How do regressive societies remain as they are?
In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village (2004), the expectation of a technologically advanced future is subverted with the creation of regressive societies. These societies with extreme belief systems are rife with strict rules limiting individual freedom. In the creation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood posits that “the deep foundation of the United States was not the comparatively recent 18th century Enlightenment structures of the Republic, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England.” (Atwood, 2012) This idea of going backwards in time was a reason Atwood created a world that had, ironically with its advancements, polluted the Earth to such an extent that a society had to develop regressively in order to continue. However, readers see that the crisis was very much exaggerated to legitimize the power of a group of men, the Sons of Jacob. To keep individuals powerless, the Sons of Jacob engineered society in ways that indoctrinated them with extreme beliefs that are presented as the irrevocable truth.
Regressive development as some sort of answer to external threats was also explored in The Village. The idea of a village cut off from the rest of the world was first proposed by Edward Walker – a professor of American History – in the film. Both The Village and The Handmaid’s Tale are set in the 21st Century but have distinct anachronistic characteristics. In the film, the creation of a rustic village named Covington is portrayed as an idyllic 19th century homeland. Prima facie, the largely agrarian society reflects self-sustainability and an untainted innocence. However, this utopic vision becomes problematic as innocence – the very foundation Covington as built on – is corrupted by the Elders (founding members of Covington) themselves; the Elders deceive the villagers and allow disease to kill their own when there is medicine outside Covington. These Elders also engineered the existence of monsters in the woods surround Covington by making terrifying costumes and causing anxiety among the villagers. Near the end of the film, it becomes apparent that this isolated community is situated in a very much advanced world. Their isolation is a result of the Elders’ negative experiences in the vice-ridden real world. To keep inhabitants strictly within the boundaries of Covington, fear of the unknown is used by the Elders. However, when protagonists Lucius Hunt and Ivy Walker, son and daughter of 2 Elders, sought to venture out of Covington to seek medicine, power dynamics changes drastically as they take it upon themselves to go where most other villagers would not. The mentally-challenged youth Noah Percy also challenges the Elder’s control. Thus, the challenge to the Elders’ authority unravels the utopic lie that the Elders have built.
Both texts reflect and reinforce the complex power relationship between society and the individual. Regressive societies are presented as utopic – a solution to larger problems with those in power acting for “the greater good” of society. However, we see that the hierarchy that these societies are built on can be challenged. The carefully drawn lines between the powerful and powerless become blurred as individuals act contrary to what is expected of them. With changing power dynamics eroding the very foundation that these fabricated societies are built on, how is it that the society does not fall apart?
This is because individuals – both the powerful or powerless – internalise and reproduce societal expectations despite appearances or attempts of deviance. They are ultimately unable to separate themselves from society. In fact, their deviance can ironically take certain forms that corroborate and reaffirm the ubiquity and strength of society. Thus, an individual’s attempt at agency is limited at best and ultimately futile. While the power structure shifts, it does not topple.
What do regressive societies hinge on?
Fabricated regressive societies rely on the exploitation of what is highly personal by the powerful to indoctrinate individuals. Specifically, rituals act as anchors in these environments; foundations for the new world order created. In The Handmaid’s Tale, strict adherence to religious rituals was enforced by the powerful. Greetings, Women’s Prayvaganzas (mass prayer meetings), birthing ceremonies and monthly rituals for reproduction can be seen to be taken either literally from the book of Genesis or heavily influenced by it. The idea that wives “may also have children by [handmaids]” (Atwood, 1985, p. 74) is lifted from Genesis 30:3 in King James Bible. This puts the handmaids in a position where they “are for breeding purposes … … two-legged wombs, sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” (Atwood, 1985, p. 109). It is from key features of Genesis that ideas and rituals underpinning the formation of the Gilead society prevail. This religious extremism is ingrained in individuals as everyday life is rife with religious symbols, something that was “drummed into [them]” (Atwood, 1985, p. 73). Hence, it is difficult to separate these beliefs from the individual.
On a less religious note but using a similar approach, rituals are used in The Village to legitimize the myth of monsters in the woods in order to prevent villagers from leaving the boundaries of Covington. Rituals put the villagers within the control of the Elders. The sacrifice of the lambs in The Village is seen to appease the monsters in the woods. This ritual is important in cementing the existence of the monsters as the disappearance of these sacrifices appears to be tangible proof that the monsters exist. It also contributes to the ritualistic avoidance of the colour red, which is deemed as the “bad colour” (Shyamalan, 2004). These practices lend legitimacy to the notion that safety can only be found within the boundary of Covington – a rhetoric the Elders propagate.
However, it is noteworthy that the rituals in The Village are not as ingrained into individuals as they are in The Handmaid’s Tale; they do not pervade and penetrate all aspects of the being to the point of being intrusive. Thus, later on in the film, individuals like Ivy Walker was able to leave Covington in a show of deviance, albeit to little effect.
