How is satire used in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale?

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George Orwell referenced his seminal depiction of a futuristic, totalitarian, dystopian society, 1984, as a satire, writing the following in response to the more anxious of the interpretations of his novel: "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will necessarily arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive." Similarly, Jonathan Swift made no pretense to depicting actual functioning societies, as the characters and settings in Gulliver’s Travels are quite obviously exaggerations and satires.  Aldous Huxley, like Orwell, an Englishman (Swift was Ango-Irish) depicted a futuristic dystopian society that was intended both as an indictment of existing realities and as a satire mocking the extremes to which autocratic-minded individuals are prone to go given half a chance.  All of these novels were born of very real concerns on the part of the authors to warn the reader about the potential dangers that could lie ahead.  They are all, though, satires.

“Satire” is generally used to refer to blatantly comedic depictions of reality, but there need not be any humor in a satire; the label also connotes the use of irony and exaggeration, which is more the case with Huxley and Orwell.  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely into this category.  She intended her novel about a dystopian society in which females are exploited for the reproductive benefit of the more wealthy and powerful. Interpretations of her novel differed significantly depending upon which side of the Atlantic Ocean one sat, with the more strident feminism of the New World contrasting with the deeply-embedded psychological context of the caste system of England. In a 2012 interview, Atwood noted the following:

“The book came out in the UK in February 1986, and in the United States at the same time. In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, 'Jolly good yarn.' In the US, however – and despite a dismissive review in the New York Times by Mary McCarthy – it was more likely to be: ‘How long have we got?’” [Atwood, “Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale,” The Guardian, January 20, 2012]

In other words, American women – typically those of a more liberal political orientation – viewed The Handmaid’s Tale in a more alarmist vein, frantic as many were about then-President Ronald Reagan’s conservatism (deemed a threat to hard-won gains in the realm of women’s rights).  Atwood, a Canadian of British heritage, did not intend her novel to be such a dire warning about the ramifications of a conservative political establishment, but rather a more general warning about the puritanical roots of American society, a subject of continuing amusement for many Europeans today.  Again, quoting Atwood from that 2012 interview:

“The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

As Atwood has noted, it is the caste structure and New World values (“nobody but a nun would pick the Colonies”) that are more the target of her satire than the feminist critique most Americans apply to The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are treated horribly in her novel, but not only by men.  Women occupy the upper strands of society, also, and are equally capable of venality and dictatorial excesses (the character Serena Joy embodies this phenomenon), although men remain the ultimate power.  Atwood’s novel is a satire in the sense that it depicts its subject matter in an ironic and exaggerated manner.  Moira, Offred’s friend and a radical lesbian feminist, succumbs to the fate to which she has apparently been condemned – she now inhabits a house of ill-repute -- appreciating that it is not without its benefits: “Don’t worry about me. . . Anyway, look at it this way: it’s not so bad, there’s lots of women around. Butch paradise, you might call it.”  The Handmaid’s Tale tells a serious story, but it is satire in every sense of the word.

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