Literature is often a reflection of the dominant fears and apprehensions of a society.

Discuss how Atwood offers a prediction for the future, if these fears are ignored with reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. The dominant fears and apprehensions of westernised society in the 1980s, particularly the rise of the New Right movement, religious fundamentalism, the anti-feminist backlash and the heightened awareness of environmental hazards and pollution are depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale through the creation of a repressive, fundamentalist theocracy called Gilead. Margaret Atwood’s extrapolation of American society in the 1980s results in a terrifyingly possible totalitarian state based entirely on Christian fundamentalism, in which women are used solely as tools of reproduction and the environment has been devastated by nuclear pollution. The dystopian text speculates on a possible future for America if such extremist views are supported and society’s fears are ignored. In the United States, the New Right Movement refers to a conservative political movement experienced mostly throughout Ronald Reagan’s presidential term. The movement is associated with a ‘return to traditional values’ in society resulting in men being equated with roles of power and women with domestic servitude. The extreme but logical consequences of such a political movement are depicted within Gilead, where men are named according to military rankings and women are used solely as tools of reproduction, shown through Offred’s description of herself as a ‘womb with legs’. Gilead’s strict adherence to traditional gender ideologies is closely linked to the basis of Gileadean society on Christian fundamentalism. The Republic of Gilead is neither a communist state nor a monarchy, as these would not be accepted by American society. Instead, it claims to be religious and bases its extreme practices such as the ‘Salvagings’ on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Gilead is an entirely Christian, theocratic state, with all other religious groups having been previously eradicated. Gileadean ideology is based around biblical polygamy, “And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.” Higher-ranking men within Gilead are given Handmaids in order to reproduce as fertility is valued and children are equated with wealth and power. The theocratic elements of Gileadean society are similar to that of the early American Puritans who escaped England due to the harsh and judgemental treatment that they received. The Puritans arrived in America in the 1630s and established godly societies based on church membership and worship that was purified from the corrupt Anglican Church. Church attendance was absolutely mandatory and

anybody who opposed the Puritan ideology was unwelcome in the community. Such extreme beliefs are mirrored by Gileadean society and the powerful theocracy openly persecutes ‘non-believers’, with the Wall acting as the main symbol of religious persecution in Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979. The revolution began with major demonstrations against the Shah and ended with the approval of a theocratic constitution in which Khomeini became the country’s Supreme Leader after a national referendum that declared Iran an official Islamic Republic. The ideology of Gilead shadows that of the Iranian revolution and obeying such a regime was considered as ‘an expression of obedience to God’. The prominent leaders of the revolution opposed both capitalism and communism, believing that the society should be founded solely on religious fundamentalism, a belief that is strongly adhered to in Gilead. Atwood’s speculation of women’s oppression if such extremist views are not dealt with is shown both in the fictional Gilead and in Iran. Within months of the founding of the Islamic Republic the oppression of women began to take place. Female government workers were forced to observe Islamic dress codes, women were no longer allowed to become judges, the legal marriage age was reduced to 13 and married women were barred from attending regular schools. Women in Gilead are also subjected to the same repression with strict dress codes, sex segregation and the barring of women from professional appointments. Atwood’s fear of such an extremist government regime is depicted through the dystopian society that she created however the text speculates a possible future that is terrifyingly similar to that of Afghanistan in the 1990’s. After the Taliban came into power during 1996, Afghanistan was subjected to totalitarian ruling and its policies were enforced by ‘religious police’. Nearly every aspect of life under the totalitarian regime was controlled, similar to that in Gilead. Freedom of expression was banned, as was education for women, pornography, gambling and many art forms. Crimes against the regime were made punishable by amputation of the hand, rape and public execution and both shaven men and women who wore their burqa incorrectly were often beaten. Handmaids in Gilead are objectified and dehumanised with Offred explaining that if “…your dog dies, get another.” The dehumanisation of women in Gilead is enhanced by the dress codes that are similar to the wearing of the burqa, which, like the Handmaid’s ‘uniform’ diminishes individual identity and encourages the notion of the ‘collective woman’, extremist ideology that Atwood is particularly critical of. Extremist feminism was experienced in western society throughout the 1980’s and Atwood was extremely critical of this, in particular the concept of a ‘collective woman’, which eliminated individuality

