What matters the most in a novel? The ideas. Every worthwhile novel written is done so to portray ideas that the author wishes to get across. In her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood effortlessly demonstrates to women that they should not get complacent with their place in life, as the new rights they have been allowed could be more easily taken away than they were granted. The novel was written in a time where young women were taking for granted the freedoms they had been permitted, and when there was great backlash against the feminist movement. She presents her views through the harsh setting of Gilead in the novel, and the continual biblical allusions in the text.
The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the ‘post-feminist’ 1980s and served as a warning to young women of this time who began taking for granted those rights that had been secured to women. It was during this time that feminists became the ‘prime enemy’, and pro-family activists were calling for the restoration of what they called ‘traditional values’- they wanted women back in their traditional role as wife and mother, nothing more. Jerry Falwell even went so far as to say that feminists had begun a ‘satanic attack on the home’. Susan Faludi criticised this view, saying that ‘under the banner of “family rights” every man’s right to rule supreme at home’ is being preached, and men want ‘to exercise what Falwell called the husband’s “God-given responsibility to lead his family”’- here, she is stating that a male feels the need to constantly be in control, and this means having a compliant wife, who will never stick up for herself or her rights as a human being, but be submissive and tend to his every want and need. The Handmaid’s Tale reflects on the antifeminist messages given to women by the fundamentalist New Right in the 1980s, the novel written to show the horror of what could happen if women were forced to consent to these ‘traditional family values’. Atwood ‘s reason for writing the novel was to illustrate what would happen if these rules were actually put into effect, asking herself the question ‘if a woman’s place is the home, then what? If you actually decide to enforce that, what follows?’ then answering it with her dystopian society of Gilead.
The novel is narrated by a female protagonist named Offred, a patronymic name given to her to reflect her Commander, Fred (of-Fred). Already, one of the first things we actually find out about this character is that her name has been taken from her, replaced by one derived from a male, and implemented to demonstrate that she belongs to him. This is representative of the oppression females undergo in the regime enforce in Gilead. Very little action happens in her story because she lives in such a controlled environment- she is a Handmaid, a forced surrogate for an elite barren couple in the face of dwindling birth rates caused by pollution and high numbers of sexually-transmitted infections. Her life has been reduced to almost total inactivity- nothing happens in her life because her life is without incidence. This again reflects the extent of the controlled, oppressive environment Atwood displays, and shocks women with a dystopia similar to what they may have to face if they become complacent with their place in life. Offred was not vigilant about protecting her rights and freedoms and hence helped allow the revolution to happen and succeed. Before, she chose to watch; now she is forced to.
Gilead is an extremely oppressive society run by a totalitarian government in which fertile women are forced to become surrogates for elite couples who cannot have their own children. This regime came into place to combat the high crime and rape rates, pollution and diminishing birth rates the state was facing. It was implemented to help the people, but rather it severely repressed them, forcing them into strict roles they could not stray from, and were severely punished if they did. This ties in well with the epigraph, which contains an extract from Jonathon Swift’sA Modest Proposal. Both Swift’s essay and Atwood’s novel explore the possible outcomes of the events their society was facing at the time of publication, provoking thought in their readers about their current situation. Through his adopted persona as a well-intentioned economist in A Modest Proposal, Swift satirizes those who propose solutions to political and economical issues without consideration of the human cost involved. He illustrates the inhumanity of schemes for alleviating the suffering of people that are solely based on rational principles. Atwood obviously wishes to make the same point- rather than being a realistic prediction or suggestion for the future, The Handmaid’s Tale is designed to stimulate thought about social issues. Atwood herself calls it ‘speculative fiction’.
