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Literature is often a reflection of the dominant fears and

apprehensions of a society.

Discuss how Atwood offers a prediction for the future, if

these fears are ignored with reference to The Handmaid’s

The dominant fears and apprehensions of westernised society in the

1980s, particularly the rise of the New Right movement, religious
fundamentalism, the anti-feminist backlash and the heightened
awareness of environmental hazards and pollution are depicted in
The Handmaid’s Tale through the creation of a repressive,
fundamentalist theocracy called Gilead. Margaret Atwood’s
extrapolation of American society in the 1980s results in a
terrifyingly possible totalitarian state based entirely on Christian
fundamentalism, in which women are used solely as tools of
reproduction and the environment has been devastated by nuclear
pollution. The dystopian text speculates on a possible future for
America if such extremist views are supported and society’s fears
are ignored.

In the United States, the New Right Movement refers to a

conservative political movement experienced mostly throughout
Ronald Reagan’s presidential term. The movement is associated
with a ‘return to traditional values’ in society resulting in men being
equated with roles of power and women with domestic servitude.
The extreme but logical consequences of such a political movement
are depicted within Gilead, where men are named according to
military rankings and women are used solely as tools of
reproduction, shown through Offred’s description of herself as a
‘womb with legs’. Gilead’s strict adherence to traditional gender
ideologies is closely linked to the basis of Gileadean society on
Christian fundamentalism.

The Republic of Gilead is neither a communist state nor a monarchy,

as these would not be accepted by American society. Instead, it
claims to be religious and bases its extreme practices such as the
‘Salvagings’ on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Gilead is an
entirely Christian, theocratic state, with all other religious groups
having been previously eradicated. Gileadean ideology is based
around biblical polygamy, “And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid
to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.” Higher-ranking men within
Gilead are given Handmaids in order to reproduce as fertility is
valued and children are equated with wealth and power. The
theocratic elements of Gileadean society are similar to that of the
early American Puritans who escaped England due to the harsh and
judgemental treatment that they received. The Puritans arrived in
America in the 1630s and established godly societies based on
church membership and worship that was purified from the corrupt
Anglican Church. Church attendance was absolutely mandatory and
anybody who opposed the Puritan ideology was unwelcome in the
community. Such extreme beliefs are mirrored by Gileadean society
and the powerful theocracy openly persecutes ‘non-believers’, with
the Wall acting as the main symbol of religious persecution in

The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the aftermath of the Iranian

revolution of 1979. The revolution began with major demonstrations
against the Shah and ended with the approval of a theocratic
constitution in which Khomeini became the country’s Supreme
Leader after a national referendum that declared Iran an official
Islamic Republic. The ideology of Gilead shadows that of the Iranian
revolution and obeying such a regime was considered as ‘an
expression of obedience to God’. The prominent leaders of the
revolution opposed both capitalism and communism, believing that
the society should be founded solely on religious fundamentalism, a
belief that is strongly adhered to in Gilead. Atwood’s speculation of
women’s oppression if such extremist views are not dealt with is
shown both in the fictional Gilead and in Iran. Within months of the
founding of the Islamic Republic the oppression of women began to
take place. Female government workers were forced to observe
Islamic dress codes, women were no longer allowed to become
judges, the legal marriage age was reduced to 13 and married
women were barred from attending regular schools. Women in
Gilead are also subjected to the same repression with strict dress
codes, sex segregation and the barring of women from professional

Atwood’s fear of such an extremist government regime is depicted

through the dystopian society that she created however the text
speculates a possible future that is terrifyingly similar to that of
Afghanistan in the 1990’s. After the Taliban came into power during
1996, Afghanistan was subjected to totalitarian ruling and its
policies were enforced by ‘religious police’. Nearly every aspect of
life under the totalitarian regime was controlled, similar to that in
Gilead. Freedom of expression was banned, as was education for
women, pornography, gambling and many art forms. Crimes against
the regime were made punishable by amputation of the hand, rape
and public execution and both shaven men and women who wore
their burqa incorrectly were often beaten. Handmaids in Gilead are
objectified and dehumanised with Offred explaining that if “…your
dog dies, get another.” The dehumanisation of women in Gilead is
enhanced by the dress codes that are similar to the wearing of the
burqa, which, like the Handmaid’s ‘uniform’ diminishes individual
identity and encourages the notion of the ‘collective woman’,
extremist ideology that Atwood is particularly critical of.

