Dystopia And Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale: 1986 – 2012

“OfFred was a normal everyday woman with a career, a name, a life like all women have come to expect and take for granted in this age. When the Religious Right came into power, they began to put into practice their insane beliefs which strip women of their identity, their rights, their body, their very name. Women are to be called Of (whatever asshat they belong to), instead of, say Beatrix. Reproduction is an issue because all the toxins in the environment have rendered many women infertile. But if you are fertile, woe to you, you get to be a baby factory against your will, get promised to some jerk you don’t love or even like because someone deemed him important enough to breed. Oh, come on!

This book was written in 1986…” - Review by Stephanie on GoodReads, February 10th, 2012.

While the genre of the book is open to debate (Valerie Martin in the introduction of the 2006 Everyman’s Library edition, suggests political satire, allegory, and even “reconstructed post-print novel”), I would argue that The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood can be seen to firmly fit within the genre of science fiction, often called “speculative fiction”. This is an attempt by writers using their imagination to project themselves into a possible future.

Corporations and zygotes are not conceptually related, but, nonetheless, the extension of personhood rights to corporations may pave the way for the extension of personhood rights to zygotes. The latter action would, of course, limit the autonomy and reproductive rights of real persons, namely women. - Protect Zygotes and Corporations; Piss on Women, CFI, by Ronald A. Lindsay.

Within science fiction, you can see different kinds of novels: technology based, space, novels that explore society on earth as it might be in the future, and so on. Some of the more famous examples of speculative fiction include Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sociologically speculative stories usually propose an argument about what are contemporary (not fictional) issues. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of these kinds of stories; it’s the author’s creation of an imagined society which grows out of our own, and represents potential events in the world as we know it.

Appearing of MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell today, Foster Friess, the main donor to the Super PAC backing Rick Santorum’s presidential bid, dismissed the controversy surrounding President Obama’s new birth control rule by suggesting that women should just keep their legs shut. - Santorum Sugar Daddy Foster Friess Gives ‘Gals’ Contraception Advice: Put An Aspirin Between Your Knees, Alex Seitz-Wald, Think Progress.org, Feb 16, 2012.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 82.

The Handmaid’s Tale also falls into a sub-genre within speculative fiction, one with philosophical and literary antecedents. It is a dystopian novel: fiction that sets up for our contemplation an imagined world, not an ideal one – one in which the worst things that could happen have come to pass. Atwood does something similar to what Orwell and Huxley have done: demonstrating through her work how human society can go wrong.

The influence of earlier dystopian works like those of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Butler’s Erehwon, or even Huxley’s Brave New World is open to discussion (I could point out comparisons between the segregation in Gilead and Brave New World’s World State) – but it can be said that Atwood is consciously working within a generic tradition.

It’s not necessary to have read More, Huxley or Orwell to engage with The Handmaid’s Tale, but a knowledge of dystopian texts does enrich the debate of which this book is a part.

The ultrasound legislation would constitute an unprecedented government mandate to insert vaginal ultrasonic probes into women as part of a state-ordered effort to dissuade them from terminating pregnancies, legislative opponents noted.

…”We hear the same song over there. The very tragic human notes that are often touched upon involve extreme examples,” said [Todd] Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “But in the vast majority of these cases, these are matters of lifestyle convenience.”Virginia House getting all up in your vagina, Daily Kos, February 15th, 2012.

Religious discourse is used within the novel as a form of social conformity – marginalising women’s place in society in both subtle and overt ways – and naturalises the patriarchy. Women can also act in collusion with men against other non-privileged women, to benefit their own standing in society; Serena Joy, who worked as an Evangelical singer, promoted the very same system that eventually resulted in her being house-bound, complicit and resentful.