and personal identity. “Woman is just the sum total of women,” Atwood demonstrates her rejection of this notion by emphasising individual women as being able to resist Gileadean society. The Handmaid’s Tale speculates that as a result of the second wave of feminism and its backlash, feminists would be ‘empowering their worst enemies’ and an extreme patriarchy would be formed. This is clearly evident in The Handmaid’s Tale as males hold all positions of power with women being confined to lives of domestic servitude and reproduction. Between 1960 and 1980 countries such as American and the United Kingdom legalised abortion and commercialised the contraceptive Pill. Women were slowly beginning to gain more control over their lives, and although Atwood strongly believes in gender equality and that ‘women are human beings’, she feared that the backlash to such extreme feminism would result in the complete oppression of females. The Commander suggests that gender equality and the increasing influence of feminism was threatening the traditional idea of male dominance and patriarchy. “There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for… You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex…” Separatist feminists encouraged the burning of books and pornography and opened themselves up to criticism that they favoured censorship. As an extrapolation of these book burnings, women in Gilead have no access to language, bar the monthly Bible reading that takes place prior to The Ceremony. By taking away freedom of choice and speech, the women in Gilead have been deprived of basic human rights and dehumanised. Aunt Lydia explains to the women in the Red Centre that two types of freedom exist, ‘freedom to, and freedom from.’ ‘Freedom to’ exists in today’s democratic society in which individuals have control over their lives, with certain limitations in regard to laws. Gilead’s ‘freedom from’, contrasts this, and refers to a type of freedom experienced by both men and women in Gilead, when one no longer has to choose. Atwood’s construction of ‘freedom from’ depicts society’s fear of the denial of basic human rights, without which, today’s democratic societies would not function. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986 and therefore, focuses mainly on the environmental dangers of the 20th century, in which radical changes concerning environmental awareness were witnessed. In 1962, Rachel Carson prophesised devastation of our environment through the use of pesticides and continued pollution, and in 1971 Greenpeace was founded to protest against nuclear testing in Alaska. Atwood emphasises the likeliness that if humanity continues to recklessly destroy the planet, we may eventually end up in a world similar to the toxic dystopian society of Gilead. The ‘colonies’ are areas of both nuclear and agricultural pollution and are home to the useless ‘unwomen’ who are sent to work until death. The extreme fear of being sent to the colonies reflects the

context of the novel, and conveys society’s intense fear of nuclear technology that existed in the 1970s. Environmental pollution, and its consequences, were dominant fears of society in the 1980s. Male sterility, spontaneous miscarriages and birth defects were rapidly increasing as ‘… we are pouring 300,000 different chemicals into our water and drinking it.’ This is extrapolated in The Handmaid’s Tale so that very few males remain fertile and, due to the extreme patriarchal nature of Gilead, males cannot be deemed sterile as it is considered a defect. Fertile women in Gilead exist as Handmaids and are ‘prized objects for those in power’ due to their rarity. Atwood speculates that neglect of the environment could result in the use of fertile women as tools of reproduction in order to satisfy the requirements of those in power and to stabilise the devastated birth rates. The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative dystopia by Margaret Atwood reflects the dominant fears and apprehensions of society in the 1980s and a possible future if these fears are ignored. Conflicts that existed in society in the 1980s such as the second wave of feminism, the New Right Movement and religious fundamentalism have been drawn to their furthest logical conclusions to create the theocratic, fundamentalist republic of Gilead where freedom of choice, speech and religion are non-existent and the foundations for our democratic western society have been completely removed.

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