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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood's use of satire and the underlying messages in The Handmaid's Tale


Margaret Atwood uses satire in The Handmaid's Tale to critique societal norms and political ideologies. Through a dystopian narrative, she highlights issues such as the oppression of women, the dangers of totalitarianism, and the subjugation of individual freedoms. The underlying messages warn against the loss of autonomy and the extreme consequences of patriarchal control.

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What is Atwood's message in The Handmaid's Tale?

There are several important themes in A Handmaid's Tale. These include the following:

The objectification of women: women and women's bodies become property in Gilead, and Handmaids lose any personal agency their sexuality.

Religious totalitarianism: Gilead uses state power to enforce religious laws and to control access to fertile women. Gilead's regimented society is the product of religious zealotry that confuses control with morality.

Complicity: many of the characters in the book, including Offred, are complicit in maintaining in the Gilead regime. A recurring theme is how, in the face of the power of the state, people will do anything to avoid punishment.

The male gaze: this novel shows how women are subjugated by the way men look at them, or that being seen can be a form of violence. This is exemplified by the secret police, know as "the eyes," and is a deliberate invocation of the well-being one supposedly feels under the protection of an all-seeing God. In Gilead, however, this protection turns into a threat.

Taken together, these themes all contribute to a central message, which is that political control of women's bodies and their ability to reproduce is morally wrong. Gilead's totalitarianism is a direct result of an explicitly patriarchal system that uses religious authority to erase female agency. While Atwood's story is fictional, another message is that it would be easy to slip into a Gilead-like society unless we are vigilant about defending personal agency.

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What central message is The Handmaid's Tale conveying?

As a previous educator has noted, Margaret Attwood once said that, in writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she wanted to see what would happen when misogynistic attitudes are taken to their logical conclusion. Another way of putting it is to say that attitudes, however causally held, can have serious consequences, even if those consequences are wholly unintended. Among other things, they can distort how we see the world through a process of dehumanizing the Other.

This central message allows us to answer the question of how on earth a dystopian society such as Gilead could ever have been established in the first place. Over time, casually held attitudes of sexism and misogyny will have hardened into imperishable dogmas that formed the governing principles in this fundamentalist dictatorship.

Most of those men who held such attitudes would doubtless not have expected such a society to emerge. But it did, and it would not have come about had it not been for those attitudes. The fundamentalist elders of this rigid patriarchy didn’t come out of nowhere; they were, to a large extent, the creatures of their environment. And that environment had been thoroughly contaminated by many years of rampant sexism and misogyny, however casually expressed.

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What central message is The Handmaid's Tale conveying?

Of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood once said,

"This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many—such as a woman's place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements—women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens [....] I decided to take these positions and dramatize them, carry them to their furthest logical conclusions."

Therefore, I think it is reasonable to surmise that one major theme of the book has to do with the dangers of extremism, no matter what the kind. This is not to say that either religion or feminism, for example, is extremist by nature, but part of Atwood's point seems to be that any position can be carried to extremist levels.

Furthermore, it seems that extremism can become even more dangerous, when coupled with gender roles. When gender roles are as rigidly defined as they are in Gilead, no one is happy; no one is really free (another theme). Even Offred's commander, arguably the character with the most power and personal freedom, is unhappy. He routinely breaks the rules he helped to create by having private meetings with Offred, playing Scrabble with her, and then taking her to Jezebel's. If he were happy with his role and the rules, he wouldn't need to step out of that role and break those rules.

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What central message is The Handmaid's Tale conveying?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in 1985, and in some ways is similar in its vision to Orwell's 1984 in projecting a dystopian totalitarian future; given its probable date of composition, it seems likely that Atwood had Orwell's book in mind while writing. 

There are several messages being conveyed by the novel. First, it is written from the perspective of a Canadian author looking with some distaste at the culture of the United States, especially at what seems from a Canadian perspective, to be the disconcerting powerful influence of right-wing religious extremists, leading to racial discrimination, gender inequality, and xenophobia. Just as in the early nineteenth century, Canada provided a refuge for escaping black slaves, and in the 1960s a refuge for young men avoiding being drafted to serve in the Vietnam war, so in Atwood's novel it become a refuge for women escaping gender oppression.

The main message of the novel is one which supports gender equality and personal liberty against the forces of ignorance and prejudice. It especially argues that the two are linked. Prejudice and inequality spring from ignorance and restricting information and freedom of speech are the marks of a totalitarian government. Literature, and especially the classics, are especially important for the way they develop and free the human mind. 

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What central message is The Handmaid's Tale conveying?

