Critical Context (Critical Guide to British Fiction)
Like all of Atwood’s previous novels, The Handmaid’s Tale provides a feminine perspective on social issues, although this is the first of her novels to project contemporary tendencies into the future. In choosing such a projection, Atwood makes her contribution to the growing literature of anti-utopias, of which the most famous modern examples are George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Such fictions deny the optimism of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and subsequent works which see the future as having resolved the social and economic dilemmas of the present and which present blueprints for a more just society.
Antiutopias, in contrast, take elements of the author’s society and show how those tendencies, if followed to their conclusions, would lead to far less just societies. It is Atwood’s achievement in The Handmaid’s Tale to have taken the emphasis on the “proper” role of women as preached by certain Protestant Fundamentalist ministers and by such supporters as Phyllis Schlafly, showing what kind of lives women could expect to lead if that “proper” role were forced upon all women by a theocratic government. Atwood is also concerned to show that such repression would have disastrous effects on all members of such a society, men as well as women, rulers as well as ruled. Like Orwell and Huxley, Atwood is also concerned about the ways in which modern technology might be used in achieving and enforcing dictatorial rule: When the new repression begins, computers are used to deny women access to their bank accounts and to cancel their credit cards, an easy way of ending their economic independence.
Atwood’s warnings about the future set her apart from other feminist writers who have written novels projecting more equality for women, developing from gains made by the women’s movement. While she is not entirely pessimistic, suggesting that in the very long run such gains may come, Atwood is aware that social changes provoke a backlash which may cancel any gains, at least in the short run. Like other antiutopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale uses exaggeration of certain tendencies to make its point more powerfully.