The Handmaids Tale

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Examine the ways in which Margaret Atwood develops the world of Gilead and established her dystopia.

The word dystopia literally means "bad place". When we use it in a terms of a literary genre (as the opposite of utopia, meaning an idealised world) what we end up with is a very bleak, imaginary world, usually futuristic. This world is generally portrayed as one in which the social ills and other unpleasant societal tendencies of the author's present milieu is magnified and made more horrific in the near or distant future.

The way in which Margaret Atwood establishes dystopia in "The Handmaid's Tale" is that it seems to feel like you are reading a science fiction novel, but as the story goes on it becomes more about how everything in the world has gone from good to bad in a social point of view.

We can see from the first sentence "We slept in what had once been the gymnasium," that things are different from what we might expect.

They also seem worse. All we know here is that people are sleeping in a gymnasium. This may suggest tramps or some kind of dormitory.

We learn within the first chapter that something has happened to drastically change society as we know it now. We know that there is no more U.S.A. from where it says "old ones that still said U.S." Women lie guarded by "˜angels' and "patrolled" by "˜aunts', this suggests hostility and we learn that all the women have is their bodies. "We still had our bodies", all other expectations are gone.

This first chapter gives us a strong impression of a dystopia. It gives us a vision of a dark, dull place which has gone into deep depression, there is nothing around, all luxuries have to be bought off the black market and everyone is controlled by a central figure. Atwood could have been influenced by some of the very strict religious countries in the East, where women are treated like slaves.

The second chapter gives us the impression of suicide, "They've removed anything you can tie a rope to." It suggests that these women want to or are contemplating on killing themselves but they can't even do that. They have no control over their lives. The world of Gilead has been developed into a totalitarian regime.

We are given a description of Offred's clothing, It is entirely red except for white wings around her head, to keep her from being seen. Again we see the influence from the Eastern countries. For example nuns, and Muslim females.

There does seem to be an extreme sense of religion in Gilead. It seems to be a perverted form of Christianity. We see that these women are told extracts from the Bible such as "Be fruitful and multiply" and "Give me children or else I will die.". They are only what they are wanted to do. They are not preached anything about love or kindness.

The narrative text in the book is very dense and complex, it seems nothing is being told directly to the reader. At the beginning, we don't know who these women are or what their purpose is. You have to delve deep into the book and read through it thoroughly until you can clearly understand it. We find out that the role of these women is to breed, and nothing else. Passages from the Bible like "Be grateful and multiply" emphasise this fact. They also go to the doctor to check that they are fertile.

We also find that the world of Gilead is corrupt. The Commander's Wife, Serena Joy was once an everyday household name on the television, she would have been respected. Cigarettes are illegal yet Serena Joy has one, which must have been purchased on the black market, "she then, was a woman who might bend the rules.".

This does not seem too different from our culture today as there is an extreme amount of corruption amongst influential people. The difference though is that normal, mundane objects are outlawed, such as cigarettes.

The subject of fertility crops up a lot in this book, even the "fertility of the soil" is mentioned. This shows that fertility is very important to the people of Gilead and we find that only powerful people can breed because they are the only ones who will be "allotted a handmaid of their own". Being a handmaid should be a special responsibility as you are one of the few fertile people left. Instead they are treated as servants and are allowed no pleasure.

Offred, the main character, remembers everything as it was, "I think about Laundromats", she remembers all of these silly, trivial things which have now been taken away.

She also gives us a political point of view, "In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it", this shows again how she remembers how it used to be. Her viewpoints would probably be banned however and if caught saying that, she could well be executed.

As she is out shopping for groceries with Ofglen, they see a pregnant handmaid, "we covet her" she says "we too can be saved". To have a baby is something everyone wants as so many people are infertile and to a handmaid, it is their job. All they have to do is get pregnant and they are "saved". This is because the fertile women have to be used to produce many offspring in order to keep the human race alive. If they had a say in the matters, it would be likely that they wouldn't to become pregnant.

As they are still out in what we discover is a former university town, the capital of Gilead, they come across some Japanese tourists. This is quite unexpected and we do not know of the possibility of other races. This sudden clash of culture lets us know that there is still a place where things are as we would call them "˜normal'. Offred remembers again when she thinks "I used to dress like that. That was freedom.", now though they are not free. There are lots of strict rules governing their lives.

They are asked by one of the Japanese tourists "Are you happy?" , the response they give is "Yes, we are very happy." but she is thinking "what else can I say?", this shows she is obviously not happy where she is.

She gets her own room but explores it slowly. "I didn't want to do it all at once.". This room is all she has to look at and so she obviously wants to make it last. Whilst exploring the cupboard, she comes across the phrase "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" which has been scratches in with a fingernail. This shows that someone else has been in the same position as her.

She goes to the doctors then to check for her fertility. He makes the suggestion that some of the old men might be "˜sterile', a "forbidden word". He offers a way out. To get pregnant by him, she thinks of doing it the month after. This shows she is a desperate woman.

We find out that she once had a child. She is in the bath and she starts thinking about Luke and her baby girl. We are not told what happened to her and why they are now separated.

Atwood's dystopia is a universal one. Her vision of an awful world is not one that I would not like to experience. Hers could well be prophetic and that gives the book more reality.