Polygamy and The Handmaid’s Tale

I first remember hearing about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) from my friend Valerie.  She mentioned it during a book club that we both belonged to, and I was intrigued by it.  However, it took me a few years to get to it.  I ended up reading Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) first.  That’s an amazing book.  And once I got to The Handmaid’s Tale, I couldn’t put it down.  The Handmaid’s Tale is number 48 on the BBC book list.

the handmaid's tale cover
The story is of a dystopian and totalitarian Christian society.  Older men, already married to older women, use young women in order to bear their children.  It is a disturbing idea, and most disturbing is the scene in which we understand just how this arrangement works.  The handmaid lays face up on top of the wife, with the wife holding her, while the husband does his duty to make a child.  Truly bizarre.

Yet, it isn’t so bizarre.  It reminds me of the practice of polygamy, of which my church has a history (unfortunately).  It has long since been banned (thank goodness), but some splinter groups who call themselves fundamentalists, and other religions and groups, still practice polygamy.  Some claim it is god’s law or will.  Others claim that it is a wonderful arrangement for women in raising children together and doing domestic work together.  It seems in theory that this would alleviate some of the burdens of being a mother and wife.

However, the stark reality of the dysfunction of polygamy is presented in Escape (2007) by Carolyn Jessop.  She escaped from a fundamentalist polygamist sect in southern Utah, the one run by Warren Jeffs and in the news in the last few years for abuse and rape of underage girls.  Jessop was the fourth wife of one if the big wigs in the community.  She bore him eight children by the time she was 35 and her book recounts the horror of the situation.

escape cover
First of all, she was married off as soon as she turned 18; her husband was in his 50s.  She had no say about whom she would marry and no chance for love or dating.  This seems bad enough.  But she joined a family with other wives who were dominant, crazy, or had given up.  There were dozens upon dozens of children, and she was expected to care for them while the others went on trips with the husband.  As the years progressed, the abuse in the family became apparent.  One of the other wives constantly beat and berated the children, even the infants and toddlers. The husband did nothing to stop it, restricted freedoms, and was controlling and abusive both emotionally and physically.  Carolyn did end up working, but was expected to turn over her paycheck to her husband each month.  She was an object and property.

It was a fascinating read, one that made me appreciate my own situation.  She lived such a strange life, and her escape from it is truly remarkable.  The book recounts such horrific details that I wouldn’t necessarily call the book “good,” but it is more like a train wreck that one cannot turn away from.

I saw a connection to Jessop’s memoir of the horrors of polygamy to The Handmaid’s Tale.  My biggest problem with polygamy and any situation in which women are used as pawns for children is the fact that it hurts both women and children.  The Handmaid’s Tale presents these same realities.  The women are objects for creating children rather than people.  They are denied their dignity and their ability to choose.

I would recommend Atwood’s books to anybody.  She is a fantastic Canadian author who has never disappointed me.

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49 thoughts on “Polygamy and The Handmaid’s Tale

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  1. Loved the Handmaid’s Tale. Great book. And scary that it is not so far-fetched from reality in some situations. I have heard so much about Escape, just haven’t gotten up the courage to read it yet, but i will. Nice post, Emily!

      1. Reading this book reminded me why feminism and women’s rights is still so hugely important everywhere. I really felt in those sections where Offred was contemptuous of her mother’s activism, only to realize later what exactly her mom fought for.

        One of my all-time favorites.

        Good on you for connecting this book with polygamy.

  2. Wow, Emily! I admire the fact that you can read these things. I believe I would react to it for far too long in the aftermath. The polygamy in The Paris Wife was bad enough, in my opinion, and that was NOTHING compared to these two books!! Glad you reviewed them so I know something about them, but I think I’ll leave it at that! Thanks!

  3. I agree with the above commenters. I’ve heard so much about this book and, of course, about Margaret Atwood, but I have never read her work. I’m often disappointed when I fall in love with a writer only to become disappointed in his/her later books. It’s good to know that you recommend Atwood.

  4. I really liked “The Handmaiden’s Tale” although maybe I missed the point about polygamy. Was there polygamy in that book? It’s been awhile since I’ve read it but I remember thinking of it more like Orwell’s 1984 from a woman’s perspective than a comment on polygamy. I also recall more of a master/slave relationship between the master and the handmaidens, although that could be argued for the American version of polygamy as well I suppose. Now you’ve got me curious and thinking I may have missed something huge in that book. I’ll have to read it again and see what else is in there I missed the first time, (as often happens.)

    1. Denise, you didn’t miss anything huge! I was taking my one memory of the book’s most upsetting part and then relating it to the book I read on polygamy. I think the book was more about the master/slave idea and I can’t even remember if the handmaids were considered “wives” or just property, but I see a connection to polygamy. Does that make sense? I’m probably totally off! 🙂

      1. I think that makes sense. I can see the connection now that you brought it up, which is why I want to re-read Handmaiden, although I’m not certain I’m up for Escape.

  5. Have you seen the TV show Big Love? I really enjoyed that. Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist is also a more contemporary interpretation of polygamy while Tracy Chevaler’s latest novel The Last Runaway is about a polygamous sect.
    As with one of the other commenters I can’t recall polygamy in The Handmaid’s Tale but I did read it over 10 years ago. I recall being utterly gripped. I love all of Atwood’s early novels but Oryx & Crake and beyond just haven’t been for me unfortunately….

