Platonic Corruption in The Handmaid's Tale

In Garry Hagberg (ed.), Fictional Worlds and the Political Imagination. London: Palgrave Macmillan (forthcoming)
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The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a United States taken over by a fundamentalist dictatorship called Gilead that also resembles Plato’s ideal city. Attempts to explain Gilead’s debt to Plato face two challenges. First, aspects of Gilead that recall Plato also contain features that differ, at times dramatically, from the Platonic original. Second, Gilead invokes distorted versions of ideas from philosophies other than Plato’s. I explore two ways of making sense of Gilead’s distorted philosophical appropriations. The explanations differ over whether such distortions are best explained by the nature of the philosophies they misrepresent, or by the nature of Gilead. The explanation that emphasizes Gilead’s own agency is ultimately best able to make sense of how illiberal regimes misappropriate philosophical concepts, both in the novel and in reality, in order to limit the political imagination of their subjects.

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Andy Lamey
University of California, San Diego


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