The people of Gilead are constantly being watched by the Eyes, who are undercover spies employed to make sure everyone is adhering to Gileadean law. This is an obvious allusion to George Orwell’s 1984 in which ‘Big brother is watching you’; a connection Atwood wishes us to make to make clear the dystopian setting. Women are covered from head to foot in shapeless uniforms, the colour of these gowns representing the social sect they belong to. Their identity is stripped from them, as they are now known only by their place in society, and disallowed any sense of sexuality. Men, however, are free to visit brothels and express themselves however they like. The Aunt’s excuse this, stating ‘men can’t help themselves, you can’. This is very similar to the situation the women of the Taliban are currently facing. They too are limited in where they can go, and are forced to wear a garment that not only covers them from head to foot, but places them in a category- the lowest of the social sects, the women. Music is banned in both regimes, as are movies, televisions and videos that are not approved by the government, so as not to give people ideas that may not fit with the system that is being enforced. Public executions are everyday happenings in both Gilead and the Taliban, and people are expected to watch and applaud as the executioner brutally murders the supposed criminal. Worst still, the bodies are left in a central location to serve as a warning to others. Atwood said ‘one of the tasks I set myself when writing the novel was not to include any practices that had not already happened somewhere, at some time’. This presents a chilling warning message.
The allusions in The Handmaid’s Tale are wide-ranging, stretching from the Bible to 20th century feminism to environmental issues. This range of references is part of Atwood’s strategy for creating her modern anti-utopia. Her allusions mesh together social details with which most are familiar in order to demonstrate how they might be shaped into a pattern for a future which we would choose to avoid. Gilead’s social principles are based on the Old Testament, where patriarchal authority is justified as the law of God. The patriarch Jacob is the state hero, and the name Gilead is closely associated with Jacob, as that was where he set up his heap of stones as witness to God and where he established his household, his lineage, and his flocks and herds.
We are introduced to the idea of the Old Testament through the very first quotation in the epigraph, which directs our attention to Genesis 30:1-3, which is the beginning of the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah and their Handmaid’s who are required to produce children for them. It is reiterated many times throughout the novel, most notably in the ritual Bible reading before the monthly Ceremony, but there are also echoes of it in the naming of the ‘Rachel and Leah Centre’ where the Handmaids are brainwashed with the new Gileadean principles, and in Offred’s comment ‘give me children or else I die’. In such a society, biblical referenced permeate every level of discourse. Gilead’s leaders understand the importance of language as the main instrument in ideological control, and it is undeniably just as repressive an instrument as the army or police, and much more menacing because rituals of naming determine the way we think about things- for example, undercover spies are given a name with an undeserved positive connotation, ‘the Eyes of God’, just as the Commanders, the ritualized rapists, are known as ‘Commanders of the Peace’.
On the domestic level, women’s roles are given biblical significance, as in the case of the Handmaid’s, but also in that of the female servants who become ‘Martha’s’. What is odd about this is that Martha was one of two sisters who devoted herself to housework while her sister sat and listened to Jesus. The irony here is that Jesus praised Mary, not Martha, yet the new patriarchy has chosen Martha as a model. In a place where God is treated as a national resource, biblical names filter into the commercial world. Cars are branded ‘Behemoth’, ‘Whirlwind’ and ‘Chariot’, and shops have been renamed with pictorial signs depicting biblical texts such as ‘Lilies of the Field’ and ‘All Flesh’. Those of Gilead are brainwashed to believe that if they do not support the regime they are going against the will of God, a position quite scary considering the Old Testament is the preferred version. The Word is in the mouths of men only, just as the Bible is kept locked up and only the Commanders allowed to read it. One reference Gilead chooses not to use occurs in Hosea 6:8- ‘Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood’.
The ideas of the novel are the most important feature- without a reason behind it, the novel has no purpose. However, the ways in which these ideas are presented is also an integral part of the novel, as if the presentation of these ideas is inadequate, neither the ideas nor the novel will come across well. Atwood chooses to demonstrate the main idea, her warning against the complacency of women with regards to their newly-granted freedoms, through a convincing fragmentary structure presented through a stream of conscious narrative, an unheroic and realistic female narrator, an oppressive society similar to that of the Taliban, and several Biblical references with which many will be familiar. As a result, both the main idea and the ways in which it is presented are very clear and effective, and it is obvious that this novel would not have worked had it not had substantial ideas behind it.