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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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How can one approach The Handmaid's Tale from a postcolonial perspective?

Quick answer:

Gilead is a colonizer of the bodies of women, much like the West was in control of many other countries' land, resources, and people. A postcolonial lens allows for this comparison to be made.

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Postcolonial literature refers to a writing that deals with the ideological consequences of imperialism, typically written from the perspective of the colonized (or formerly colonized) rather than the colonizer. Postcolonial literature comes from myriad countries around the world that have historically been colonized by the West: India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and many Caribbean islands, among other places. It can also come from indigenous peoples in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and more. Although the prefix "post" is present, the term "postcolonial" does not only refer to literature written after independence (though that is often the case); rather, it refers to literature that is concerned with the perspective of the subjugated class.

Turning to Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: This novel can absolutely be read through a postcolonial lens. It tells of a dystopian future where women as a whole are a subjugated class whose bodies are owned by men. Even Offred's name reflects this; she is only defined as being "of" a man and is stripped of her own subjectivity—as is true in much of colonialism, where the unprivileged class is ruled by the privileged one. We see the world of Gilead through Offred as she tries to navigate a world in which she has no power by the very nature of her gender.

In the same way that the colonial nation is occupied by an outside power, so is the colonial body, and we see that in Offred and all of the handmaids. We also see the innate violence that is enacted upon that subjugated body by the colonizer. A postcolonial perspective on this novel includes such an examination on the violent forces acting upon the oppressed subject and what the world looks like from her perspective.

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Postcolonial literature is often written from the point of view of those belonging to subjugated groups, reflecting what life looks and feels like from the perspective of the dominated or subaltern class in a country that has been taken over by an outside invader. Postcolonial literature about India, for example, under the Raj or British rule, would not exalt the glories of bringing British "civilization" to the native population but would emphasize how the Indians suffered under the rule of a foreign invader.

The Handmaid's Tale is an example of a postcolonial perspective set in a future dystopia. We learn through the details of her life how limited Offred's circumstances are. She goes from being a free woman with a husband and child who earns her own money and is able to make her own decisions to a sex slave in an authoritarian evangelical dictatorship. She has to wear what she is told to wear, live where she is told to live, and do what she is told to do. She is threatened with violence and death if she does not comply completely with the dictates of her masters. She has no access to reliable information.

Through Offred, we as readers understand how frightening, monotonous, and uncertain life is for the less privileged in this new society. Offred has been "colonized" or taken over against her will by people who do not have her best interests at heart and simply want to exploit her for their own purposes.

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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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