Sunday, March 26, 2006

Two novels about theocracies

Two excellent suggestions have come in responding to last week's post regarding novels about life in a theocracy.

Todd Gitlin suggested Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Joseph Epstein nominated Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Atwood describes her novel:

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopia set in the future, and as such it owes debts to Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and the tradition in general - a tradition that can be traced back to Plato's Republic, through Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the horse's paradise of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and then through the many literary utopias and dystopias of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In it, a totalitarian dictatorship has appeared in the US, now called the Republic of Gilead. It has emerged during a period of disruption: in such times, people are likely to trade in their rights in favour of militarist governments that claim to be able to guarantee their safety.

Once in power, such governments tend to go for absolute power and, like all absolute power, this power corrupts. Such dictatorships gain initial acceptance by justifying their actions in the name of their subjects' most cherished beliefs. Thus the Republic of Gilead is not a Communist state or a monarchy: neither would get a toehold in the US. Instead it claims to be religious, and bases some of its more arcane practices on the literal interpretation of certain passages in the early books of the Bible.

While The Handmaid's Tale is set in the future, The Scarlet Letter takes place in America's past.

Hawthorne set his allegory of adultery, guilt, and social repression in Puritan New England. The Scarlet Letter is a canonical work of American literature that explores the divide between the public and private realms, passion and convention, and introduces Hester Prynne, who develops the strength to confront social ostracism.

To read an excerpt from Kathryn Harrison's introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Scarlet Letter, click here.

Todd Gitlin is the author of 11 books and numerous articles in periodicals ranging from The New York Times to Theory & Society. A regular contributor to, he is currently a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. The Intellectuals and the Flag, a book of his essays, was published in January 2006. To read his essay "All The President’s Friends," click here.

Joseph Epstein edited The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997. He is author of numerous books of essays and short fiction. He also edited The Norton Book of Personal Essays and is a regular contributor to Commentary, The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. To read an excerpt from his book Snobbery: The American Version, click here.

Thanks to Todd Gitlin and Joseph Epstein for their suggestions.

--Marshal Zeringue