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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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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

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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 United States at that time is significant to the social change that created the Republic of Gilead in Atwood's imagination. After the novel was published, she told an American interviewer that she had tried originally to set the novel in Canada, but that it just would not fit the Canadian culture. "It's not a Canadian sort of thing to do," she told Bonnie Lyons in 1987. "Canadians might do it after the United States did it, in some sort of watered-down version. Our television evangelists are more paltry than yours. The States are more extreme in everything."

Religious Fundamentalism

One of the most powerful political groups to affect American politics in the 1980s was an organization called The Moral Majority. It was founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell, an evangelist and the host of the Old Time Gospel Hour on television, to register voters in support of the group's fundamentalist agenda.

Millions of voters registered and identified themselves as members of the Moral Majority, giving the group a strong voice in national politics. Among the issues opposed by the Moral Majority were the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have provided a Constitutional guarantee that women would be treated equally to men; the White House Conference on the Family, which they felt gave recognition to too many varieties of family structure; and abortion. The issues supported by the Moral Majority included the saying of prayers in publicly-funded schools, tax credits for schools that taught religious doctrine, and government opposition to pornography.

The group's impact on American politics was wide-reaching, and politicians running for national and local offices lined up to pledge their support of the "family values" program that the Moral Majority used to define their agenda, knowing that they could not win election without appeasing such a well-organized bloc of voters.

Organized Fundamentalists made their mark on the structure of the American government. The Equal Rights Amendment went unratified when it could not gather enough support. The National Endowment for the Arts came under national scrutiny and had its budget cut because some of the artists it had benefited had produced works found to offend standards of decency. Abortion, possibly the key issue of the Christian political movement, also had its federal funding eliminated, even though attempts to limit or outlaw abortion itself were fought successfully on Constitutional grounds.

Though sexually explicit publications are also protected by the Constitution, they were studied by a Presidential Commission on Pornography, which, like most symbolic actions, had little tangible impact; one large convenience store chain, for example, stopped carrying pornographic magazines but began stocking them in a few years, after the heat was off.

As the decade wore on, the pervasive influence of the Moral Majority, and of politically active religious figures in general, wore out. Some policies, such as Reverend Falwell's support of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos or his opposition to South African freedom fighter Bishop Desmond Tutu, exposed the group to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy. Falwell left the organization in 1988 to take charge of The 700 Club, a television ministry whose leader had been forced to resign in a sex scandal. The Moral Majority disbanded the following year.

Social Concerns

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The Handmaid's Tale gives heightened, prophetic urgency to a number of Atwood's long-standing social preoccupations. The novel is set in a futuristic society called the Republic of Gilead, a new nation resulting from a fundamentalist coup in what was once the northern United States. The action occurs in Boston and explicitly recalls Puritan New England, earlier site of a community insistently pursuing a single-minded messianic agenda. (The Canadian Atwood herself has New England ancestors, one of whom was tried as a witch and survived hanging; the novel is dedicated to her, as well as to Harvard scholar Perry Miller, with whom she once studied). Like its historical antecedent, Gilead is a theocracy whose legal, political, and ethical strictures rest upon conservative interpretations of the Bible cannily used to legitimize a patriarchy of elite white males who repress the majority of the population through overtly racist and sexist policies.

The inequities of this society are shown to be intimately related to a number of other catastrophes that have ravaged Gilead. In earlier works Atwood had identified the United States as the locus of a dehumanizing capitalistic and technocratic ethos which wages war on nature. Gilead dramatizes the inevitable ecological disasters attendant upon such practices. Nuclear accidents, toxic pollution, virulent new diseases, and the chemical mistreatment of their own bodies have so reduced the fertility rate among whites that the chances of bringing a healthy new baby into the world are now one in four. The schism dividing humans from the ravaged natural world only intensifies human predator-ness and produces a society whose paranoid isolationism propels it into a perpetual state of war against subversive citizens and supposedly hostile neighbor states. War becomes a state of mind justifying a pervasive militarism with its attendant drain on national resources; as such, it reinforces the patriarchal hierarchies that undergird the culture. Gilead bases this social vision on a religious ideology which sanctions its power politics as God's will; the world of this novel is shown to be a logical, if exaggerated, expression of the chauvinistic self-righteousness with which Americans have historically exercised their raw might around the world.

Atwood's indictment of modernity's technocratic assault on nature complements an equally unyielding portrait of a decadent mass culture whose consumer fetishism, narcissism, and cultural debasement produces postmodern anarchy and spawns the drastic antidote of a Gilead. As with all dystopias, The Handmaid's Tale identifies the seeds of its futuristic nightmare in the excesses of the present and suggests the ease with which those excesses can trigger a violent backlash annihilating the cherished freedoms of the culture it is ostensibly trying to save. Atwood's treatment of contemporary culture is more ambivalent here than in earlier works, however. Although she is clearly repulsed by its pervasive corruption of individual sensibility, she cautions against simplistic efforts to repress its most revolting elements. She thus raises the troubling question: What degree of liberty can a democratic society safely exchange for cultural stability?

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