Discuss The Handmaids Tale as a significant dystopian novel. What affect can it have on the reader?
A good dystopian novel creates a sense of fear and control. To create this feeling in The Handmaids Tale Margaret Atwood gives all the hallmarks of a totalitarian society called Gilead. Dystopias offer worlds where characters can choose freedom or happiness, but not both. Women in Atwood’s novel have a central sense of the individual’s importance. Individuality is crushed in George Orwell’s “1984”, but forms the source of politics and character in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaids Tale extends the dystopian genre. This is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale a good example of a dystopian novel.
Gilead is a state which uses propaganda to further the ideology of the society. Atwood creates the feeling of fear by putting an almost military like force in control. Propaganda is used in many ways to influence the Handmaid’s. The Aunts act as teachers in The Red Centre and are assigned to each household to keep the Handmaid’s in line. They teach them about the rules of Gilead and how they should act, they do this by means of propaganda. They show the handmaid’s old pornographic films and photographs. They also damn the previous society by emphasising that women in “the old days” were disgusting and how they didn’t respect themselves.
An Aunt has got to fulfil this powerful authority to be thought of as useful and to take away or ease their fear of being shipped away as they are infertile. They enforce the law not only by propaganda but also by using physical violence.
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“No guns though, even they couldn’t be trusted with guns” (1)
This quote is important as it illustrates the social status of the Aunts. No one can be trusted. Gilead won’t take the risk of an Aunt possibly ruining the controlled, calm environment.
They need to keep up their role as “police women” because Gilead revolves around the idea of raising the birth rate, and anyone who is unable to give birth or is of no use is frowned upon within the society. Gilead uses the terms “unwoman” (a woman who is unable to have children) and “unbaby” (a baby who is born that has a fault) this shows how language is used to manipulate people. The use of these terms is humiliating to those who are called them. They enforce the law not only by propaganda but also by using physical violence.
Women in Gilead have no independent status. The names of the Handmaid’s indicate that they are owned by the Commanders to whom they have been assigned.
Free time is limited within Gilead the Handmaid’s can only go shopping with another Handmaid, and are scared of being watched or spied on. The concept of spies is apparent in the novel. There are rumours of an underground secret police called The Eyes. The Handmaids are careful of what they say when they leave the household. This is illustrated when Offred and Ofglen come across Japanese tourists.
“Ofglen says nothing. There is a silence. But sometimes it’s as dangerous not to speak. “yes, we are very happy”, I murmur.”
This quote shows how fear is controlling Gilead. Offred feels that if she did not reply to the tourists, it is as good as saying no. Doing this may lead to further punishment.
Offred is the narrative voice in the novel. This gives us an individual perspective of Gilead. She is also the protagonist of the novel, and we are told the entire story from her point of view, experiencing events and memories as vividly as she does. She tells the story as it happens, and shows us the travels of her mind through flashbacks to give us background information about her previously life. Offred is intelligent, perceptive and kind. She possesses enough faults to make her human, but not so many that she becomes an unsympathetic figure. She also possesses a dark sense of humour, a graveyard wit that makes her descriptions of the bleak horrors of Gilead bearable. Like most of the women in Gilead, she is an ordinary woman placed in an extraordinary situation.
She is hardly a feminist champion: she had always felt uncomfortable with her mothers activism. Although she was friends with Ofglen, a member of the resistance, she is never bold enough to join herself. After she begins her affair with Nick, she seems to loose sight of escape entirely and suddenly feels that life in Gilead is almost bearable. If she does finally escape, it is because of Nick, not because of anything she does herself. Offred is good hearted but complacent. Offred is often frustrated because she is treated like a child, she has to take naps, once before she was very independent. She also seems quite confused at times because she has memories of one society but lives in another. At times she is weak in spite of her desire to be different.
Offred like all other Handmaid’s has a commander. As a commander he is a founder of Gilead and also bears some responsibility for the totalitarian society. In person, he is kind to Offred, he is sympathetic and friendly towards her. At times the Commander’s unhappiness and need for companionship make him seem as much a prisoner of Gilead’s strictness as anyone else. As the novel progresses the reader as well as Offred realise that if he is a prisoner, the prison is one that he himself helped construct and that his prison is heaven compared to the one that he created for women. The Commander seems lonely and starts to meet with Offred to play scrabble in his office, which is illegal and he also takes her out to a secret location called Jezebel’s. Offred realises that the meetings are selfish as he is only meeting her to fill his need for companionship. He has no relationship with his wife, and Offred is how he compensates for this.
Offred has one friend that she remembers from the time before. Moira, she is someone whom Offred looks up to she is a lesbian, and rejects the male- fremale relationships that Gilead excepts. She is the only character that stands up to authority directly by making one failed escape attempt and the second a success. Moira represents an alternative to the meek fate that most of the Handmaid’s adopt.
My original argument stated that The Handmaid’s Tale is a good example of a dystopian novel. I have come to the conclusion that my hypothesis is correct, as The Handmaid’s Tale includes all the features of a good dystopian novel. Margaret Atwood does this by telling us the story through the eyes of Offred who is experiencing the life of Gilead. She gives good descriptions of Offred’s emotional status and very cleverly interprets an opposite to what Gilead wants, Moira. Offred gives vivid descriptions of what she goes through, this makes the reader feel sympathy for her. Atwood also describes things that are both familiar and unfamiliar to us. This is good as it makes the reader think a little and use some imagination to the unfamiliar aspects of the story, though some of these aspects of the story are quite shocking. It is also good that Atwood makes Offred’s character progress throughout, from a weak woman who wants to avoid confrontation and just live by the rules, to a woman who is prepared to take risks for her benefit.