The Handmaid’s Tale as a Call to Compassion

The Handmaid’s Tale as a Call to Compassion June 20, 2017

The Hulu television series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s famous dystopian novel, has made quite a splash this spring. I am one of many who hopped on the bandwagon, buying the book last April (which was so suspenseful that I couldn’t stop myself from dropping everything to read it in one day) and then borrowing a friend’s Hulu account to binge-watch the series. Both the book and TV series are set in a dystopian, near-future reality where, after a brutal muclear war that is still going on, the United States of America has been replaced by a totalitarian, fundamentalist Christian nation called Gilead.

Due to extreme environmental degradation, the vast majority of the North American population has been rendered unable to conceive and bear children. As a result, the new government has rounded up women who are known to be fertile to serve as ¨handmaids¨ in the homes of the ruling class. Their role is to be raped once a month by the ¨Commander¨ of their household in the presence of his wife, with the hope of conceiving and bearing a child which the wife will then raise. In this world, all women are forbidden to read and write; public executions of both men and women are the norm; and, from the looks of it, nearly all the people – including those at the top of the social pyramid – are profoundly unhappy.

There is a lot to be said about both the book (which has indeed made its way into the canon of twentieth century literature) and the TV series (which has been produced with Atwood’s input and adds several details and subplots to the book). For me, however, the most moving moment occurs in the final episode. Moira, an old friend of the main character, has been forced to work in an illicit, black market brothel for the powerful men of Gilead.

When the main character is taken there by her Commander and encounters her friend, she is dismayed to see that Moira – once an extremely spunky woman who tried to resist the regime – has grown weary and resigned herself to her plight. However, seeing her friend helps her find the will to resist again. She manages to escape the brothel after killing a client, dressing up in his clothes and stealing his car. She drives north to Canada and ultimately finds her way to Toronto, where she is taken in by a refugee settlement office, offered food, shelter and money, and assigned a permanent caseworker.

The look on Moira’s face in that moment is, for me, the most poignant part of the whole series. After several years of abuse and total bondage, she experiences freedom, compassion, and humane treatment. We see her shock, her trauma, her confusion, and a faint glimmer of hope.

Perhaps the expression on the face of Samira Wiley, the actor playing Moira, resonated with me so much because I have seen it before – not the exact face, but others like it. I saw it on the face of Amir, an Iraqi refugee I befriended while living in Toronto who finally made it to Canada after living through countless wars (including eight years in Syria). I saw it in the face of Meshal, one of the Saudi Arabian students I currently teach in Dubuque, IA. A religious minority in his country, he has faced much persecution while also being affected by the violence of its ongoing war in Yemen. I also have seen it in the faces of more than one young Guatemalan I’ve volunteered as a legal interpreter for in my home community.

For a long time, the word ¨refugee¨ conjured in my mind vague images of masses of people fleeing their homelands on boats or in trucks. It was hard to see them as more than statistics, to understand that each and every one of them is a unique individual with her or his own joys, sorrows, and dreams. Atwood’s novel and the Hulu adaptation of it serve as stark reminders that a day may come when the United States of America becomes a site of war and extreme oppression, when we complacent Americans join the millions who are forced to flee. In this way, the story urges us to increase our own capacity for empathy, to place ourselves in the shoes of the many people who are escaping situations all-too-similar to the one portrayed in Atwood’s Gilead.

Today, June 20, has been designated by the United Nations as World Refugee Day. According to the UN, a refugee can be defined as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

On this day, we are asked to remember our brothers and sisters who have been forced to flee their homes, to welcome them into our communities, and to stand in solidarity with them. As much as we may want to think that we can control our lives and destinies, The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a bitter reminder of how fragile our social structures really are and how quickly our circumstances can change. It is possible that one day we, too, may lose everything we hold dear, that we may be forced to flee, that our very survival may depend on the kindness of strangers, that we too are the poor.

If you are interested in learning more about what you can do to help refugees, please consider supporting the following organizations. Many of them can be followed on social media; you can also sign up online to receive legislative action alerts:


Church World Service

Refugee Council USA

Jesuit Refugee Service

US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services



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