The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood in 1985, is a dystopian fiction set in New England near Cambridge. Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa but finished her degree at Harvard University. When she wrote the book in the mid-1980s, it quickly became the best-seller that well-known as anti-utopian books. It is written during the period of conservative revival in the West to response to several cultural factors: “the feminism of the 1970s, the “greed is good” zeitgeist of the 1980s, and tensions between individual liberty and exploitation.” (7) Offred, the handmaid, described her daily life and memories in a society where free will is a luxury for women. The society is a totalitarian state called the Republic of Gilead where individuals are categorized by different classes such as wives, daughters, handmaids, and economwives. This Christian fundamentalist theocratic society raises because of the low birth rate in the former United States. After the military coup, all women are assigned to different classes to ensure the new social order guarantees high-quality fertility. Society is based on the interpretation of the Bible that women are subordinate to their husbands. They are not allowed to have any power to prove their independence. Handmaids are also called fertile women whose social function is to give birth to children. They are assigned to commanders until they have children, but social restrictions control their lives. However, under this ideal society, many people seek opportunities to break the rule to find their freedom. For example, the Commander seeks a secret relationship with the handmaid and loves to go to the brothel. His wife hopes the handmaid to have sex with other men to have children. It is a politicized and controlled society, but rebels are everywhere.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale is known as speculative fiction and science fiction that imagines an alternate society not far from our world. Although some scholars may argue that the story is not science fiction, it explores gender and sexuality in the sci-fi area. Margaret Atwood intentionally distinguishes those two terms by saying that “for me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth.” However, she also argues that the terms are fluid. “Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction.” The Handmaid’s Tale combines dystopian fiction characteristics that present women as birth-giving machines that equal men and divided communities.  The story is often compared with 1984 and is known as “feminist 1984”. It presented an ordered society where Gileadean law determines people’s behaviors and also suggests gender issues in contemporary society. The domination of women by men in the Republic of Gilead is also a sign of gender norms in the current society. When Offred recalls the past, she describes the American culture in the late 20th century where women are not protected, and violence is everywhere. Women and men have casual relationships. The birth rate declines rapidly. The novel reflects the society in the late 20th century where violence and crimes increase, but the ecological environment gets worse. People face more challenges because of the lost forest, polluted water system, and species extinction. Social issues and environmental issues cause abnormality in the reproduction system, such as decreasing high-quality sperm. Religious beliefs also influence the novel. In the 1980s, religious rights such as the Moral Majority, the Christina Coalition discuss whether women should have more power. In the novel, the government is combined by church and state, and religious language is used everywhere. The author uses biblical quotes to depict a religious society, but those quotes’ meanings are usually twisted. It uses the Bible to criticism how people use the Bible for oppressive purposes.   

 

Citation:

  1. Worth, Books. Summary and Analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale: Based on the Book by Margaret Atwood, Worth Books, 2017.ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4794508.
  2. “’Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 June 2005, www.theguardian.com/film/2005/jun/17/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.margaretatwood.
  3. “The Calculus of Love and Nightmare: The Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition.”Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00111619.1997.10543167.