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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood
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Please compare the theme of survival and its treatment in The Handmaid's Tale and in The Road.

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The theme of survival is present in both The Road and The Handmaid's Tale. However, its implications in the context of each work are vastly different.

In The Road, absolutely everything that the the man and boy do revolve around survival. However, there are many ironic twists in that...

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The theme of survival is present in both The Road and The Handmaid's Tale. However, its implications in the context of each work are vastly different.

In The Road, absolutely everything that the the man and boy do revolve around survival. However, there are many ironic twists in that motivating factor. For example, the protagonist does not want his son to survive by any means necessary. In fact, he carries with him a pistol containing only two rounds--not for self defense, but for suicide if necessary. The man knows that cannibals will inflict a gruesome death on his son, and has undergone the mental preparation to offer his son a painless death if necessary. Furthermore, the man is dying. The illness that ravages him is unspecified, but he seems well aware that it will be the end of him. He is terrified of his dwindling control over his son's destiny, and has even trained him to take his own life if necessary. To the man, survival is central to his motivations, but it is very much a desperate pipe-dream, and the means of achieving it grow more vague everyday.

Similarly, Offred is trapped in a hostile world with no clear way out, though this hostility is more intellectual than physical. Any means of effective resistance against Gilead seems incredibly out of reach, and will be of course met with severe punishment. Gilead is unique among fictitious dystopias in that a generation of characters that were alive before the world changed seem to still be present. At the start of her suffering, Offred seems to possess a strong sense of survival. She is careful to keep her reservations to herself in order to stay alive and relatively comfortable. As time goes on, however, she begins to engage in more and more rebellious behavior, endangering her continued life and safety. She begins to realize that certain acts of rebellion are more important, and that some worlds, like Gilead, are not worth living comfortably in.

To her, the focus on survival becomes secondary, and it is no coincidence that the reader is left unsure of her eventual fate. Unlike the man and boy from The Road, who no longer live in a world where anyone is listening, it is Offred's testimony, not her eventual survival, that is important.

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Both Offred in A Handmaid's Tale and the father in The Road have to survive in a world that has been upended. Both cling to their love for their child as a way to survive. In Offred's case, her child has been taken from her and is being raised in an evangelical Christian home. Nevertheless, Offred has a strong motivation to survive in the hopes she can be reunited one day with her daughter. The man has his boy with him. This keeps him human, because he has someone other than himself to love and care for. Protecting the boy gives him a reason to live.

Offred enters into a severely hierarchical, structured, and claustrophobic world, while the man and the boy deal with anarchy and the loss of all social structure in a post-apocalyptic landscape. While their problems are different, both Offred and the father have to cope with huge amounts of stress because of their new environments, and both find love to be a life-giving solace in their isolation. Both are, in a very immediate way, struggling simply to survive day to day, Offred through avoiding suicide, and the man through the many ways death could come in this dangerous new world.

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Both of these brilliant texts plunge us into a dystopian world where the protagonists are trying desperately to survive at any cost. This is the goal that drives both the characters of Offred and of the boy and his father as they variously have to combat despair, the temptation to commit suicide and the other people that they are placed with.

In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred is forced to submit to being used as a sex-slave in order to procreate for the officer she is sent to. To ensure her safety, she has to engage in a relationship with Nick due to the officer's infertility and she is also forced to kill the officer to ensure her escape. She is trapped in a world where she is forced to commit crimes and go against her better judgment in order to ensure her survival. Survival is presented as something of a luxury that you must fight to achieve rather than a right that you are given on a plate.

In the same way, in The Road, the father has to kill to protect himself and above all his son from meeting a rather grisly end. This quest for survival has transformed him from being a good man with a conscience into a naturally distrustful individual who always suspects the motives of others. Consider, for example, the father's first thought when they come across the old man by himself. At first he thinks he will be a decoy, and then, when it becomes clear that he is by himself and in a very pitiful state, note what the father says:

He looked up the road and down. If this is an ambush he goes first, he said.

The pursuit of survival at any cost has caused the father to lose his humanity, and it is his son's role to remind him of morals and values which he has long ago had to forsake.

In both of these dystopian novels, therefore, survival is shown to be something that the protagonists have to fight to achieve. Both sets of protagonists have to variously kill, lie and deceive and do things that they normally wouldn't do in order to achieve survival, which is their overarching goal.

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