Handmaid's Tale


In the course Y2k and The End of The World, we've studied apocalyptic themes, eschatology, and for some, teleology. Apocalypse, which is to unveil or reveal, eschatology, which is a concept of the end, and teleology, the end or purpose to which we are drawn, are all themes used in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The book is apocalyptic in that it revolves around dystopian ideals. Atwood creates a world in which worst-case scenarios take control and optimistic viewpoints and positive attitudes disappear. It has been said about this book that Atwood's writing echoes numerous motifs and literary devices, such as in Huxley's creation of a drug-calmed society, her characters awaiting execution seem tranquilized by pills or shots.
Atwood's Book has also been compared to other novels like it, such as Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and the most obvious, Orwell's 1984. These books have many things in common, including the perversion of science and technology as a major determinant of society's function and control. Like most dystopian novels, The Handmaid's Tale includes the oppression of society, mainly women in this example, the prevention of advancement of thought and intelligence, and an overwhelming sense of government involvement and interference.
The Apocalyptic themes and situations found in Atwood's fictional city of Gilead focus around the mistreatment of all females. Women in this city, set 200 years in the future, have no rights, and get little respect. The rule by way of theocracy in Gilead also adds to the sense of regression and hopelessness in the future. The way babies are brought into the world, only through pregnant handmaids, the idea of a black market for things considered luxuries and privileges all add to the fact that society in this novel is in a desperate state of disrepair.
Other Apocalyptic themes found in the book can be compared to sections of the bible, particularly the Old Testament. The Handmaid's Tale has many elements of social decline written into its plot. From the way women are mistreated to the way corruption and evil have infiltrated the government and army, to the way the black market plays a key role in many people's lives causing a majority of society to become criminals makes it clear how social decline plays a key role in the book. There is also a strong sense of moral decline in the book. If a person, regardless of sex, doesn't fit into the tight pattern of role expectation, he or she is eliminated, exiled from Gilead, and left for dead. Also, God plays virtually no part in this soulless, sterile theocracy. The Commander locks away the family bible and the only other worship takes place through a computerized prayer service which people order through the phone. The society of Gilead also attempts to weed out all non-whites, even though it is ultimately unsuccessful, while at the same time, it successfully prevents women from gaining any individual identity.
As you can see, many apocalyptic themes are present in the novel. Planned pregnancy of surrogate mothers, an oppressive government, and an absence of God all contribute to the themes inherent in the story. Although some have called the novel a warning about the future, others claim it is a forecast, the fact still remains that characters in the book have less respect for the officials in society, less respect for the religions that now run the government, and less respect for themselves making the future into a terrible, terrible place.
The Handmaid's Tale is set in the futuristic Republic of Gilead. Sometime in the future, conservative Christians take control of the United States and establish a dictatorship. Most women in Gilead are infertile after repeated exposure to pesticides, nuclear waste, or leakage from chemical weapons. The few fertile women are taken to camps and trained to be handmaidens, birth mothers for the upper class. Infertile lower-class women are sent either to clean up toxic waste or to become "Marthas", which are house servants. No women in the Republic are permitted to be openly sexual; sex is for reproduction only. The government declares this a feminist improvement on the sexual politics of today when women are seen as sex objects.
The novel focuses on one handmaid, Offred (she is given the name of the man whose children she is expected to