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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 bear–she is of Fred). Offred became a handmaid after an attempt to escape with her daughter and husband from Gilead. They fail; her husband is killed and her daughter given away to a needy woman in the upper circles. Offred is in the service of the General and his wife, Serena Joy. Serena Joy hates that she is unable to bear children and hates Offred for taking her husband seed. If Offred does not become pregnant promptly, Serena Joy will undoubtedly take revenge by sending her away, possibly to the toxic colonies.


Offred does not become pregnant, but she does develop an unexpected relationship with the General. He plays games of Scrabble with her (all forms of writing are officially denied handmaids) and gives her gifts of cosmetics and old fashion magazines. One night he dresses her in a cocktail dress and takes her to an illegal nightclub where Offred runs into an old female friend, now a prostitute in the club.


Serena Joy, desperate for children, finally arranges for Offred to sleep with the chauffeur. The two are happy together; she thinks she is pregnant soon after, Serena Joy finds the cocktail dress the General gave to Offred. She knows her husband is to blame, but accuses Offred anyway and sends for the police to take her away to certain death. When the van arrives to take her away, however, it is driven by rebels who carry Offred to safety.


The creation of Offred, the passive narrator of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was intentional. The personality of the narrator in this novel is almost as important as the task bestowed upon her. Atwood chooses an average women, appreciative of past times, who lacks imagination and fervor, to contrast the typical feminist, represented in this novel by her mother and her best friend, Moira. Atwood is writing for a specific audience, though through careful examination, it can be determined that the intended audience is actually the mass population.
Although particular groups may find The Handmaid’s Tale more enjoyable than others, the purpose of the novel is to enlighten the general population, as opposed to being a source of entertainment. A specific group that may favor this novel is the women activists of the 1960’s and 1970’s. This group, in which Offred’s mother would be a member, is sensitive to the censorship that women once faced and would show interest to the “possible future” that could result.
Offred is symbolic of “every woman”. She was conventional in prior times, married with one daughter, a husband and a career. She is ambivalent to many things that may seem horrific to the reader. On page 93, Offred is witness to Janine’s confession of being raped. She doesn’t comment on how the blame is placed on Janine. Is this because Offred has begun to accept the words of Aunt Lydia, or more likely, is she silent to create emphasis on the horrific deed? The answer is easily satisfied when the reader finishes the novel. Offred must realize the injustices if she feels compelled to reveal her story on the tapes. She must grasp the importance of conveying the atrocities that were executed during the Gileadian area. Offred is representative of an average women also because she has experienced no great traumas. She isn’t just ambivalent because of her tendencies but because she has been abruptly interjected into a new society. She is stunned and almost numb. She barely shows signs of life. She doesn’t think there is any use to have a sense of hope. She thinks of the woman in “her” room before her. Her strong sense of life did nothing to help her earn her freedom. She received nothing from her quiet rebellions.
Offred is also obviously the perfect narrator because she is a handmaiden. In this new system, almost a caste system, the role of being a handmaiden is not only of great importance, but is also considerably better than other positions, such as an “unwoman”, who cleans toxic waste in the Colonies. Because Offred is characterized as passive, and mostly compliant, she is not as much in danger as other characters. Moira, her friend from college and the previous life, is dynamic and full of life. She doesn’t want to be held back, and her resistance causes her both trouble and distress. Janine, another character, is a “brown-noser” who uses flattery and praise to achieve a virtually impossible level of hierarchy with the Aunts among her peers. She has to sacrifice self-worth, though, and her admittance of fault in being raped is disgusting.


The tense that Atwood uses is relative to the narrator also. The shifts from present to past are frequent. When an author causes the narrator to use past tense, the reader can generally conclude that the narrator knows the end of the story. This builds a sense of suspense. Using present tense allows images in the story to be more solid and realistic, compared to past life. Not all shifts in tense are used for the same reason. When Offred is “speaking” of Luke, she can’t decide if she is in love with him, or if she was in love with him. Offred gradually reveals the story, which we are to eventually discover is on tape.


Atwood elects to use leisurely disclosure in order to make the conclusion of the story more believable. The “Historical Notes” chapter causes the reader to re-examine the book, both mentally and manually. As the reader recalls the jumble of thoughts, the bouncing back and forth between the present and the past, and the narrator’s decisions to withhold certain details, they understand the possibility, though unlikely, that this could actually happen. Contrasts are important aspects in the narration of this novel. The obvious contrasts are between other characters, such as between Offred and Moira. There also are the images of past life that Offred creates. These contrast to the new institution of Gilead. Examples of the contrast are the women’s rights rallies. Offred would attend with her mother and also Offred’s smoking habit. Offred’s memories are characterized with a sense of longing and contrast with Offred’s calm tone throughout the story. Atwood chose Offred also because of the slight transformation of Offred. Her perception of self and her sexuality has changed considerably. Offred had once had an affair with Luke before their marriage. This can be compared to the meetings that the Commander and Offred have, yet there is obvious discrepancy. When Offred used to meet Luke, there was one sole reason – love. Offred meets with the Commander for the things that represent freedom to her; fashion magazines, silk stockings and lotion. The Commander is simply emphasizing his sense of power.


