What specific aspects of society do you think Atwood comments on in The Handmaid's Tale and how does she do this?

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Jane Stollery

Many novels set in the future, in situations supposedly removed from the present, in fact offer critiques of today’s society. What specific aspects of society do you think Atwood comments on in The Handmaid’s Tale and how does she do this?

“Atwood’s feminism is an integral part of her critical approach, just as her concept of criticism is inseparable from her creative work” Walter Pache (1).

A dystopia is a fictional society, usually existing in a future time period, in which the condition of life is extremely difficult due to deprivation, oppression or terror. In most dystopian fiction, a corrupt government creates or sustains the poor quality of life, often conditioning the masses to believe the society is proper and just, even perfect. Most dystopian fiction takes place in the future but purposely incorporates contemporary social trends taken to horrendous extremes.

The novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, by Margaret Atwood focuses on the choices made by those controlling the society of Gilead in which increasing the population and preservation of mankind is the main objective, instead of freedom or happiness. The society has undergone many physical changes that have extreme psychological consequences. I believe Atwood sees Gilead as the result of attitudes and events in the early 1980s, which have spiralled out of control. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ reflects Atwood’s views and critiques on civilisation. In an interview with Gabriele Metzler Atwood says, “There is nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened. All things described in the book people have already done to each other”(2).

Throughout ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Offred is constantly conscious of her life before Gilead. This is reflected in the sections of the book headed “Night”. Offred often refers back to her life with her daughter and Luke, “Luke was in the living room. He put his arms around me. We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then? Because we at least had that: arms, around.” The realization of how much her life has been altered occurs in the beginning of the novel when Offred comes across a group of Japanese tourists, “They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds about things like this. Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom. Westernised, they used to call it.” Offred is also envious of the women as they still have freedom of choice, whereas all she has are memories of how she used to be. “The Handmaid’s Tale shares with many futuristic dystopias, certainly ‘1984’, an interesting mode whereby our time in retrospect is heavy with nostalgia” Bernard Richards (3).

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ belongs to this genre of anti-utopian (dystopian) science fiction. It is set in the late twentieth century when democratic institutions have been violently overthrown and replaced by the new fundamentalist Republic of Gilead. In the novel the majority are suppressed using a “Bible-based” religion as an excuse for the suppression.

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In Gilead, members of the society are labelled by their age and economic status. The deep red cloaks, the blue embroidered dresses, and the pinstripe garments are all uniforms to define a person’s role in society. In particular, the handmaid’s cloaks also say a lot more about their position. The fact that they are like a nun’s gown, and are also called ‘habits’, signifies chastity and dedication to God. The colour red indicates that they are fertile and menstrual. However, red is also the colour of blood, death and violence, which is therefore closely associated with women in this ...

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