Repressed agency sustains the society
Even when hierarchical power is challenged, fundamental aspects of individuals remain suppressed. The manipulation of identity renders agency futile. As identity is fundamental to one’s being, the erosion of this key part of an individual reduces her value as a thinking, conscious, sentient human being and renders her unable to act on her own accord. As seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, control is ubiquitous and results in a restriction of individual’s agency. Strict gender roles leading to an erosion of individual identity limits agency and a basic amount of power over one’s own body. By classifying individuals into groups and according them roles that they cannot deviate from, these individuals are reduced to mere functional objects. The handmaids in the novel are named as properties of the male Commanders who hold governing power. In the case of the protagonist Offred, she is the property of Commander Fred, hence Of Fred. Since names are both constituted by and help to constitute our sexed and gendered selves that make individuals unique, culturally embedded and socially administered citizens (Pilcher, 2016), if we consider the significance of names and how they shape identity, the individuals are exploited and shorn of a crucial part of their sense of self; they are no longer viewed as unique but simply as reproduction vessels, with identity changing as often as the “owner” changes. We see that the name has direct impacts on the activity of the individual. Referencing the quote below,
“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.”
the internal thoughts of the protagonist and narrator in the novel are emotive and rebellious. Yet, the omnipresence of the female voice in the novel is muted by the lack of action taken as acts of deviance. There is simply a “want” or desire for some action, to “steal something”, but these desires seldom materialise. Indeed, even Mayday, the only semblance of coordinated resistance, appears ineffectual. It appears in 2 scenes in the novel, both of which to ambiguous impact.
Interestingly, names and identity are also exploited to restrict agency in The Village. However, in a slightly different vein, the idyllic Covington Woods is tainted with overt subterfuge. The identity of the individual is not directly impacted. Rather, the identity of an external being is wielded as a tool by Elders to control the villagers. The villagers are manipulated by the elders’ lies and live perpetually afraid of monsters they call “Those We Do Not Speak Of.” The ambiguous name used creates fear of the unknown, allowing the Elders to use the villagers’ fears to gain something (Palu, 2014) – controlling them within Covington’s boundaries. After protagonist Lucius Hunt steps out of the borders, mutilated lambs and sightings of the monsters appear. Engineered by the Elders, fear of this unknown threat spreads and Lucius is forced to admit that it was he who stepped out of line and angered the monsters. Hence, the disgrace and blame put onto him prevent him from acting against what society deems as right. This physical confinement is also seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred, referring to herself, mentions that
A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.
highlighting the prevalence of control using identities in these regressive societies.
Regardless of power status, deviance reinforces power relations
Ironically, subterfuge is also seen in The Handmaids Tale to a different end. Doing what is “forbidden” or under certain pretence gives individuals some sort of agency that is highly prized. The deviance underlines that some can act more than others. Men in power seek satisfaction from dabbling in the illegal and what was thought to be “strictly forbidden”- a brothel where women called Jezebels were housed. The Commander himself desires what is “forbidden”, as seen from his requests to play scrabble and bringing Offred to the brothel. As Offred mentions,
He’s breaking the rules, under their noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it. Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything.
This two-fold subterfuge – patronizing the brothel and masquerading Offred as a Jezebel – displays a desire to regain some sort of control over one’s life. However, the fact that the Commander can act in certain ways already puts him at a high position of power.
Drawing insights from The Handmaid’s Tale, we can also see that the Elders in The Village hypocritically deviate from what they preach. While they are probably unaware of their own hypocrisy, the dramatic irony is not lost to the readers. The Elders’ desire to escape from a vice-ridden world stems from a need for an Edenic, prelapsarian era “out of hope of something good and right” and to “move towards hope” (The Village, 2004). Indeed, Walker, one of the founding members, had exclaimed that if he stopped Ivy from leaving Covington in search of medicine, the Elders “could never again call ourselves innocent”. Yet, the deceit and allowing villagers to suffer from illnesses that can be treated outside of Covington are blights to the very innocence the Elders preach to protect. Even with such flaws in the foundation of Covington,the Elders stand unanimously in the end to support the continuation of their way of life. The status quo remains as Ivy Walker returns to Covington despite awareness of the lies fed to the village. The futility of deviance is underlined with the tragic death of Noah Percy – the mentally challenged youth who symbolises deviance and the blurring of power relations due to his unique condition. The poignant image of his death – with his face uncovered but the body still encased in the costume of the monster – reflects attempts at agency dying with him as well.
Inertia and ambiguity
Ultimately, largely failed attempts to take matters into one’s own hands highlight the rigidity of structure in these societies and the fact that it is only with this rigidity then can the societies continue as they are – in a state of inertia. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the ending shows Offred being controlled and taken away from Commander Fred’s household.
The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two [men], one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.
And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.
Readers are not told explicitly whether the van that had taken Offred away is part of the Gilead law enforcement or the underground resistance group. Either way, the physically handling of Offred, till the end, reflects the lack of control over her body and life. While there is more ambiguity in the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale compared to The Village which gives readers room for interpretation for a liberated protagonist, the recognition of “the light” is presented more of an afterthought – symptomatic of the liberty that individuals crave for but cannot reach. This makes us recognize that the order in regressive societies remains undisturbed.
Drawing parallels between the two texts, we can see that the strength and persistence of society practices stem from forces that reinforce each other. The use of rituals, fundamental aspects of identity and the underscoring of power relations reflect individual agency as futile. Putting aside similarities, recognising the differences in the expression of these themes helps us understand the concept of power in regressive societies better. While the two texts appear bleak, perhaps it the very fact that individuals cling on to hope despite the futility of attempting to go against the society that makes these texts valuable.
Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: Emblem Editions.
Atwood, M. (2018, April 25) Margaret Atwood on how she came to write The Handmaid’s Tale. Literary Hub. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/margaret-The Handmaid’s Tale-on-how-she-came-to-write-the-handmaids-tale/
Palu, A. (2014) Culture of Fear: Fear as Context and as Method of Political Influence (Unpublished Bachelor’s thesis). University of Tartu, Faculty of Social Sciences and Education Institute of Government and Politics, Tartu, Estonia.
Pilcher, J. (2016). Names, bodies and identities. Sociology, 50(4), 764 – 779.
Shyamalan, M. N. (Director). (2004). The Village [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Touchstone Pictures.
Author: Ooi Wen Ting