Comment on the dystopian elements in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian near-future world where reactionary Christian fundamentalists have seized control of the government and set up a totalitarian theocracy. Any deviations from the government's strict interpretations of Christian behavior are harshly punished. Offred, the main character, is cut off from the normal flows of information that one would have access to in a free society, such as newspapers or magazines. She has to assume she is being spied on and be extremely careful about what she says. She is forced to pass dead bodies hanging on walls as she goes to market. The bodies are graphic reminders of the power of the state and are meant to terrify people into obedience.
Offred has no control over her body or destiny. She is a handmaid, forced to sleep with a commander, a powerful man in this society, because his older wife is infertile. Infertility is a serious problem, and Offred's having had a child consigns her to the fate of being treated as a breeding machine. Her own child has been taken from her. The commander is married, sex is conducted according to a joyless ritual that involves the wife, and Offred knows that should she have a child, it will be given to the wife. She will then be sent away to breed with another man. If she does not get pregnant, she will be sent to clean up toxic waste.
Even in the best of circumstances, women have no rights in this society. Any deviation from monogamous, heterosexual sexuality can be punished by death.
The Handmaid's Tale is an excellent example of dystopian literature. Opposite from utopia, a perfect world, dystopia presents the world in all its negative aspects. Thus, technological advances and war have left the Republic of Gilead in a sorry state. The Handmaids are merely valued for their ovaries and must lie down while the wives witness their husbands' attempts to impregnate another woman. All human closeness is condemned. Women who were once wives and mothers must endure their roles as Handmaids. Religion is a business as the Soul Scrolls print out prayers. Knowledge and education are reserved for only a few. In this dystopian world, every person's waking moment is carefully monitored, "Under His Eye," and as Offred discovers, the van will come and take the disobedient away. In this world, humans are enslaved, punished, and tortured, allowed no love, light, or enjoyment - dystopia!
What really strikes me as distopian about the novel is that the leaders of Republic of Gilead have convinced the people that this new society is BETTER for women than the old society. Here the women are assigned their role (wives, handmaids, marthas, etc.) and therefore they are supposed to be protected and made to feel important. This is all designed to protect women from being raped or used by men. If this was true, it would be great, but the whole novel hinges on the complete hypocricy of the leadership of Gilead especially as evidenced by the behavior of the Commander, who desparately wants the human connection denied to him and everyone else in this new regime. The language may have changed and perhaps the motives are different, but women are being raped and used at a sickening rate in this novel.
Another dystopian element in the novel is existence of the Colonies, the area on the outskirts of the Republic of Gilead in which women are put to death as punishment for some wrong-doing. The Jezebels are also sent there after their “service” in the brothels is complete. The presence of the Colonies, therefore, suggests that there is no value to women’s lives and that there is no belief in the possibility of redemption.
This is definitely dystopian novel. This novel, actually, depicts, in my opinion, a nightmarish society for women. It is sadistic and oppressive and shocking, only some elements of the dystopian society depicted in this novel. The most shocking part of this novel is how the women are treated. The handmaids are treated as birthing vessels and are taken advantage of and abused.
I haven't read this book, but it sounds a lot like 1984...very controlled and less than perfect in almost every way.