Editor’s note: More than 70 students in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program submitted entries into the “My Quarantine Story” contest this spring. This essay by Brandon Watson was selected as the first-place winner.
In my isolation, I have found that reading helps to pass the time as the days become increasingly blended together. Though I have finished nearly every story on my bookshelf, only one remains in the back of my mind as this quarantine continues. I was gladdened to have participated in this English class that exposed me to numerous literary works, among them “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Beyond finishing the book, I elected to watch the entirety of the television series, and the more I watched, the more I saw shocking and disturbing parallels to our current situation. In coping with my infinite boredom, I had been following the news of the Covid-19 virus for some time when the story of anti-quarantine protests began to circulate. Many had placards complaining about closed salons and restaurants. Amusing at first, the implications of their actions soon set in. One particular protester was seen wearing the iconic handmaid’s outfit—bright red to prevent their escape from sexual servitude, and with wide wings to ensure their modesty and submission in front of the men of Gilead. This protestor donned the outfit, claiming it to be a statement on where our government is heading—to tyranny and oppression on a scale much like what was seen in Gilead. How disconcerting it is, that they are unable to see the irony and dangerousness of their actions.
One character of interest in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is Nick, a compelling and highly relatable individual. I can see parts of my situation in Nick’s story. From his obvious discontent with the status quo, to his small attempts to lessen the hardship that June suffers, he is clearly unsupportive of the actions of the fundamentalist leadership in Gilead. He consistently breaks the standards and rules adopted by his new Puritan-esque society, the penalty for which is death and hanging on the Wall. Nonetheless, Nick chooses to smile and wink at June, asking about her day. He reaches out to her before the Ceremony, during which the handmaids are brutalized by the men who claim to espouse God’s word. They develop a romantic relationship that would surely enrage the Commander they are both enslaved to. It is through these little acts of rebellion and defiance that Nick makes the largest and most meaningful impact on June, giving her the hope she needs to continue her tortured existence in the Waterford home. In this same way, I have discovered small acts of defiance that have helped me in these unprecedented times.
After reading about these anti-quarantine protests, I felt a prevailing sense of disappointment in our society. Just as Nick loathed Gilead and what it represented for women such as June, so too do I feel anger towards those who act only out of selfish desire in this quarantine. I am reminded of Aunt Lydia, who explained that better never means better for everyone, it always means worse for some. In wanting to prematurely and foolishly reopen the country to access nonessential services, these protestors would willingly subject the elderly and at-risk citizens to a horrific disease. Even worse, elected officials would gladly sacrifice those vulnerable people if it were to lead to greater support among their constituents and economic growth. This situation that we find ourselves in has exposed one of the foremost issues in America today—apathy and indifference towards others. Nick was a bystander to the rise of Gilead, unable to stop a force of nature born out of the hatred and self-interest that had festered in society and permeated all aspects of government. I can see this exact issue present itself in the actions of these protestors and elected officials. That someone who holds any semblance of power in the American political system can suggest the deaths of at-risk people in order to restart the economy deeply unsettles me. Our current leadership, as well as these protestors, operate under a purely transactional and economic world view, just as Gilead had a purely economic outlook in the brutal handling of the handmaids and forcible impregnation. Nick and I, on the other hand, subscribe to a more humanistic outlook. During these situations, when it appears as though the world is descending into chaos, saving even one life can make all the difference. For Nick, this meant rescuing June. For me, it means keeping the quarantine in place, no matter how weary or isolated I feel during it.
Aunt Lydia, for all her faults, seems to truly understand the motivation behind acts of evil. She once again offers up a powerful quote applicable to today’s pandemic. She argues that people can seek out two forms of freedom: freedom to and freedom from. Nick and I believe in freedom to. He wants the freedom to love June, to raise his child without a despotic regime tearing it away and giving it to ostensibly godly Commanders, who beat their wives and servants for the slightest of transgressions. I believe people living during this pandemic should have the freedom to live, to grow old illness-free, and to experience a society and government which functions for the collective good. The anti-quarantine protestors argue for freedom from. They choose to be free from scientific and moral considerations that point to keeping the nation shut down. They demand freedom from consequences so that they may do as they please, while hypocritically touting weapons in an attempt to intimidate officials to acquiesce to their demands. They do not fight for liberty or justice; they are the authoritarians and fundamentalists who suspend the Constitution through force of arms and give rise to a new regime of terror. They are the Guardians and Eyes of our time. Protestors carrying signs that read “give me liberty or give me Covid” do not understand the inherent authoritarianism and selfishness in their actions. By choosing who lives and dies by ending the shutdown, their “freedom” deprives others of their livelihood.
The television series offers up several striking images, one of which takes place in Washington D.C. The Washington Monument had been turned into an imposing cross, a symbol not of God, but of the iron fist that Gilead ruled with. The Lincoln Memorial, a universal symbol of liberty, was desecrated, and before it sat thousands of handmaids, forced into sexual slavery. Nick fought against this program in trying to get June out of Gilead. When I see these protestors stand before their respective government offices, demanding an end to the shutdown, I cannot help but think of this scene. The people of Gilead rejected science that suggested men were at fault for fertility, choosing rather to blame and enslave the women. These protestors also reject science, considering the virus to be a hoax and the quarantine an infringement of their rights. Our society is following the same path as Gilead, and it seems as though no one recognizes the danger. This is where Nick and I are most similar. We recognize the difficulty of our situations, with Nick defying Gilead at every turn and I attempting to point out the danger of listening to the protestor’s demands. We both lack the power and influence to truly impact our societies, but just as Nick in the show released thousands of letters documenting the vast abuse of women, I can utilize this class and this writing opportunity to speak out and warn people. Only by acting together and supporting each other in these difficult times can we prevent irreversible damage to our moral code. Only by recognizing the folly of these protestors can we preempt the establishment of a precedent which favors money and material over human life.