Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as Dystopian Fiction

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Published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale emerged during an auspicious time for dystopian fiction, following works such as Adoux Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. These dystopian narratives provided readers with captivating examinations into bleak, futuristic societies while simultaneously encouraging them to draw comparisons between the fictional dystopian world, and the respective societies in which they lived. 

Although each of these titles undertake their own conception of dystopia, Atwood’s novel diverges from these earlier texts due to its feminist perspective, specifically making it a work of feminist dystopian fiction. It tells the story of Gilead, a totalitarian, fundamentalist America of the future where women have become property of the state due to low fertility rates. The novel is told through the perspective of Offred, one of the Handmaids of Gilead who must bear children to her designated Commander through state-sanctioned rape, presenting an extreme vision of the future where patriarchal rule has stripped women of their civil, political and economic liberty. 

While feminist dystopian works are products of a particular political time and space, it is arguable that the ambiguous features of critical feminist dystopias are at once reflections of the specific cultural milieu in which they were originally conceptualised, as well as meditations on societal constructions that come before and after the texts. In The Drip, Drip, Drip of Dystopia, Holly Willson Holladay contests that feminist dystopian narratives are at once affective and analytical: “these texts both necessitate critical engagement of women’s lives, and transcend temporal boundaries to engage with the anxiety, fear, and anger of marginalised groups as a felt permanent condition”. 

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With the increasing threat to women’s rights and welfare in a supposedly liberal society through institutionalised sexism, the erosion of reproductive rights and the ongoing issue of violence towards women, it is unsurprising that Atwood’s powerful novel has maintained its popularity. Although deemed far-fetched upon its initial release, this piece of speculative fiction continues to draw parallels to current events, enabling interrogation of our contemporary political environment through the lens of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead. This essay will examine the ways Atwood’s text has shifted from an implausible work of feminist dystopian fiction, to a cautionary tale detailing the ways in which women’s rights are under threat in our current reality.

To begin, we must first establish what constitutes a piece of dystopian fiction, and the ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale adheres its conventions – as well as the specificities of the feminist subgenre. Dystopia is an antonym of utopia: an imagined place in which everything is perfect. Unlike utopian literature, dystopian literature explores the dangerous effects of oppressive political and social structures on humanity’s future, with central themes of government control, loss of individualism and survival. In Dystopian Fiction East and West, Erika Gottlieb calls it a “post-Christian genre”, explaining that if the central drama of the age of faith was the conflict between salvation and damnation by deity, in our secular modern age this drama has been transposed to a conflict between humanity’s salvation or damnation by society. 

Damnation by society is a prominent foregrounding theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, but despite the secular nature of the genre, religion plays a central role in the totalitarianism of Gilead where Puritan fundamentalism has resurfaced. Infertility is viewed as God’s punishment on a secular society where women “dressed like sluts” and had sex for pleasure, avoiding any potential consequences with birth control and abortion. Divorced women are considered “adulterers”, with those who are fertile re-educated and indoctrinated into their “duty to God'' by bearing children for the government’s elite. Religion, in this genre, is the ideal system in which to present fears of an extreme society, given the fact that all readers, regardless of the time-period, are cognizant of religious extremism. 

Whether it be the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazi Germany or the modern Jihadist extremism of Islam, anxiety surrounding extremist groups is not uncommon – making the Puritan totalitarianism of Gilead – or any other religious or political party, conceivable. Given that speculative dystopian fiction envisions a bleak world of oppressive societal control, feminist dystopian fiction explores the same concepts but with an addition of gender hierarchy: the consequences of extreme patriarchal rule. An article by The New York Times identifies that the growing wave of female-centred dystopian fiction are works that raise uncomfortable yet imperative questions about pervasive gender inequality and misogyny. 

There is an identifiable preoccupation among writers with the tenuous status of women’s rights, the ambient fear that progress toward equality between the sexes has stalled or may even be reversed – this recent proliferation of feminist dystopia therefore uses the lens of science fiction to project current concerns onto the future, while also reflecting the past. Feminist speculative fiction is a marginal genre in itself, handling the same issues that concern feminist theorists but through dystopian visions of patriarchy. Given the fact that we currently live in a society where a man can say “you can do anything [to women] ...grab them by the pussy” and then go on to win a presidential election, and twenty-two men can sit in a room and pass a bill to make abortion illegal, the extreme patriarchy of Atwood’s Gilead does not seem so far-fetched anymore.   

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