The Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood, was considered to possibly be one of the most influential pieces of modern dystopian literature in the 20th century, helping to define the genre but also to incite questioning and government accountability, at the time it was written. Atwood’s not only identifies politically and socially contested topics of 20th century society, but offers a refreshing dystopian perspective on these issues, such as government control and religion. It can be considered comparable to the problems of indoctrination, oppression, and control that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta both highlighted and the effect that it had on not only the literary world at the time of its publishing, but on the broader global population aswell.
Atwood’s choice to focus on gender oppression and roles, as a major theme of the book, allowed her to quantify past events, such as the ever-increasing tensions surrounding the communist Soviet Union and what America may look like if it was taken over. These events that were happening at the time the book was written, are used to create a sense of relevancy and reality at the time it was published. The 1980’s backlash against womens’ rights and activism obliviously influenced some themes within the book. The idea of repression of feminist ideas and women’s rights was taken so far to the extreme that it was often looked at when discussing the rights of women, as what could potentially happen if women’s rights aren’t fought for, subsequently allowing the book to, in some cases fall into the genre of Feminist literature. The linguistic techniques and complex metaphors, such as a game of scrabble that offred plays with the commander, shows the manipulation of Gilead society, through the control of language. This extended metaphor of control repeatedly shows itself throughout the Handmaid’s Tale and help to highlight the supposed slow institutionalization of violence and control of women that was becoming more increasingly apparent in our society in the early 80’s and arguably continues on today. This may also hint at the fact that even non sexist men may have undercurrents of misogynistic attitudes towards women, and if need be contribute towards the oppression of the female gender.
Atwood also battered organized religions in her novella, trying to shed light on the fanaticism and indoctrination that is so often linked to them. “Faith and nothing but Faith” is acceptable in Atwood’s creation and although never looked on as a negative, is never portrayed as a positive, subsequently allowing readers to impose their personal views onto the book, making the book more appealing to a broader audience. Atwood’s decision to set the book in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a tactical one, the Cambridge region was the settling place of the puritans during the colonization of America, and is currently a place renowned for academia. The rich history of the region allowed Atwood to incorporate some aspects of that history, like the puritan ideology into the fictional Republic of Gilead, developing it throughout the novel to the point of religious fanaticism that is comparable to a cult. The presence of an overarching, all controlling government within the book, draws direct literary comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s “Big Brother” and real-life contrasts with Socialism, and at the time of publishing, the Soviet Union. The seemingly relentless efforts of the government to control its population using indoctrination and suppression of free speech, and destruction of academia, borrows concepts from the creation and early years of Nazi Germany, aswell as the propaganda machines that were utilized. These actions and perspectives that are conveyed in the book, help to further define the dystopian genre as a whole and continually add to the experience of reading a book like this.
The idea of a suddenly infertile population was also explored in Atwood’s novella, with the use of female child bearers who are the only fertile women within the society. In an era that was facing an overpopulation crisis brought on by the baby boomers, an infertile population would’ve been seen as a bad and a good thing, and most importantly an unconventional but effective way to control population size. The dystopian society’s view that womens only role is that of either; child-bearers, maids or dutiful wives. These roles subtly hints at institutionalized social problems within the real world, such as the perception that women should stay at home after marriage, and the use of women’s bodys as a political statement in modern politics, as well as way that women are primarily looked on as only sexual objects in a majority of societies today. In this society “women’s bodys functions are valued, but their personhood is not”. A concept that is explored to the fullest extent by Atwood throughout the novella.
Throughout the Novel, Atwood challenges social and political norms, and subtly encourages free thought, and government accountability, like books such as V for Vendetta and Nineteen Eighty-Four, through the use of an all controlling authoritarian government. In conclusion, the Handmaid’s Tale is an eccentric modern classic, which challenge norms and incites deep thinking amongst its readers, all the while creating a reason to keep reading this compelling and complex story. I would recommend it to anyone with an inquisitive and insightful mind and those curious about social constraints and increasing political power in todays complex society.
By Bowen Greenaway