The Handmaid's Tale Historical and Social Context
by Margaret Atwood

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale was immediately compared to the appearance almost forty years before of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Both novels suggest that to create a world of perfect order and stability would require that the imperfections of human beings be brought under control. The future societies of both novels ban writing, the written word being a weapon feared by those in charge. Both worlds restrict relationships, reducing them to sterile, superficial role-playing. Violence as a method of control and citizen participation in that violence appear in both novels. Yet Winston Smith, the main character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a man and has at least a marginal sense of independence and identity. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale is a woman who has no independence and has been stripped of all identity.

Because of this difference, Atwood’s novel is closer in relationship to the words spoken by the cofounder of the modern women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the end of the nineteenth century, Stanton was asked to speak on behalf of women’s rights in the nation’s capital. Her speech, quickly reprinted and published in newspapers throughout the United States, was about the “solitude of self.” An appraisal of the forty years that had just passed and a speculation on the future, Stanton’s address was a sober reminder that regardless of the success of the movement, women must realize that they are individuals first and that each must encounter the world alone. She implied that no utopia was imminent—nor should it be, because women are individuals and a collective success approved by all was neither possible nor, in the long run, desirable. The solitude of self was the acknowledgment of personal responsibility and the courage to endure—the qualities possessed by Moira and admired by Offred, and the reason that Atwood’s character records The Handmaid’s Tale.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

International Conservatism

In the 1980s, the political climate around the globe turned toward fiscal restraint and social conservatism. In general, this shift was a response to the permissiveness and unchecked social spending that occurred in the 1970s, which were in turn the extended results of the freedoms won by the worldwide social revolutions of the 1960s.

This conservative trend appeared in different forms in different countries. In Margaret Atwood's home country of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader who had been Prime Minister since 1968 (with an eight-month gap in 1979-80), resigned in 1984, and the voters replaced him with Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney. Margaret Thatcher, who was elected Prime Minister of England in 1979, reversed decades of socialism by selling government-run industries to private owners. In the United States, the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan created such a turbulent reversal of previous social policy that the changes sweeping through the government during the first half of the decade came to be referred to as "the Reagan Revolution."

The Reagan administration's popularity was based on the slogan of "getting government off of people's backs," implying government regulations had become too cumbersome and expensive for the American economy to sustain. Reagan's personal popularity allowed his administration to shift the priorities of government. Military spending was increased year after year, in order to stand up to the Soviet Union, which the President openly declared an "evil empire." As a result of this spending, the United States became a debtor nation for the first time in its history, even though social programs were cut and eliminated. The benefits gained by slashing redundant programs were offset by increases in poverty and homelessness, since many of the affected programs had been established to aid the poor, and to balance financial inequalities that had become established by centuries of racist and sexist tradition.

The extreme shift toward conservatism in the...

(The entire section is 1,646 words.)