“The Handmaid’s Tale”: Atwood’s Warning to Society
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by a prominent Canadian author Margaret Atwood in 1985. It describes the imperfect society of the future when an ecological disaster and massive depopulation resulted in the establishment of a tyrannical dictatorship based on distorted religious principles. Women have lost their freedom and human rights and become the sources of labor or children for the elites of a new regime. Although The Handmaid’s Tale may be regarded as a satirical view, it is written as a warning to our current society that depicts the dangers of a dictatorship and the consequences such ruling has among its citizens, especially women.
The novel depicts the future of the United States when a radical group of fundamentalists assassinated the President, overthrew Congress, and launched a revolution to seize the power in the country to prevent demographic crisis and depopulation. Using quasi-Christian ideology and the particular ideas of the Old Testament, new leaders established a military dictatorship, renamed the state the Republic of Gilead, and introduced oppressive rules for all citizens (Atwood, 1985). For the consolidation of power, the Constitution is currently suspended, universities are closed, a large number of professions and other religious groups disappeared, and newspapers are strictly censored (Atwood, 1985). In general, society was reorganized into a militarized and hierarchical model with newly created classes. However, women are affected by a new regime to the highest degree. Their human rights are highly limited, they are not allowed to study, write, read, handle money, and own property. Nevertheless, the fundamental change in their lives implies the absence of freedom and control over reproductive functions.
It goes without saying that the author’s place of living at the time of the novel’s project had a considerable impact on the narration and contributed to its content. According to Atwood (2017), in 1984, she lived in West Berlin close to the Soviet empire. During her visits to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other countries behind the Iron Curtain that were controlled by the Soviet government, she constantly experienced “the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information” (Atwood, 2017, p. 1). However, even though people’s lifestyle that had influenced the author’s work was observed in Europe, it was not completely unfamiliar to the United States. In the book, the country’s widely recognized liberal democracy is transformed into a militaristic and theocratic dictatorship, however, the Republic of Gilead is built “on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath modern-day America” (Atwood, 2017, p. 2). That is why the ideas of fundamentalists concerning the appropriate public administration system described in the book may be found in the real-life as well.
Although the novel is defined by its author as speculative fiction, it offers a satirical reflection of political, social, and religious beliefs and trends that existed in the United States at the end of the 20th century. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the logical outcomes of religious groups’ power about their attitude to women (Atwood, 2017). At the same time, Atwood (2017) does not regard her book as a prediction despite the proliferation of anxieties and fears in the present days when basic civil liberties and women’s rights are endangered, and multiple groups aim to damage democratic institutions and spread violence and hate. As a warning, the novel only reminds people about the consequences of totalitarian, religious, and oppressive regimes.
Dictatorship in the Novel
In general, the formation of the Republic of Gilead was determined by substantial depopulation as a result of people’s limited ability to have viable children and a toxic environment. Although Black actors and actresses were presented in the series as the citizens that live together with Whites, in the book, all people of color are resettled (Atwood, 1985). Money and abolished, public education became the most common punishment for multiple crimes, and laws are generally based on the perverted interpretation of Christianity. In a new society, women are regarded as second-class citizens divided into several groups. They are forced to wear clothes of the class they belong to be easily differentiated.
As few fertile women remain in the era of radiation and environmental pollution, they are forcibly assigned to belong to Commanders, the men’s ruling class, and produce children for them (Atwood, 1985). They are called Handmaids based on the biblical story of Jacob, his two wives, and two handmaids (Atwood, 2017). Handmaids completely lose their identity as they receive new names that simply imply they are belonging to specific Commanders. In the series, all newly conscripted Handmaids undergo the procedure of brainwashing in the Red Center, the re-education facility of a new regime (Miller, 2016). They are forced to renounce their individuality and previous life, know their duties, and accept their fate. The main duty of Handmaids was childbirth; however, they have no right to raise their sons as they belong to Commanders’ wives (Atwood, 2017). Although women are generally unprotected in a new society, pregnant Handmaids, as the carriers of life, are thoroughly secured by the Guardians (Atwood, 1985). They are not allowed to go out and be physically active to avoid the excessive work of abdominal muscles.
Warning to the Current Society
As previously mentioned, despite being fiction, Atwood’s novel was inspired by actual events related to the violation of human rights and women’s reproductive rights, in particular. The Handmaid’s Tale is not merely speculation concerning the outcomes of taking power by the religious right. According to the author, “she was inspired in part by Nicolai Ceausescu’s preoccupation with boosting female birth rates in Romania, which led to the policing of pregnant women and the banning of abortion and birth control” (Armstrong, 2018, para. 7). In addition, the novel reflects the murders of dissidents by the regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and the idea of a military junta from Argentina to give power to the offspring of lower classes (Armstrong, 2018). At the same time, in subsequent years, the novel’s film and stage adaptations faced multiple difficulties due to the relevance of its ideas with real-life trends.
However, in the present day, The Handmaid’s Tale does not lose its significance as a warning concerning the dangers of human rights’ limitation, dictatorship, and women’s oppression. The last adaptation of the book released in 2016 was coincident with “the massive shift in US politics with the election of Donald Trump, who was inaugurated just three months before the series premiered” (Armstrong, 2018, para. 11). The novel substantially contributed to the establishment of women’s movements against the president’s authoritarian tendencies and the anti-abortion and anti-gay beliefs of his vice president. For instance, the #metoo and #timesup movement gained considerable popularity as, similar to the novel’s main heroine who was looking for ways to fight with the oppressive regime, women from all over the world were finding their power through telling their stories (Armstrong, 2018).
In general, The Handmaid’s Tale reminds society about the immeasurably negative impact of totalitarian societies and human rights’ limitations that exist in the present day as well. There are patriarchal societies across the world where women cannot dispose of property and decide whether to have a child or not, and their marital status is crucial. In addition, senior people, people of color, and members of LGBT communities are frequently discriminated against even in developed countries. From a personal perspective, Margaret Atwood wanted her readers to think about the consequences of violence, hate, and domination of one group over others.
Moreover, despite the opinion of a substantial number of readers and viewers that The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist work, it does not aim to underline the women’s superiority or their victimization. In turn, the book emphasizes the importance of women, their lives, and their identity. They are not natural resources or second-class members of any society. They are all different, however, without women, the human population will extinct. The control of children and women, the removal of children from mothers, or reproductive use are the distinctive features of any repressive regime in the world.
Armstrong, J. K. (2018). Why The handmaid’s tale is so relevant today. BBC. Web.
Atwood, M. (1985). The handmaid’s tale. Word Press. Web.
Atwood, M. (2017). Margaret Atwood on what ‘The handmaid’s tale’ means in the age of Trump. The New York Times. Web.
Miller, B. (2016). The handmaid’s tale. Hulu.