At first reading, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale seem to have little to do with each other except for the very general fact that both novels have elements of social and political commentary in them. But, while the world's portrayed in these books are fundamentally different from each other, a closer reading suggests important intersections and congruences in the novels around the subject of gender. For in both cases, the major characters are both defined by and in important ways imprisoned by their gender. In the case of Atwood's protagonist, the prison is one that she actively resists because she is always clear that it is a prison, while Babbitt is initially convinced that he is a free man. By the end of the novels, each has come to a different understanding of the ways in which gender (which is to say, socially constructed ideas about what maleness and femaleness and femininity and masculinity should look like) can be resisted and re-conceptualized. Whether this new knowledge serves them well or not is more complicated. This paper examines the ways in which these two authors explore the concept and perils of gender in their works.
Despite the fact that by the end the two novels have addressed many of the same fundamental questions about the highly differentiated ways in which men and women live in the same society, the books have their genesis in very different social milieux. Babbitt was first published in 1922, a fiercely complicated period in American history and culture. The decade after the Great War was in one sense a highly materialistic one. This "Jazz Age" of The Great Gatsby (and the Harlem Renaissance) was filled with bathtub gin, women in short dresses (at least compared to what their mothers had worn), sparkling big cars, sparkly big diamonds. It was a world in which the United States had gained a considerable degree of status after its entrance into the war and was still basking in that status, even as it began to turn inward again and enjoy the post-war prosperity. After the country had survived the "war to end all wars" and the at-least-as-terrible influenza plague that followed it, there was a sense for many people that it was time to enjoy life while they could.
But there were also seriously dark elements that ran through American society of the time, and these are far more obvious in Babbitt. The still-new Soviet regime cast a very long shadow over the United States, which entered into its first Red Square. Not as well remembered today as the successive Red Square of the 1950s, this period contributed a substantial element of fear as well as paranoia to daily life as well as political discourse.
Reds in the Streets
The world outside of the novel in 1922 as well as that inside the book was one in which the world could be divided into "us" and "them" with relative ease. Or, at least this is how the world appears to Babbitt at the beginning of the novel: He believes that he knows who is a good American and who is not. He is precisely the kind of man who believed fervently in the constant possibility of a Bolshevik revolution breaking out on Main Street, a possibility that all good Americans would be on the look-out for such a possibility.
Such a fierce paranoia about the possibility of Soviet world domination lead to a the suppression of academic and intellectual freedom and honesty as people in all walks of life (although, of course, not all people) sought to appear as "normal" as possible to their neighbors. Ironically, of course (and this was no doubt an important impetus for Lewis in writing the novel) American fear of the kind of totalitarian governance that they were afraid would overtake them if the Soviet Union were to win the Cold War lead them to impose on themselves a voluntary totalitarianism. This is not to say that American intellectuals ever suffered the same kinds of horrors that Stalin and later Soviet leaders would inflict on political and artistic dissidents in their nation, but there was certainly a price to pay for those in Babbitt's (and Lewis's) world for those who spoke out (Lingeman 71).
Lewis's progressive hero, Seneca Doane, is blacklisted by "good" society in the novel's setting of the mythical but archetypical city of Zenith. While not as formally imposed as the blacklist of the McCarthy era, Doane's life and chances are fundamentally limited by his choice not to kowtow to the overweening conservativism of the age. And when Babbitt himself offers a measure of support to Doane, he comes under suspicion too in a version of the terrible effects of even the most minimal support of public solidarity.
Women as Victims
But while progressives may suffer in Babbitt's world, the harshest payment meted out is for women. Babbitt's closest friend, Paul Riesling, kills his wife in the novel's greatest act of violence. This murder is not framed in the kind of explicitly gendered terms in which the bloodthirsty public slaughter of women is carried out in Gilead, it is clear from Lewis's tone that he understands with a trenchant clarity the costs that society placed on men by demanding such a high degree of conformity from them (Lewis 81). This conformity has even greater costs for women, of course, since those with the least power in society are always those who pay the highest social costs. But it is in no small part, Lewis makes clear, that it is the incredible pressure placed on men to conform (and the costs extracted when they refuse to do so) that has a terrible trickle-down effect on the women who become the most convenient victims of these men. This push toward absolute conformity as one of the key tasks of masculinity can be seen in passages like the following from Chapter Eight:
The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trouser-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeated a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever.
Throughout the novel, as in the above passage, the ways in which men act and think is taken as the preferred way of acting and thinking. Men in this world define normalcy, while women are seen as unfortunate (and potentially dangerous) deviations from such a position.
Gender is one of the most powerful tools in Babbitt's world used by society at large -- in the form of neighbors, business associates, ministers -- to enforce conformity and perceived ideals of normalcy (Lingeman 36).The following description from Chapter Six suggests at the narrowness of what a real man should dedicate himself to:
He had enormous and poetic admiration, though very little understanding, of all mechanical devices. They were his symbols of truth and beauty. Regarding each new intricate mechanism -- metal lathe, two-jet carburetor, machine gun, oxyacetylene welder -- he learned one good realistic-sounding phrase, and used it over and over, with a delightful feeling of being technical and initiated.
Women are similarly confined to a particular sphere and a particular way of doing things. Their world (described in Chapter Eight) is even smaller than that of the men, whose horizons are already terribly shrunken.
The dinner was the best style of women's-magazine art, whereby the salad was served in hollowed apples, and everything but the invincible fried chicken resembled something else.
In a world in which there are so many rules on gendered behavior and so much difference between what women are permitted to do and still be considered acceptable, it is hardly surprising that the relations between the two genders should be so bristling with potential and sometimes expressed violence.
No Balm in Gilead
Margaret Atwood's dystopic world of Gilead is one in which women have been entirely subsumed to men. They have in fact also been subsumed to their own femininity, reduced to nothing but their sex. In some ways, Gilead is a natural extension of the world envisioned by the men in Babbitt. Offred and the other women that we meet through her eyes, are reduced to uteruses and vulvas and vaginas and to hands that serve men in various ways. They live in a world in which dissent can end not just with the kind of social ostracism that would be faced by a woman like Myra Babbitt if she were to suddenly start wearing pants, smoking, and quoting Trotsky. Rather, women who rebel in Gilead are killed in public displays of bloodthirstiness that would have delighted Nero (to whom Seneca served as a tutor, coming back to Lewis's choice of names for his characters).
The world of Gilead is more removed from the everyday world of its readers when it was published than was the world of Zenith from the lives of Lewis's readers. But this does not mean that it was essentially…