The Handmaid's Tale was written by Margaret Atwood in 1985 This book tells the story of Offred after America turns into Gilead. Gilead is run as a fundamentalist Puritan state. Women are either wives, Martha's (servants) or handmaids. A handmaid serves only the purpose of surrogacy. Men are either Commanders of the faith (high ranking novels), Guardians (low ranking nobles) or Eyes (spies). Offred's family is ripped apart as she becomes a handmaid. This tale, follows her time spent in the home of "the commander" and how she reflects upon her past life.
This is a unique novel because there are not many pieces of dystopian literature that deal with a theocratic government. This government is also what makes this dystopia a dystopia. On the surface, it does not seem so bad of a place to live: everyone is clothed, housed and fed. But there are so many terrible things wrong with Gilead. Women are heavily oppressed. They are not allowed to read or write. They must obey their husbands, as well as any other man of high ranking. They are also not allowed to travel alone. Handmaid have it the worst. They are considered vessels- and only that. On top of that, there is state sanctioned rapes of handmaids- all in the name of growing the population. Each horrible thing they do is backed up by the bible. There are also many purges that are done by the state. They kill any political opponent, people found practicing other religions and anyone who breaks state or biblical law. Those who rule this society, do not even follow the rules themselves. Many take part in a club that encourages sex outside marriage and ritual mating!
This work critiques the then standing political and social structures. It seems as if Atwood is able to show how corruption in Gilead mirrors that of today. In this book, the Commander shows Offred all of the banned material he has in his home. He has old women's magazines and books that should have been burned due to their obscene content. Not only does he harbor illegal material, he also takes part in illicit activities such as dressing Offred up as a wife and bringing her to a jezebel's club. Today corruption runs rampant in society. There are politicians being bribed, sexually assaulting children and becoming involved in prostitution rings. The way that Atwood is able to critique social structures is through creating a horrifying social hierarchy of women. There is obvious issues with how women are treated today. By creating such a clear image of what women are viewed as only being good at, it makes the reality of our society much more realistic and scary. In a whole, this work advocates for a double checking of how our society functions as it could lead to a dystopia in the future.
This work is very different than a lot of the works that we have read this semester. This story does not take place in the far away future as Anthem and Brave New World do. It does not have all of these elements of collectivism either. It does though, highly resemble 1984. In both these societies, each citizen is expected to quickly accept their new governing body. They are both watched by the government. The big difference is that 1984 wants power for the sake of power and is explicit about it. In The Handmaid's Tale the governing body does want power to just have it, but they justify it by trying to make each citizen pious and moral. It parades as acting for the good of the people. These two books were written about 40 years apart and deal with different issues. 1984 is about the Cold War and the big focus is on government becoming too big. In The Handmaid's Tale the big issue is corruption and mistreatment of women as well as an invasion of religion. The spying is a byproduct of the government, rather a major focus.
This is an important text, so important, in fact, that many groups have banned it from being read. It recognizes many of the faults in our society and points them out. Atwood looks at how religion can and does negatively impact our lives when we read into it. This is the kind of writing that can bring attention to bigger issues by changing the name and caricaturing the idea a bit. When the intended audience can react with disgust to the way Gileaden society is set up, they then have the tools to analyze how we are set up and what similarities the two communities have. To make this point even more poignant, at the end of the book Atwood includes a chapter called "historical notes." In this chapter, she critiques Gilead from even further in the future. She points out, as Professor Piexioto (a Gileaden expert), the problems that Gilead, as well as us, face.
The Handmaid’s Tale is different than many other dystopian stories as it encompasses religion as a dominant force. This religion is used as a weapon to all of the citizens of Gilead. No one is able to escape from the hand of fundamental Puritanism- eventually not even the founders of the society. Atwood brings to light a lot of horrible facets of our society and displays them in her novel.