Handmaid’s Tale Essay, Research Paper
When Sir Thomas Moore first used the term “utopia” to describe an imaginary island, little did he know it would turn into a literary genre. The term comes from two Greek terms, eu-topos, meaning “the good place” and uo-topos, meaning “no place.” In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood wishes to give a portrayal of a future dystopia, ridiculing the utopian customs. Wishing to turn the utopian dream into a nightmare, authors with Atwood’s similar ideas, have focused on the negative aspects in longing for perfection. Based on satire and parody on the utopian traditions, this anti-utopia movement has given rise to an entire genre of literature. Dystopian literature has many similarities, as do other genres. This novel, as others of an equal genre, can be viewed as dystopic novels when realizing how they are cautionary tales, or tales that try to warn of the effects that may arise from an association to the norms present in a common society. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the religious fundamentalists have imposed a government where social control is attained by discrimination and oppression on women. Oppressive beliefs such as those that currently act as a foundation to the Gilead society were present before the beginning of this fascist society. Atwood wishes to warn to her readers how present beliefs can be transformed into oppressive ideals. Another central concern of these authors focusing their writings in the genre of dystopia, is the events that are currently taking place in their lifetimes. More than fearing futuristic occurrences, they choose to worry of affairs occurring in their own lifetimes and their writings voice this opinion. “The climatic achievement in a lifetime of political writing, and the form chosen may be seen as one way of putting into literary perspective the urgent conditions of each with the conditions of his own time” (Mezciems 190). One who judges that a novel of dystopic genre is one that wishes to predict the future, is mistaken. In this genre, one may be able to trace the “predictions” of the work to the fears the author has of the present society and what its effects it may bring on to a futuristic society.Authors of dystopian literature often seem to believe that technology is taking a considerable dominant role in society. They lament this and fear what it has already caused in society and what it can cause in a matter of time. They are anxious to find out how society is going to respond when technology replaces human nature and values. Keith Hull, a critic questioned for a survey on dystopic and science fiction traditions, wishes to respond, “Where, along the genetic and evolutionary continua, does humanity begin to exist? This is not just a scientific question. Artificial intelligence research, genetic engineering, life-prolonging machines, and the self-styled scientific creationism movement all present immediate practical challenges to our conception of what a human being is” (66). Authors of similar novels, such as Orwell’s 1984, wish to discuss that there is a threat of dehumanization lurking in technological development as there is a threat to the “total control of society by a power elite using technology to impose a frightening artificial order” (Khouri 139). As is the case for utopian authors, dystopian authors are reprimanded for their use of two-dimensional, lifeless, and unrealistic characters. Characters in these books are trapped in a society, both physically and spiritually, a development of personality of these charters may be damaging as argues Irving Howe when writing, “These books try to present a world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a sign of subversion. The major figures of such books are necessarily grotesques” (308). He then goes on to discuss how in such novels personality has become obsolete and personality a crime, rebuking critics comments on dystopian literature having “flat” characterizations. In order for the character to have his/her most lamented characteristics and reactions to society stand out, he/she must obtain isolation, a common similarity in utopian and dystopian fiction. The use of two-dimensional figures also aids the author to show what society truly is becoming. They wish for their readers to concentrate on the hopelessness of a society, instead of searching for a hero-like quality in a character that will console the readers and give them hope that everything may be all right.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, traditions of a dystopic genre are present. The Republic of Gilead is isolated from the rest of the world as are its inhabitants who are imprisoned. It is also trapped in time as it tries to clone a past era in the present. The Old Testament seems to be the law and a base for all social customs as The Republic of Gilead’s dictators want to take the United States back in to the “Golden Age.” As typical to utopia and dystopic literature, the character by whom the readers are learning of the present society, is one who is an actual member of society, one who has not chosen to be there and in fact, wishes to get out of it. This character has been taught the goals and philosophies of the society, as the case of Offred when she reads “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” etched on the floor and when she speaks to others who have spoken to others, allowing for a connection with past handmaids leaders and such leaders, giving her a sense of knowledge of the past. Margaret Atwood has chosen the literary genre of dystopia by some part due to her Puritan background. Knowing what the Puritans were capable of back in the times of witchcraft and witch trials, one is aware of the dangers present in a theocratic society. As did the leaders of the Gilead Republic, the Puritans wanted to create a “Golden Age” to reenact to one in the past where God was the center of society, forcing indistinguishable religious systematic views amongst the follower, or those forced to follow these dogmatic beliefs. Margaret Atwood is a serious admirer of Robert Graves Jonathan Swift, and George Orwell. Orwell and Atwood’s dystopic worlds are very alike in that both want to warn humanity of the present more than the future. Atwood wished to mix reality with an imaginary world to warn those stuck in reality. Atwood seems to branch off when a focus on the problem with the present is set. It seems that Atwood wished to address the issues of sexism, classism, racism, ageism and discrimination far more than those of technology and its dominant role. Atwood desired to forewarn and alert humankind of the power these oppressive thoughts may have in a given amount of time. Through the life of Offred, Atwood attains this warning.