How Successful Is The Handmaid’s Tale

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade November 2001

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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood like many other science fiction novels draws on many problems in today's society and elaborates on them, showing what could happen in the future if we do not recognise these problems. It is predominately a novel of prophecy and warning.

The novel portrays a grim future when the United States no longer exists. A highly organised group of right wing religious conservatives succeeds in setting off a revolution. They create a new society known as Gilead where women are stripped of all the freedoms that the feminist movement secured for them. The new Gilead society forces previously independent women to live by Old Testament values.

The novel is set in American in the not too distant future, Atwood describes events in the past which have actually happened such as the Women's liberation movement of the 1960's and 70's which makes the novel sound truthful and believable.

Although the events in the novel are far fetched nothing is so far fetched that it couldn't happen. Long and detailed descriptions of the past and how the new society began give credence to the novels credibility. Like Aldous Huxleys "˜Brave New World' of 1932 and George Orwell's "˜Nineteen Eighty-Four' the novel uses the idea of dystopian society.

The style of the novel, written as a fictive autobiography, lets the reader into the mind of the central character Offred. The reader only sees the new Gileadian society through the eyes of a Handmaid so although a certain degree of bias is obvious the reader feels that the narrator is being truthful. The character of Offred is in many ways very much similar to the central character in George Orwells nineteen eighty-four. The action of this novel like The Handmaid's Tale is built around the main person, Winston Smith, and therefore the understanding of his personality, and his character is important for the understanding of the whole book The novel is written in first person and the general style of the writing is quite informal with lots of bursts of emotion for example the section when Offred recites her own version of the Lords Prayer. The story is told with the use of flashbacks so the reader has to finish the whole novel to piece together the story. The use of flashbacks also gives the novel a more believable and less formal edge as we learn about the narrators past as well as her present circumstances.

A theme common in science fiction which is also evident in The Handmaid's Tale is one of trying to set up a utopian world which soon becomes apparent to be very much dystopian. Religion often plays a huge role in these new societies with people returning to past ideals. In the Handmaid's Tale the Old Testament is seen as a kind of rulebook on how life should be lived. These new and apparently "˜perfect' societies soon become dictatorships. In a Brave New World like "˜The Handmaid's Tale' there is no poverty or crime. Society is hierarchical with people knowing their place in the bigger scheme of things. It's only when people resist this that the true problems in these societies can be seen.

The theme of environmental disaster is used throughout the book and is a problem, which is very much a part of the world that we live in today. The shop loaves and Fishes only sells bread because "˜The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago' a problem that is apparent in the present day along with extinction "˜ Could they all be extinct like the whales?' This is an example of something that is happening in the present day, with the whales already very close to extinction. The use of current events is evident in almost all Science Fiction books and helps the readers familiarise themselves with "˜the future'. Growing concerns of fertility problems are already apparent in today's society which Atwood uses to make the novel "˜ The Handmaid's Tale' more realistic and gritty. Like many other science fiction authors Atwood exaggerates on events currently in the news and uses the "˜ what if..' analysis of today's society.

Science Fictions writers don't just draw on the present day for ideas they also use events from the past. The Colour coding of peoples clothes and the general methods of control in Gileadian society could be likened to Nazi Germany , Mao's China or even Stalin's Russia . The use of these events as things that could happen again in the future makes science fiction writing even more harrowing and frightening.

A common theme in science fiction is the idea that nothing can be done without those in control knowing about it. In George Orwell's Nineteen eighty-four the phrase "˜Big brother is watching you' was first introduced, this idea is very similar to the role of "˜The eyes' in The Handmaid's Tale "˜It occurs to me that she might be a spy , a plant ,set to trap me' In my opinion The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is a brilliant piece of science fiction writing. It contains many of the generic conventions of a good science fiction novel. Like both Nineteen eighty-four and A Brave New World it is a commentary on today's society and what might happen if people continue to act the way they do .It criticises censorship of any kind i.e. pornography and shows what can happen if democracy is lost.