Throughout our recent election process, I kept thinking about how a Romney presidency would begin to remind me of The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. It reminded me that I wrote a paper on this book years ago in college. I don’t seem to have it compiled in any of my published anthologies, so i thought i would post it here. It’s a timely piece of literature still, which does not speak well of our republic. The Tea-Party is just the sort of organization to bring this dystopian theocracy to fruition. Hopefully those things are back on the road to change, now that we have 4 more years with Obama.
The Handmaid’s Tale
An American Dream Gone Awry
Kelli Jae Baeli
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a haunting portrayal of the American Dream gone awry. In the pages of this ominous novel, one finds echoes of a past not unlike our present, and a future twisted by the repercussions of religious zeal and environmental devastation. Many of the horrors reflected by the handmaid who narrates represent the agenda of issues touted by feminists: sexism, pollution, Christian-Fundamentalism’s dangerous inclinations, and racism.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling look at a futuristic society wherein the government rules through oppression, deprivation, and threat of execution. Atwood’s vision is at once frightening and credible, illustrating a scenario that demands attention and consideration from all–whether they believe in the power of the American Dream, or not.
The Handmaid’s Tale uses the Republic of Gilead as its setting, and the themes of the American Dream are played out upon this stage; the players easily represent the crude underbelly of current-day society and its victims. Christian- Fundamentalists, after a coop which results in the machine-gun execution of Congress and the President, usurp the freedoms which Americans once enjoyed. Reading has been outlawed; personal property is now a thing of the past; all liberties are taken from the citizens of Gilead, so that it is reduced to a tyrannical theocracy. This is Atwood’s fictional rendition of the New World.
The Christian-Fundamentalist government in The Handmaid’s Tale has taken as its basic tenets the teachings of the Old Testament and interprets all scripture in a literal sense. This includes the procreation process as depicted in the book of Genesis wherein Rachel offers Jacob her maid, Bilhah, as a surrogate when Rachel
is unable to conceive. In Atwood’s Gilead, this surrogate motherhood is a must; a ghastly combination of pollution and environmental apathy has left many women sterile. With the extinction of the human race so threatened, the conception of
children is assigned to the those women with “viable ovaries.” A monthly ceremony is acted out by each Commander, his barren wife, and the fertile handmaid. Restricted to clinical, procreative purposes only, the Commander inseminates the handmaid assigned to him while the Wife holds the handmaid between her legs in a ritualistic manner.
The Old Testament’s influence is further reflected in the names of shops which deal in goods and produce. The handmaid is sent with a token card representing the items her household wishes to obtain (all paper money has been banned), and she makes her purchases from shops such as “All Flesh,” “Loaves and Fishes,” “Lilies of the Field,” and “Daily Bread.” On her trip to the marketplace, she walks with another handmaid, each of them exchanging puritan-like greetings: “Blessed be the fruit” and “May the Lord open.” Every detail in the Republic of Gilead is arranged as a continual reminder of the religious dogma upon which their very existence depends.
Although Gilead is patriarchal in structure, women are at the center of its operation. The women of Gilead are merely a sad facsimile of the future-woman that today’s feminists wish for. The axiom, “Be careful what you wish for–you just might get it” seems to apply here. In Gilead, women are respected only for their role in the Republic, and considering the strong role females play, it is not surprising that the crime of rape is punished by placing the offender amid a crowd of handmaids, who proceed to beat, kick, scratch, and bludgeon him to death. This ritual
serves as a deterrent to those who would disrupt the valuable procreative process and also recruits in the handmaids a sacredness toward their reproductive duties; this component perpetuates the masterplan of the government.
Within the general understanding of the American Dream, there is also a respect for reason, and though the crime of rape is no less reprehensible than in the Gileadean era, the perpetrator is at least entitled to due process, and vengeance is considered contrary to the true nature of justice. Likewise, reason is ignored by the Republic in its view of friendship as another threat to the government; the distortion of reason is also represented by the perception that freedom of the individual to act out that individuality is strictly insidious.
Progress is achieved in Gilead through a stringent, imperious process of cultural distinction. Classes and races of people are judged and punished according to literal Biblical teachings, as well: The “Children of Ham” are relocated, Jews are sent back to Israel, and undesireables, et al (Catholics, homosexuals, Quakers, abortionists, etc.) are sent to “the Colonies.” Handmaids who fail to perform satisfactorily are also doomed to the Colonies wherein the inmates dispose of deadly pollutants and subsequently die slowly of chemical poisoning.
Depending on the severity of the crime, undesirables can also look forward to public execution, their bodies hung on hooks along the wall around the city in a macabre display of power.
The “work-ethic” ingredient of the American Dream is overturned in The Handmaid’s Tale. Duties and positions in the society are assigned according to each person’s usefulness to the general philosophy of Gilead. Fertile women become handmaids; affluent women become Wives; older, able-bodied women become Marthas (domestic servants), and some become Aunts– sort of the Drill Sergeants in charge of other women. Men are either Commanders or servants or valuable professionals. Accordingly, the element of marriage and family in the American Dream is regressed to a pre-Christ patriarchy that avoids all semblance of individual freedom. Thus, the family unit, which is a staple of the American Dream, is warped into some cruel mockery of the freedoms once enjoyed by American citizens.
There are, as one might expect, rebel factions at work in the underground of this hellish kingdom who hold dear the Old World in The Handmaid’s Tale. These Old World values are familiar and alarming to the reader because it is the world in which the reader lives; Atwood incarnates this New World by momentarily suspending the reader’s disbelief, and this tale suddenly becomes plausible. Gilead is entangled with the infamous Armageddon outside the walls of the city, and the struggle for restoration of the Old World continues despite the government’s attempts to conquer it. Perhaps this illustrates the spirit of the American Dream–patriotism. These rebel forces operate with the knowledge that if one of its members is caught, he or she will most assuredly pay the price with his or her own life. Yet, life to them is meaningless unless they have some say in how they live it, and thus, the mentality of New World versus Old World is brought boldly to life.
If the American Dream is a vision of utopia, then The Handmaid’s Tale is most certainly a dystopia, as it contains a plethora of details regarding the oppressive existence of an imprisoned people, once free. Atwood paints an ugly portrait of a future society starved for a new Eden, with its land of plenty. The “plenty” offered in the Republic of Gilead, however, is plenty of oppression.
In The Handmaid’s Tale the pursuit of the American Dream is counter- productive. Gilead is the result of fanatics who sought to create the perfect society, yet manage to create a living hell. They are blinded by the pursuit of the dream itself and have, in the process, lost large segments of their own humanity. Unfortunately, Americans have become entrenched in the liberties that freedom gives them, and thus, many freedoms are taken for granted. This considered, it is easy to see how the American Dream may seem a myth to some in today’s society. But if all the basic ingredients afforded within that myth were taken away, it might be seen through contrast that the myth is perhaps an exaggeration of an underlying truth.