Posted on 8 September 2020
In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Quakers form a key part of the underground resistance.
Set in a near-future New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont), The Handmaid’s Tale takes place after a second American civil war. With the President of the United States having been assassinated and congress overthrown, the civil war is won by the radical religious regime called the Sons of Jacob – a futuristic form of extreme Puritanism.
The Republic of Gilead
New England is renamed the Republic of Gilead. a totalitarian and theocratic state that places women in a variety of subservient roles, and the central character of the novel is Offred, a handmaid.
Due to a mass fertility crisis that has spread across northern America, handmaids are in effect rare fertile women who are enslaved and have to breed in order to survive. This practice is based on a passage in Genesis 16, where Abraham’s childless wife Sarah offers him her “handmaid,” Hagar, in order that he might have a male heir.
Like most Christians or Christianity-based religious groups, the Quakers were spared from persecution in the early days of the Republic of Gilead; the regime focused on targeting groups it considered well outside its theological framework: feminists and liberals, divorced people, gays and lesbians, doctors or medical professions who had preformed abortions, etc.
After a while, as the regime tightened its control over the population, they are targeted in sectarian roundups . Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, and Jews are at least four religious groups mentioned in the novel as actively working against Gilead as part of an organised resistance.
The Quakers in the novel form the Underground Femaleroad, a direct throwback to the 19th-century Underground Railroad where Quakers played a central role in helping black slaves escape to freedom. The Underground Femaleroad helps handmaids and other persecuted women in Gilead escape to Canada.
Atwood says of Quakers in The Handmaid’s Tale:
“In my book, I have the regime doing what totalitarian regimes do, which is eliminating the competition. They get rid of all the other religions as much as they can, and some of them go underground. Noteworthily, of course, the Quakers take the role that they have before, setting up underground escape routes for people.”
The Quakers in the novel are declared ‘heretical’ and there are several references to them being arrested – with their likely fate to be executed by hanging. Moira, a woman who is forced into prostitution at a brothel, is helped by the Quakers and put on the Underground Femaleroad. Making her way north, Moira stays at several Quaker safe houses but is unfortunately captured at the Canadian border and returned to Gilead.
Can the central character, the handmaid Offred, succeed where Moira failed – and make it onto the Undergound Femaleroad all the way to Canada?
In a 2017 New York Times essay Atwood commented on Donald Trump’s America saying that, “The Quakers have gone underground, and are running an escape route to Canada, as – I suspect – they would.”
The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted for TV in 2017 and stars Elizabeth Moss as Offred / June. Most likely to avoid any controversy, the TV show does not directly name any of Gilead’s dissenting religious groups – they all merged together as part of the resistance. Therefore the word ‘Quaker’ is never mentioned, which is a shame as it would have been great to see the Society of Friends rebel against Gilead on-screen.
Image from filmdaily.co/