At least for me, it has been a season for dystopian novels. After finishing Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments, I moved on to reread 1984. When a cruel new law was recently passed in Poland forbidding abortion in all circumstances without a scrap of concern for women’s dignity and in the name of Catholic fanaticism, thousands of women (and men) took to the streets. The images from Handmaid’s Tale sprung up all over the place.
In the rich symbolic tapestry woven by Margaret Atwood in Handmaid’s Tale, I was particularly drawn to the way it constellates the archetype of the wild woman. No matter how much violence and injustice was inflicted on Gilead handmaids, they always found a way to go on. Their red gowns served to mark them as fertile vessels and also as scarlet, unchaste women. But of course the colour red, being the wildest of all colours, means that ultimately women cannot be tamed. Blood is life itself in its fiery strength and glory. In Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red, the colour red is one of the narrators, who says this:
“Life begins with me and returns to me.“
It is not a coincidence that women’s strike in Poland also chose a red lightning bolt as its chief symbol.
In Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis I found an apt summary of the power of red in relation to women’s wild nature:
“The relation of the love-goddess to red dates back to ancient times. Scarlet is the colour of the Great Whore of Babylon and her beast. Red is the colour of sin. The rose is also an attribute of Dionysus. Red and rose-red are the colour of blood, a synonym for the aqua permanens and the soul, which are extracted from the prima materia and bring ‘dead’ bodies to life. … The stone … is the son of this whore. …”
C.G. Jung, “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW vol. XIV, pars. 420-422
Next to red, the second symbol quite ubiquitous in Atwood’s novel is the moon, described as “gigantic, round, heavy, an omen.” At one point Offred calls the moon “a sliver of ancient rock, a goddess, a wink.” She also says somewhere else:
“But I tell time by the moon. Lunar, not solar. I bend over to do up my red shoes;…”
In the TV series based on Handmaid’s Tale, the writers added another potent symbol to constellate the archetype of the wild woman. It was the black wolf which Offred encountered in the forest shortly before a powerful birth scene, in which she gives birth all alone in an empty house.
The third symbol was for me storytelling itself. The titles of both novels speak of bearing witness to events. In the first part the Handmaid tells her tale, while in the second part a host of female characters deliver their testaments or testimonies. It was Clarissa Pinkola Estés who reminded us of the power of stories to lead us back into our instinctual self – this forge of transformation. She said that through stories we can “pick up the path left by the wildish nature.” She also wrote:
“Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered.”
Women protesting in Poland showed a great deal of creativity – both visual and verbal – in the posters that they created for their marches. This is a narrative completely different to the dominant religious/patriarchal one. These words, these stories will overcome the tyrants.
Overall, wildness seems to be a singular factor that will always tear regimes down. I was gratified to come across a passage in Orwell’s 1984, in which Winston is happy that Julia has slept with a huge number of men as he hates purity and he wants everyone to be “corrupt to the bones” because this is what will bring the Party down:
“That was above all what he wanted to hear. Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.”
May the last word belong to Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
“So, if women must, they will paint blue sky on jail walls. If the skeins are burnt, they will spin more. If the harvest is destroyed they will sow more immediately. Women will draw doors where there are none, and open them and pass through into new ways and new lives. Because the wild nature persists and prevails, women persist and prevail. It is this yearning that causes us to search for Wild Woman and find her. It is not as hard as one might first imagine, for Wild Woman is searching for us too. We are her young.“
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype