How I could approach Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale from a postcolonial perspective?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a text very suited to a postcolonial analysis. If we consider postcolonial criticism as focused on questioning the primacy of one (dominant) group's experience and focused on legitimizing the experiences, values, and points of view of minority groups, there is ample reason to apply the critical lens of postcolonial criticism to this novel about oppression, isolation and indoctrination. 

Specifically, approaching the novel with two basic questions will help us see how to fruitfully assess The Handmaid's Tale with the perspective of postcolonial criticism.

  • How does the novel challenge or undermine the integrity, validity, or morality of a privileged point of view? 
  • How does the novel seek to show that the point of view of minority groups is equally valid, moral, and integral/realistic (if not more valid, moral, and integral) than that of the dominant group? 

The novel presents what amounts to fascist tyranny (ideologically driven oppression and absolutist, non-democratic rule of law). Any depictions of the immorality and/or cruelty of this system can be explained via postcolonial criticism as an answer to our first question about how the novel challenges the primacy of the privileged point of view. 

The discriminatory and absolutist ideological foundations of the dis-utopian society in the novel run counter to the pluralistic values of the 20th century in the developed world. The categorical biases ingrained in the society echo those of Nazi Germany.

"Unwomen, like Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and other groups considered undesirable by the Gilead regime are not allowed in Gilead" (eNotes). 

Gender prejudice is also central to the narrative and central to the novel's challenge to ideologically-driven oppression.

"Though women in Gilead are prized for their ability to reproduce, they are forbidden to work, own property, or read" (eNotes). 

In addressing issues of inequality and depicting the stark immorality of the social system at work in Gilead, The Handmaid's Tale employs an ethos closely related to postcolonial theory. By ironically presenting Edward Said's notion in the novel that "the culture of the governed people is less than normal, or subnormal," Atwood effectively challenges an ideological gender and race bias, situating this systematic discrimination and prejudice in the context of immorality (or even evil).

Again, approaching the novel with questions drawn from postcolonial criticism is perhaps the best way to begin the process of analysis proposed here. How does the novel comment on culture-wide gender and race bias? How does the novel undermine presumptions of superiority and explode notions of categorical inferiority? These questions should help you choose moments, characters and elements of the novel to assess specifically with postcolonial criticism.

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