Day 65 — Book Resource The Handmaid’s Tale

“OfFred was a normal everyday woman with a career, a name, a life like all women have come to expect and take for granted in this age. When the Religious Right came into power, they began to put into practice their insane beliefs which strip women of their identity, their rights, their body, their very name. Women are to be called Of (whatever asshat they belong to), instead of, say Beatrix. Reproduction is an issue because all the toxins in the environment have rendered many women infertile. But if you are fertile, woe to you, you get to be a baby factory against your will, get promised to some jerk you don’t love or even like because someone deemed him important enough to breed. Oh, come on!
This book was written in 1986…”
— Review by Stephanie on GoodReads, February 10th, 2012.

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the Wall that is used for hanging executed bodies is in Harvard University), The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a destabilised country some time in the future — a place dying from radiation poisoning, and the government in power takes drastic steps to secure the population of male genes.

Women’s biological function is privileged, but as a result, women become marginalised as individuals — as the prime aim is to find healthy, fertile women who can produce children for those ruling class of men in position of power and influence.

While the genre of the book is open to debate (Valerie Martin in the introduction of the 2006 Everyman’s Library edition, suggests it is political satire, allegory, and even “reconstructed post-print novel”), I would argue that The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood can be seen to firmly fit within the genre of science fiction, often called “speculative fiction”.

Within science fiction, you can see different kinds of novels: technology based, space, novels that explore society on earth as it might be in the future, and so on. Some of the more famous examples of speculative fiction include Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sociologically speculative stories usually propose an argument about what are contemporary (not fictional) issues. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of these kinds of stories; it’s the author’s creation of an imagined society which grows out of our own, and represents potential events in the world as we know it.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 82.

The Handmaid’s Tale also falls into a sub-genre within speculative fiction, one with philosophical and literary antecedents. It is a dystopian novel: fiction that sets up for our contemplation an imagined world, not an ideal one — one in which the worst things that could happen have come to pass. Atwood does something similar to what Orwell and Huxley have done: demonstrating through her work how human society can go awry.

The influence of earlier dystopian works like those of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Butler’s Erehwon, or even Huxley’s Brave New World is open to discussion (I could point out comparisons between the segregation in Gilead and Brave New World’s World State) — but it can be said that Atwood is consciously working within a generic tradition.

It’s not necessary to have read More, Huxley or Orwell to engage with The Handmaid’s Tale, but a knowledge of dystopian texts does enrich the debate of which this book is a part.

To me, The Handmaid’s Tale is a philosophical warning — if society refuses to “act upon” changes enacted by dominant groups with strong ideologies, a totalitarian state like Gilead could be the devastating result.

As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.
Are there any questions?
- From the partial transcript of ‘Problems of Authentication in Reference To The Handmaid’s Tale’ — Professor James Darcy Pieixoto (The Handmaid’s Tale, p.324).