    1. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard about it. Does it describe the horrors that Jessop did in her memoir, or is it more funny and lighthearted? Yeah, I don’t think polygamy per se is in the book, but I see a connection to current instantiations of polygamy to the futuristic society in the book in which young women are just meant for breeding. I can’t remember the whole book either, but does the main character escape? I have a distant memory of that and a helicopter… But maybe I’m wrong and that is a different book or movie.

      1. Yes, the helicopter sounds familiar 🙂
        Big Love is more a modern drama – Bill Paxton and Jean Triplehorn are married with teenagers. Both are Mormon with Bill having been kicked out of the local compound as a boy. When his wife has a serious cancer scare they decide to expand the family through a second and then third wife.
        Chloe Sevigny is awesome as Nicolette, fundamentalist wife #2 from the compound. It is highly addictive but does make you feel uncomfortable at times. Unpleasant things happen out on the compound but its not gratuitous. On one hand the show is really about the struggles devout believers face with contemporary temptation but it’s not a ‘religious’ show.
        In summary: a unique slice of America.

  6. I loved the Handmaid’s Tale. I read it in my twenties and again about a year ago and I saw so much more in it the second time around, largely because of life experiences. I was delighted when my kids’ school (an all boys school) made it required reading and we had some great family chats about feminism, the treatment of women in society. Atwood is one of my favourite authors as she is never afraid to tackle difficult issues.

  7. While I agree with your interpretation of The Handmaid’s Tale regarding treating women as objects, I don’t know if I follow you in drawing the comparison with polygamy. The entire point of the arrangement in Atwood’s novel is that the handmaids AREN’T wives. They are concubines–lesser women. They are truly objects while the official wives hold the position of power in the community.

    Still this is a very interesting post. I enjoy reading your blog!

    1. Yes, thanks for clearing that up. I’ve confused a lot of people today. I realize that the book isn’t about polygamy, but I see a connection to the way it is enacted in Escape.

  8. Emily, I know I am preaching to the choir, but we men can be some of the biggest dumbasses in how religions are crafted. If someone tried to start a religion today that made women subservient, there would not be many signing up for it. The denigration of women you refer to in these books could be added to the long list of other religions and cultures where women are treated like chattel. These older religions and cultures have taken maltreatment of women to beyond an extreme level, some even more horrible than the above. As a country and planet, our world will truly only get better when women are treated better. I want my daughter to have every opportunity and be treated with civility, fairness and dignity. Can I get an Amen to that? BTG

    1. Amen! I certainly agree. I also think that some of these older institutions are trying to do better, and as society gets “better” and people get more concerned with the welfare of half of the population, things naturally swing in a more egalitarian direction.

  9. I am glad you enjoyed it. I always worry about recommending that book because I worry it might offend some people. But it is really good. After reading your post I realized I haven’t read any of her other books. I will have to change that.

    1. Yes, good recommendation! I know what you mean though. I’ve pretty much stopped recommending books (outside of this blog!) because I always end up offending somebody. Do read The Blind Assassin. It is her best, in my opinion.

  10. I really enjoyed this post but then I’m always pleased by evidence that Americans are reading Canadian writers! I’ve always loved Margaret Atwood. She’s an amazing writer and her visions of the future are prescient and chilling. The Handmaid’s Tale is one and her Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are others. Spooky. The Robber Bride is great fun – talk about a bitch goddess!

    1. Of course we are reading Canadians! I’ll be talking about Yann Martel soon, and one of my very favorite short story writers is Alice Munro. She is BRILLIANT! Who am I missing? 🙂

  11. I love love love Margaret Atwood! I’ve been meaning to re read A Handmaid’s Tale– thanks for reminding me. Great post I would recommend Hidden Wives as well

  12. Thanks for reminding me about this excellent book. I read it several times a decade ago. Dystopian fiction was/is a huge favorite of mine. I needed a reminder!!

  13. I also love The Handmaid’s Tale, but my all-time favorite Atwood book is The Blind Assassin. I saw that it’s also on your list of 100 best books. Thanks for an excellent review on a great author’s work.

  14. I am new to this blog and am thoroughly enjoying it! Full disclosure: I’m a high school English teacher in RI. Anyway, I love Margaret Atwood, and I especially love this book. Although there are several connections to Western society, after reading books like “One Thousand Splendid Suns” by Hosseini, I can’t help but think about our sisters in the Middle East. Even though some may be “wives”, they have no privileges and often, are conscripted into a type of child-slavery. I just can’t get those ideas out of my head.

    I agree with your primary objection: that such an arrangement as Atwood describes hurts women and children, and I’d like to believe that any man who wants a true marriage would naturally recoil from such an arrangement. Although the scenario is (I think and hope) far fetched in the US, it is not so far off the mark globally. And it is not so far from our recent history as one of your readers points out so well. Women have been more or less equal to men for only about a century in the Western world. Atwood presents the scenario of a modern theocracy engagingly.

    PS I will have to read Blind Assassin!

    1. Yes, do read The Blind Assassin! It is brilliant. And welcome! It is nice to have you here and to “meet” you. 🙂 I love what you say about global issues. I just read about multicultural feminism for one of my classes and it is weighing heavily on my mind. I’m so unaware of my own privilege and so unwilling to give it up. There’s a lot to think about when we think in terms of a global community and helping women everywhere, not just those who look like us or live by us. Thanks for adding to the conversation I’ve been having with colleagues and the thoughts that are going through my head!

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