The Handmaid's Tale certainly fall within the category of being a dystopian novel, and as such one of the central messages of the novel addresses the role of government in limiting the free will of the people.  Throughout the novel, Atwood provides a multitude of examples of characters who protest, embrace, or merely put up with the harsh system of the new government of Gilead. 

Atwood utilizes the over-zealous structure of Gilead with its commanders and rigid laws concerning both men and women's roles in society to force the reader to analyze how society categorizes people based on gender and at the same time, how people of both genders either accept or deny those roles.  Gilead is a hyperbole for everything that is wrong with gender roles, and Atwood exploits it to force the reader to question the currently accepted definitions as well.

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What is Atwood satirizing and warning against in The Handmaid's Tale?

There are certainly elements of satire and warning in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Let's look at some of each to get you started on your essay.

Satire is the use of ridicule, exaggeration, irony, and even humor to expose the vices, stupidity, and corruption of a society and/or of individuals. There are plenty of examples of satire in the novel. You might think of the exaggerated control of the regime. It seems exaggerated to us at any rate, but the author is making a comment about the various levels of authority and control in our own society and what they might become. You might also note how the author satirizes the feminist movement and its failings. There is irony in the Commander and other members of the ruling class as well. They are powerful in some ways yet extremely weak in others. Finally, you could talk about the satire and irony involved in the resistance. Those resisting do make a difference, but in many ways they are quite limited as well.

As for warnings, the author is clearly imagining a society that she thinks could come about in the future. She is warning her readers about religious fanaticism, tyranny, and the oppression of women. She is warning of propaganda and strict control and the loss of individuality in a society. She is warning of growing violence and of how people can disappear into a system.

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How is satire used in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale?

George Orwell referenced his seminal depiction of a futuristic, totalitarian, dystopian society, 1984, as a satire, writing the following in response to the more anxious of the interpretations of his novel: "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will necessarily arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive." Similarly, Jonathan Swift made no pretense to depicting actual functioning societies, as the characters and settings in Gulliver’s Travels are quite obviously exaggerations and satires.  Aldous Huxley, like Orwell, an Englishman (Swift was Ango-Irish) depicted a futuristic dystopian society that was intended both as an indictment of existing realities and as a satire mocking the extremes to which autocratic-minded individuals are prone to go given half a chance.  All of these novels were born of very real concerns on the part of the authors to warn the reader about the potential dangers that could lie ahead.  They are all, though, satires.

“Satire” is generally used to refer to blatantly comedic depictions of reality, but there need not be any humor in a satire; the label also connotes the use of irony and exaggeration, which is more the case with Huxley and Orwell.  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely into this category.  She intended her novel about a dystopian society in which females are exploited for the reproductive benefit of the more wealthy and powerful. Interpretations of her novel differed significantly depending upon which side of the Atlantic Ocean one sat, with the more strident feminism of the New World contrasting with the deeply-embedded psychological context of the caste system of England. In a 2012 interview, Atwood noted the following:

“The book came out in the UK in February 1986, and in the United States at the same time. In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, 'Jolly good yarn.' In the US, however – and despite a dismissive review in the New York Times by Mary McCarthy – it was more likely to be: ‘How long have we got?’” [Atwood, “Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale,” The Guardian, January 20, 2012]

In other words, American women – typically those of a more liberal political orientation – viewed The Handmaid’s Tale in a more alarmist vein, frantic as many were about then-President Ronald Reagan’s conservatism (deemed a threat to hard-won gains in the realm of women’s rights).  Atwood, a Canadian of British heritage, did not intend her novel to be such a dire warning about the ramifications of a conservative political establishment, but rather a more general warning about the puritanical roots of American society, a subject of continuing amusement for many Europeans today.  Again, quoting Atwood from that 2012 interview:

“The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

As Atwood has noted, it is the caste structure and New World values (“nobody but a nun would pick the Colonies”) that are more the target of her satire than the feminist critique most Americans apply to The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are treated horribly in her novel, but not only by men.  Women occupy the upper strands of society, also, and are equally capable of venality and dictatorial excesses (the character Serena Joy embodies this phenomenon), although men remain the ultimate power.  Atwood’s novel is a satire in the sense that it depicts its subject matter in an ironic and exaggerated manner.  Moira, Offred’s friend and a radical lesbian feminist, succumbs to the fate to which she has apparently been condemned – she now inhabits a house of ill-repute -- appreciating that it is not without its benefits: “Don’t worry about me. . . Anyway, look at it this way: it’s not so bad, there’s lots of women around. Butch paradise, you might call it.”  The Handmaid’s Tale tells a serious story, but it is satire in every sense of the word.

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