Extremist feminism was experienced in western society throughout

the 1980’s and Atwood was extremely critical of this, in particular
the concept of a ‘collective woman’, which eliminated individuality
and personal identity. “Woman is just the sum total of women,”
Atwood demonstrates her rejection of this notion by emphasising
individual women as being able to resist Gileadean society. The
Handmaid’s Tale speculates that as a result of the second wave of
feminism and its backlash, feminists would be ‘empowering their
worst enemies’ and an extreme patriarchy would be formed. This is
clearly evident in The Handmaid’s Tale as males hold all positions of
power with women being confined to lives of domestic servitude and
reproduction. Between 1960 and 1980 countries such as American
and the United Kingdom legalised abortion and commercialised the
contraceptive Pill. Women were slowly beginning to gain more
control over their lives, and although Atwood strongly believes in
gender equality and that ‘women are human beings’, she feared
that the backlash to such extreme feminism would result in the
complete oppression of females.

The Commander suggests that gender equality and the increasing

influence of feminism was threatening the traditional idea of male
dominance and patriarchy. “There was nothing to work for, nothing
to fight for… You know what they were complaining about the most?
Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex…” Separatist feminists
encouraged the burning of books and pornography and opened
themselves up to criticism that they favoured censorship. As an
extrapolation of these book burnings, women in Gilead have no
access to language, bar the monthly Bible reading that takes place
prior to The Ceremony. By taking away freedom of choice and
speech, the women in Gilead have been deprived of basic human
rights and dehumanised. Aunt Lydia explains to the women in the
Red Centre that two types of freedom exist, ‘freedom to, and
freedom from.’ ‘Freedom to’ exists in today’s democratic society in
which individuals have control over their lives, with certain
limitations in regard to laws. Gilead’s ‘freedom from’, contrasts this,
and refers to a type of freedom experienced by both men and
women in Gilead, when one no longer has to choose. Atwood’s
construction of ‘freedom from’ depicts society’s fear of the denial of
basic human rights, without which, today’s democratic societies
would not function.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986 and therefore, focuses

mainly on the environmental dangers of the 20th century, in which
radical changes concerning environmental awareness were
witnessed. In 1962, Rachel Carson prophesised devastation of our
environment through the use of pesticides and continued pollution,
and in 1971 Greenpeace was founded to protest against nuclear
testing in Alaska. Atwood emphasises the likeliness that if humanity
continues to recklessly destroy the planet, we may eventually end
up in a world similar to the toxic dystopian society of Gilead. The
‘colonies’ are areas of both nuclear and agricultural pollution and
are home to the useless ‘unwomen’ who are sent to work until
death. The extreme fear of being sent to the colonies reflects the
context of the novel, and conveys society’s intense fear of nuclear
technology that existed in the 1970s.

Environmental pollution, and its consequences, were dominant fears

of society in the 1980s. Male sterility, spontaneous miscarriages and
birth defects were rapidly increasing as ‘… we are pouring 300,000
different chemicals into our water and drinking it.’ This is
extrapolated in The Handmaid’s Tale so that very few males remain
fertile and, due to the extreme patriarchal nature of Gilead, males
cannot be deemed sterile as it is considered a defect. Fertile women
in Gilead exist as Handmaids and are ‘prized objects for those in
power’ due to their rarity. Atwood speculates that neglect of the
environment could result in the use of fertile women as tools of
reproduction in order to satisfy the requirements of those in power
and to stabilise the devastated birth rates.

The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative dystopia by Margaret Atwood

reflects the dominant fears and apprehensions of society in the
1980s and a possible future if these fears are ignored. Conflicts that
existed in society in the 1980s such as the second wave of
feminism, the New Right Movement and religious fundamentalism
have been drawn to their furthest logical conclusions to create the
theocratic, fundamentalist republic of Gilead where freedom of
choice, speech and religion are non-existent and the foundations for
our democratic western society have been completely removed.