Offred achieves Margaret Atwood’s purpose in The Handmaid’s Tale. She shows the possibility of a society, due to radical feminism and conservative positions, where women are repressed. This is both a combination of past times and past movements, with a blending of suppression and the dangers of a patriarchal society. The negativity of such a society is clearly evident, and through the scholarly dictation in the “Historical Notes”, the reader can comprehend the possibility of a society.
Offred narrates in the expected manner with passiveness and deliberate indifference. It is clear that the narrator of the story, the eyes through which the reader looks into the future-and the past, the voice which explains the story to us, the mind and conscience we must identify with, is Margaret Atwood’s intended hero in the story. As a result of the apocalyptic themes throughout the story, a hero must be in place to embrace the end, whether it be a positive or negative one. Offred fills this position with great expertise. She suffered through the oppression, through the trying times, and she was in a situation which provided a window into the government repression, and, the ways around it.


The novel, in my opinion, was interesting, yet a little hard to follow. The way the narrator randomly skipped from present to past and back to present made the story line seem drawn out when in reality, it was not. I did enjoy the plot, however, probably not as much as a devout feminist would have. The book was obviously targeted towards women, myself not being one, so I didn’t quite get the entire gist of the book. I did think it was well written, however, and I enjoyed the parallels it shared with Orwell’s 1984. The many different aspects of the novel, the many different angles that it takes for purposes of explanation and clarification make it difficult to categorize. Some categorize the book as science fiction, others label it thriller fiction, while others still dismiss it as feminist literature.
The book has been broken into determinants, which are important to the success of the story. These include existential apologia, oral history, speculative fiction, confession, and dystopia. Existential apologia is a defense and celebration of the desperate coping mechanisms by which endangered women survive, outwit, and undermine devaluation, coercion, enslavement, torture, potential death sentences, and outright gynocide. Like Zhukov in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Offred clings to sanity through the enjoyment of simple pleasures: smoothing lotion on her dry skin and smoking a cigarette with Moira and her lesbian sisterhood in the washroom at Jezebel’s; remembering better times with her mother, husband, and daughter, even the veiled sniping between Luke and his mother in law; recollecting the pleasant frivolities and diversions that women once enjoyed – for example, eye makeup, fashions, and jewelry, and women’s magazines; and allowing herself moderate hope for some alleviation of present misery, although Offred never gives way to fantasy of rescue, reunion with her family, and return to her old life.
Oral history, the second determinant, is a frequent vehicle of oppressed people who, by nature of their disenfranchisement through loss of personal freedoms, turn to the personal narrative as a means of preserving meaningful experience, and to recitation of eyewitness accounts of historical events in an effort to clarify gaps, myths, errors, and misconceptions. Similar to Jane, the participant in the Louisiana civil rights movement and title character in Ernest Gaines’ fictional Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and to Jack Crabb, the bi-national spokesman and picaresque participant at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Offred offers an inside view of the effects of political change on ordinary citizens – that is, powerless, who are most likely to suffer from a swift, decisively murderous revolution. As a desperate refugee on the “Underground Frailroad,” her harrowing flight contrasts the knowing titters of the International Historical Association studying Gilead from the safety of women’s rights and academic freedom two centuries in the future.
Speculative fiction, the third determinant, is a form of jeremiad – an intentionally unsettling blend of surmise and warning based on current political, social, economic, and religious trends. As a modern day Cassandra, Offred seems emotionally and spiritually compelled to tell her story, if only to relieve the ennui of her once nun-like existence and to touch base with reality. Her bleak fictional narrative connects real events of the 1980s with possible ramifications for a society headed too far into conservatism and a mutated form of World War II fascism. By frequent references and allusions to Hitler’s Third Reich and its “final solution” for Jews, Atwood reminds the reader that outrageous grabs for power and rampant megalomania have happened before, complete with tattoos on the limbs of victims, systemized selection and annihilation, virulent regimentation, and engineered reproduction to produce a prevailing Caucasian race.
Confession, the fourth determinant, is an autobiographical revelation of private life or philosophy intended as a psychological release from guilt and blame through introspection and rationalization. Like the weeping survivors of the doomed boy-kingdom in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield rehashing his failures and foibles from a private California psychiatric hospital in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Offred frequently castigates herself for trying to maintain her humanity and fidelity to cherished morals and beliefs in a milieu that crushes dissent. In frequent night scenes, during which Offred gazes through shatterproof glass into the night sky in an effort to shore up her flagging soul, her debates with herself reflect the thin edge that separates endurance from crazed panic. By the end of her tale, she has undergone so much treachery and loss of belief and trust that the likelihood of total mental, spiritual, and familial reclamation is slim. The most she can hope for is physical escape from the terrors of Gilead and the healing inherent in telling her story to future generations.


Dystopia, the fifth and final determinant in the success of The Handmaid’s Tale is an imaginary world gone sour through idealism that fails to correspond to the expectations, principles, and behaviors of real people. In the face of rampant sexual license, gang rape, pornography, venereal disease, abortion protest, and the undermining of traditional values, the fundamentalists who set up Gilead fully expect to improve human life. However, as the Commander admits, some people are fated to fall short of the template within which the new society is shaped, the ethical yardstick by which behavior is measured. His chauvinistic comment is significant in its designation of “some people.” These “some people” are nearly all female, homosexual, underground, and non-fundamentalist victims – a considerable portion of the U.S. population.

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