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This novel is an account of the near future; a dystopia, where
pollution and radiation has rendered countless women sterile, and the
birth rates of North America are dangerously declining. A puritan
theocracy now controls the former United States called the Republic of
Gilead and Handmaids are recruited to repopulate the state. This novel
contains Atwood’s strong sense of social awareness, as seen in the use
of satire to comment on different social conditions in the novel. The
Handmaid’s Tale is a warning to young women of the 'post-feminist'
1980s and after, who began taking for granted the rights that had been
secured for women by the women before them.
The environmental danger of pollution and radiation run off from power
plants is commented on in the novel. Atwood is voicing her concerns
about the destruction of the environment here, and warns us of the
possibilities if the destruction continues in our world. Her view is
extreme of course, made to shock people into thinking about the
potential danger. In the novel, pollution and radiation had
overwhelmed the population causing sterility in both men and women.
Babies were often born deformed, (these were called 'Unbabies') or
died during pregnancy or shortly after birth. At one point in the
novel, a funeral is described by the main character Offered, she said
"the first one is bereaved, the mother; she carries a small black jar.
From the size of the jar you can tell how old it was when it
foundered, inside her, flowed to its death. Two or three months, too
early to tell whether or not it was an Unbaby"(Atwood, 55). The
infertile women, rebels and feminists were sent to the 'colonies' to
clean toxic waste, where of course they die of either disease or
radiation. Atwood incorporated the environmental disaster into her
novel as a warning, her point being that it could happen, and if it
did, here is what might happen; mankind could go to an extreme,
religious, totalitarian state: the Republic of Gilead.
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Gilead, the ultra religious military regime is a reaction to the
dramatic drop in birth rate. In the novel, Aunt Lydia, one of the
women in charge of the Red Centre where handmaids are trained
described Gilead; she said, "The republic of Gilead knows no bounds.
Gilead is within you." Offered, replied inwardly "doctors lived here
once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore,
and the university is closed" (Atwood, 29). Here, off red’s comment
says much about the social conditions in Gilead. Since the university
is closed, secular learning is no longer allowed, the only studying is
done on the Bible, and not by women because they are forbidden to read
and write. The Bible had a huge impact on Gilead's policies. The idea
of handmaids came from the story of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob's wife
could not conceive, so Jacob and the servant had a child, which became
Jacob and Rachel’s. It is obvious that Gilead is a very repressive
place. Later, in Off red's taped recordings about Gilead she said
"it's also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along. Tell rather
than write because I have nothing to write with and writing in any
case is forbidden (Atwood 50). It is the Handmaids who must do the
daily grocery shopping, and since they are not permitted to read, the
store names are pictures, a lamb chop for All Flesh, the butcher shop,
for example. The domination of women is astonishing in this state. It
is almost insulting for these women, who used to have jobs, their own
money, and freedom to do anything they wanted to have to stoop to this
level. These women remember what it used to be like, and they want it
to be like that again, but are afraid to rebel because of the wall,
and the salvagings. The wall is where Off red and her companion Of
glen pass every day. It is where they hang the enemies of the state.
Any people who are suspected of betrayal are killed. When a man is
accused of rape, or a similar crime against women, they are sent into
a circle of angry Handmaids, who are expected to tear him apart. In
the novel, during the salvaging Of glen appears tore act extremely
violently towards an accused man, she ran up to him and kicked him in
the head until he was unconscious. She explained later to Off red that
he was no rapist, only a member of the underground rebellion. She
wanted to end his suffering.
Due to the lack open rebellion, Off red’s society is faced with the
complete loss of freedom. Women are now forbidden any kind of
communication. They have to lead a life of servitude and are stripped
of all personal possessions, of their families, and finally their
identities. They are all replaceable, categorized objects, Handmaids
who are deemed infertile are sent to the colonies to die. The women
are also made to wear uniforms and are named to be defined in their
relation to men, for example Off red serves Fred, and his wife is
known only as Wife. The uniforms in Gilead categorize each group by
colour; this serves to segregate them, like the Jews during World War
II. The Wives, who are the highest on the list, wear only, light blue.
The Handmaids must wear red and the Martha’s wear brown. The men all
wear similar military uniforms. The Handmaid’s uniform is reminiscent
of women in the Middle East, because they are made to hide the women's
bodies and prevent them from being seen:
"I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in
their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing.
The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up; pull them onto my
hands, finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is
red: the colour of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle length,
full and gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the
sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they keep
us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red,
it's not my colour".
The bulky red dress is designed to hide the Handmaid's bodies and the
wings are made to keep the women from being seen. The women are taught
to bow their heads when they walk so that their faces cannot be seen.
This is a further example of the domination of women in this novel.
Atwood’s point in demonstrating the oppression of women is not to be
ultra feminist or to put down men, but to show the dangers of such a
regime as Gilead, because it became such a patriarchal state, and in
its wake, women were utterly repressed. It happened so fast, that
women did not have time to revolt, and after Gilead came to power, if
women did speak up they would be sent to the colonies.
Social commentary is rampant in this novel. Margaret Atwood purposely
wrote this shocking and absurd tale to shock people into thinking
about such problems as toxic waste, pollution and radiation. Not only
environmental concerns were voiced in this novel, but social ills such
as female repression and the dangers of a theocracy as well. Reading
this novel was a wake up call, and I have since taken up recycling.