As the saying goes, 'history repeats itself.' If one of the goals of Margaret Atwood was to prove this particular point, she certainly succeeded in her novel A Handmaid's Tale. In her Note to the Reader, she writes, " The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaiden's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about ...have been done before, more than once..." (316). Atwood seems to choose only the most threatening, frightening, and atrocious events in history to parallel her book by--specifically the enslavement of African Americans in the United States. She traces the development of this institution, but from the perspective of a different group of oppressed people: women.
Like the institution of slavery, women in Gilead were enslaved through biblical justifications. According to the Commanders, God intended the ultimate power to be in the hands of man, not only because man was created first, but also because it was woman's temptation that expelled them both from the Garden of Eden. Women, therefor, must be controlled by man. Slave traders and owners also justified the enslavement of Africans, arguing that slave labor existed extensively in the Bible (Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians, for example), and therefor God did not condemn the institution. Once a master acquires slaves, or a Handmaid, he must rule over them effectively, to assure that they will meet his needs. To so, the term "human" must be taken out of consideration (for that may evoke some sort of pity or compassion) and replaced with the term "it"--detonating property. This is clearly demonstrated when Offred reflects on the ...
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...at the top of the underground railroad...Canada's position would be to do what she always does: try to remain neutral without antagonizing the superpower to the south," (320).
After reading The Handmaid's Tale, one may conclude that Margaret Atwood is not simply feeding her readers history, but rather warning them of our future. We may, for example, see modern day oppression in homosexuals. Various religious groups doom them to Hell, rights are taken away from them (the right to marry, for example)...the list goes on. As Atwood says of The Handmaid's Tale, "The novel exists for social examination..." (316). One can only hope that our history of social oppression will cease to repeat itself if only we can learn from the past.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1986.
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