Offred’s atittudes reflect a woman who “had it all”, who looked complacently at the groups that represented women’s rights and sees her mother as an aging women’s rights activist whose efforts were “over the top”. The Republic of Gilead is a clear warning for complacency of such women in society to accept their independence and equality without question – as predicted by Offred’s mother and by Moira, who eventually succumbed to the Republic of Gilead as a member of the Jezabel’s club (“…What I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition.” p.284)

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the Wall that is used for hanging executed bodies is in Harvard University), this is the story of a destabilised country, dying from radiation poisoning, which takes drastic steps to secure the population of male genes. Women’s biological function is privileged, but as a result, women become marginalised as individuals – as the prime aim is to find healthy, fertile women who can produce children for those ruling class of men in position of power and influence.

To me, The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed a dystopian novel, a warning – if society refuses to “act upon” changes enacted by dominant groups with strong ideologies, a totalitarian state like Gilead could be the devastating result.

As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
Are there any questions?
- From the partial transcript of Problems of Authentication in Reference To The Handmaid’s Tale – Professor James Darcy Pieixoto (The Handmaid’s Tale, p.324).

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Cunning Pam

    Thank you for this post, Kylie. I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been thinking about (and possibly reading or rereading) The Handmaid’s Tale recently. It is indeed a warning which I hope many women will take to heart AND act upon.

  • Frogmistress

    I have never understood the Serena Joy’s of the world. Women who actively campaign to put women back in their place, pulling the rug out from under themselves at the same time, seem massively near sighted.

    How is it they do not think the same rules would apply to them?

    • BB

      I remember a Randi.org comment http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1591-how-to-sabotage-skepticism-from-the-inside-entwine-the-claim-with-the-cause.html

      ‘the only time I feel left out and not welcome is around the less successful women who pepper the outer edges of the movement (non professionals, bloggers and their entourage).

      I know this is off topic but enough is enough. I haven’t seen one woman ever say a thing about how these women treat women they don’t have in their circle at conferences and conventions. Personally, I was never mistreated by men at any time and the only time I felt uncomfortable was when I was getting the stare down by women (and their male friends/partners) who are vaguely recognized as peripheral characters. Male and female scientists, organizers, writers etc (oddly enough, except the 1 or 2 well known men that hang with the women in question) always have a wonderful way of making me feel like I have a place in the skeptic’s movement. This is not the case with the women involved in this debacle of a non story.

      Meta arguments are for people who can’t find another way to get attention.

      p.s. As a disclaimer: the lady’s childish and strange territorial behavior that I’ve witnessed at conventions doesn’t take away from anything negative that may have happened to her/them. End.’

      • Frogmistress

        Are you saying that amira would work to pull the rug out from under the women who were giving her the “stare down” because she felt judged by them? Or that the other “less successful” women who were giving the stare down would want to take amira down even if they, too, went down with her?

        Basically, I just don’t understand how a person can begrudge someone else so much that one would willingly bring oneself down just to make sure the other person didn’t prosper.

        Therefore, I don’t understand women on the battlefront to put women back into the kitchen when that means they go back in, too!

        • http://freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic Kylie Sturgess

          “Basically, I just don’t understand how a person can begrudge someone else so much that one would willingly bring oneself down just to make sure the other person didn’t prosper.

          Therefore, I don’t understand women on the battlefront to put women back into the kitchen when that means they go back in, too!”

          I don’t speak for others… but I think you have it.

          Mind, I’ve looked at what I’ve achieved (despite the odds) and think that it’s possible to achieve some pretty astonishing things despite vehement opposition. I guess I find it ironic that these issues continue amongst rationalist societies. But then, there’s lots and lots of blog entries and podcasts and so forth on this topic, so I’m saying nothing new.

          • frogmistress

            Just imagine what we could do without the vehement opposition! :P

            What you are saying may not be new. But, apparently, we need to keep saying it until people get it, I guess.

  • jnorris

    I remember, IIRC, parts of the film were made at Duke University and Duke was upset that the film crew left a gallows standing in front of the chapel during Easter Week. That image would be very accurate today if the fundies get their way.