lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy The Handmaid's Tale Analysis

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The epilogue creates an interesting effect on building a possible future on top of a possible future. Margaret Atwood satirizes at two levels—modern society as a whole in the main story and the world of academia in the epilogue. Reminiscent of George Orwell, Atwood criticizes modern society by showing the hor-rible extent to which many current problems could advance. Like Orwell, Atwood presents criticism at the most obvious, political, level. She especially satirizes the workings of nations that impose strict control over their citizens.

Atwood has said that she borrowed every aspect of Gileadean oppression from something similar in known history. Some familiar tactics employed by Gilead include using religion to control people for the government’s purposes; being constantly at war, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), to keep people quiet in the name of national security (there are numerous hints that the war may be staged); and emphasizing the need for children and women’s role as childbearers to keep women in limited roles. The novel focuses on the oppression of women, and it is commonly cited in the context of feminist criticism. Although men of lower classes also are shown to be limited in their choices, clearly the worst victims of the Gileadean regime are women. Even women higher up in the hierarchy, such as Aunts (who train the Handmaids) and Wives, are often as miserable as the others.

One of the most insidious tactics used to control Gilead’s citizens, especially women, involves control over language. Atwood often addresses the role of language in human lives. In The Handmaid’s Tale, language symbolizes power. All use of language is regulated by the regime. Handmaids are not allowed to write, read, or even carry on a free conversation. Only certain pre-scripted greetings are allowed, and even the signs on stores are pictorial symbols.

Against these kinds of limits, Offred’s rebellion comes in strange forms, such as playing illicit games of Scrabble, speaking freely with her walking partner, and ultimately leaving behind a subversive record of her experiences for future scholars to discover. These rebellions are powerful because they involve the uninhibited use of language. Her name is symbolic of Offred’s semantic rebellion. It could be read as “of Fred,” or it could be “off-red,” suggesting that she is not fully integrated into the role of the red-clad Handmaids.

The true effect of Offred’s final document is uncertain, pointing to the ambiguous nature of language. Subversive words are powerful in this context but also problematic, because they are always subject to interpretation. In the epilogue to the novel, the professor working on Offred’s story finds little evidence to support her statements and questions their authenticity. In a chatty, joking tone, he talks in general about Gilead and points to some discrepancies between the story and his own historical findings. The contrast between Offred’s heartrending, urgent story and this skeptical, analytical conversation among scholars may present pain and frustration to the reader. Atwood frustrates her readers purposefully to make some pointed remarks about the world of academia.

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Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series The Handmaid's Tale Analysis