages of the Bible and descriptive ones. This confusion over what the Bible describes (its historical accounts of what fallen, sinful people have done) and what it prescribes (what God commands fallen, sinful people to do) is what struck me most in returning to the Margaret Atwood novel, which has recently been adapted for television by Hulu.

As a work of dystopian literature, the 1985 novel uses many of the tropes typical of the genre: sinister totalitarian rule; public executions; elimination of personal names and identities; and compulsory uniform clothing (in this case red dresses and white caps). And, of course, reading is forbidden—at least for women.

The signature conceit revolves around an infertility crisis. As a result, the few fertile women left are forced to become surrogates for the infertile wives of high-level men. The story is clearly meant to be a cautionary tale about the slippery slope inherent in any infringement upon reproductive rights, yet that is a concern I feel is even more exaggerated today than it was when the novel was first published. The more important caution The Handmaid's Tale demonstrates is the danger of proof texting the Bible for your own purposes.

Clearly, this production of The Handmaid’s Tale takes itself very seriously. Beautifully scripted and shot, the series’ elegance is almost to the point of excess, with frequent use of Pinterest-y details, Instagram-y blurring, and home interiors right off the pages of an Anthropologie catalogue.

The wings on the white caps worn by the handmaids cultivate a solipsistic world.

The visual power of the film, along with its laconic dialogue, reinforces the way this world operates for the women who have been separated from the written word. Labels are marked with pictures, not words. The words that are read to them—from the Bible—have had their meaning ripped from their proper context and distorted to promote evil rather than good. Even when Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the handmaiden of the wife of a high-ranking officer, discovers a strange Latin-looking phrase carved into the wood in her room, she comes to learn that even these words have been mangled almost beyond recognition. This phrase—which I won’t spoil here—becomes a mantra for her within the narrative. And interestingly, it has become a mantra among the show’s fans, too.

This unironic embrace of catachresis is the most sinister danger the novel depicts, as well as its most realistic one for us today. After all, this is the hermeneutical problem in the modern world writ large. The wings on the white caps worn by the handmaids, like blinders put on a cart horse, cultivate for them a solipsistic world in which all that they see, all that exists for them, is only what is right in front of their nose. This too is emblematic of proof texting.

Seeing Bible passages so violently de-contextualized and familiar words and phrases rendered strange allows us to see these passages with the eyes of those for whom the biblical narrative is entirely foreign. Many of those outside the faith (and even some inside) do not understand the parts of the Bible because we don’t always do a good job communicating their meaning within the whole of the biblical narrative. The Bible is, after all, a story—albeit a true one. If The Handmaid’s Tale can show us anything, it’s how dangerous parts of the Bible are when ripped away from the whole.

The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us just how important right reading and interpretation are. The difference between its world and ours is that we can choose to read, and to read well. That many of us don’t is the two worlds’ frightening similarity.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure