The Handmaid's Tale Essays

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Essay About The Handmaid’s Tale
In A Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood creates a ‘Ustopia’, otherwise known as the Republic of Gilead. In Gilead, the citizens are ruled over by a totalitarian government that subjects its women to oppression as it enforces laws that limit their freedom and prohibit any form of pleasure; all of which is justified by the ‘word’. Atwood coined the term in order to define the phenomenon that occurs as she creates a utopian and dystopian society interwoven with attributes of both genres. Both versions of the society serve as fundamental attributes which demonstrate the oppressive nature of a society led by a totalitarian government. Each contrasting piece serves as a juxtaposition of the Puritan lifestyle led by Gilead’s civilians and the oppression that women are subjected to. Ultimately, Atwood creates this Utopia, by including oppression and the resistance that is a direct response by the narrator, Offred. By doing so, she gains autonomy but inevitably causing the reader to question the reliability of her narration.
Utopia in Atwood’s novel serves as a lens to see the liberating and ‘simpler’ nature of the past. However, there are also pieces of utopia in the dystopian future. The fundamental Puritan lifestyle ingrained in The Republic of Gilead is a representation of the ‘perfect society, which is also a part of the utopian world present in the novel. In the novel, Puritanism is synonymous to self-discipline and fundamentalism. The daily lives of Gilead’s citizens are somewhat determined and frequently interfered by authoritative figures. For example, the bible is regularly enforced in day-to-day lives, the environment is safer for women, and the simple yet daunting fact that reproduction occurs more frequently due to the changes made. This change in reproduction is an “improvement” from the previous world’s, now women are “protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement,”(Atwood 219). The dystopian attributes of Atwood’s novel are more explicit and easily identifiable. Dystopia is typically a consequence of the utopian ideas enforced by authority, as evident in A Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead’s desire to emulate that of a perfect society is the reason for the government’s decision to implement unrealistic and restricting laws. The citizens of Gilead, mostly the handmaid’s suffer the backlash. When identifying the dystopian elements, it is important to note that the protagonist of the novel typically observes and critiques their society. which is exactly Offred’s response to Gilead. It is important to note the ways in which the reader gains insight on the fundamental aspects of Gilead, this is mostly, if not all, through Offred’s account.
In the novel, the government’s attempt to make Gilead a utopia, inevitably makes it a dystopia. The utopian attributes are the ideals and standards of men, but the reader is exposed to the consequences of such ideals when they are enforced in a society. These consequences serve as the backbone of the dystopian world in Atwood’s novel. In Gilead, Puritanism serves as the foundation of its laws and enforced patriarchal lifestyle. However, the effects ensued by this ‘perfect society’ to fulfill its Puritan values is easily recognizable. In her critical essay titled The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: examining its dystopian, utopian, feminist, and postmodernist traditions, Iowa State University’s professor Michelle Gulick makes note of this as she states, “any society that strives for perfection is doomed to fail” (Gulick 14). The author of this source argues that while utopia is intended to be a perfect society it ceases to evolve as this fundamental characteristic of perfection as it is riddled with unrealistic expectations making it inevitable for it to fail. In Atwood’s novel, Puritanism is not taken seriously or practiced to a serious extent. The bible is used to construct Gilead’s laws, but the interpretation of it is rigid. Gilead is regitifying and misappropriating the language of the bible. Religion is used as a vehicle for the men in this patriarchy to justify and commit their irrational acts. For example, the bible is used to glorify marriage, absolve men of adultery for the purposes of child-bearing, and for the justification of executing civilians based on their sinful actions/disobeying of Gilead’s laws. They are simply hungry for power and thus appropriate religion and its utopic value in order to manipulate others into believing and ultimately behaving in ways that grant them that power. Atwood’s point seems to be that the elite of Gilead are not truly motivated by the scripture, they just use it to secure power. This is evident when The Commander claims to live by the laws of Gilead and by the bible, but really just utilizes the bible in order to justify his promiscuous/polygamous acts with his handmaid. While Offred is still objectified and ridiculed.
Due to her flawed interpretation/account of Gilead, the reader is unsure if Offred is a reliable narrator. Essentially, Offred uses her narration and memory as a form of liberation. Offred states “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather no shadow unless there is also light”(Atwood 105). Offred’s resistance to Gilead’s perfection, “the light”, includes her reconstructions and elimination of certain information, all of which cause a flawed narration. Both are the ways in which Offred can be her own individual, and both are exclusively under her jurisdiction, as opposed to any of the other aspects in her life that are controlled by her government. And thus, by having this choice, Offred is able to withhold certain information when telling her account of Gilead. By doing so, Offred gains autonomy.
However, the reader can be skeptical of her account, or at least question if she is telling the entire truth. Offred explicitly states, “If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off” (Atwood 39). Offred frequently thinks of what could have happened, (the possibility of a better outcome), in the hope of constructing a better past. This provides her with the hope that things were and will get better, but she realizes that that is far from the truth and corrects herself, as shown when she states,“I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened” (Atwood 261). The reader sees Offred’s personal development through her narration. Offred’s narrating skills develop as the plot develops. As Offred’s character endures more pain and attempts to tolerate the challenges inflicted by this oppressive society, she seeks inner-council and sanity. She finds console through the liberating act of “storytelling”.
In his academic essay titled The Necessity of Telling Her Story, Donal Hu Gaynor discusses the unreliability of Offred’s narration and her flaws as an overall character. He discusses how the fallibility of Offred mostly derives from her ability to be incorrect. Gaynor states that, “The question of Offred’s veracity in telling her tale comes into focus when she starts presenting alternative versions… By making it clear that she is telling the reader about her hopes and fears she is not trying to deceive us, but she is making it clear that the events she is describing are not necessarily true. Offred’s account of these events is inherently unreliable,”(Gaynor 11). As I stated previously, Offred’s choice in narration and what she narration is inherently the reason why her account is unreliable. The emotional veracity of what she is saying is however increased. She is allowing the reader access to her hopes and fears. As Offred is a first-person narrator understanding her motivations and feelings is essential to understanding her telling of the story. Gaining access to her innermost feelings makes her version of events more emotionally honest giving veracity to her account.
In her dissertation, Gulick states that “In The Handmaid’s Tale, mirrors are used into two main ways, these also demonstrating the stages of the protagonist’s psychological development. The first way, found primarily in the first half of the novel, is to distort or prohibit Offred’ s discovery of herself. The second way mirrors are used, primarily in the second half of the novel, is to illuminate, reflect, and enlighten Offred, and thus, aid her in her journey toward self discovery,” (Gulick 75). Contrastingly, author Mary McCarthy argues that Atwood’s novel is “a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.” She also believes that the narrator lacks a personality which is essential in dystopian novels. This secondary source is a book review that assesses the content of Atwood’s novel and its significance. Overall the author of this article was pleased with Atwood’s work but questioned her contrasting take on the genre of speculative fiction. However, I believe that McCarthy fails to establish Atwood’s “Ustopian” ideas present in her novel and how that makes her novel unique to others that are published in the genre of speculative science fiction. I believe that Atwood’s dystopia does not lack a personality, and although it is not similar to those published in novels of a similar genre, she does this for quite a few reasons. One reason is to emulate a society similar to reality and to demonstrate the closeness in proximity. Margaret Atwood attempts to reveal how closely related are two worlds are, our reality and the world present in her novel. She writes a timely novel that showcases the possibility of a oppressive and dangerous inevitable future that awaits our society. She does this by incorporating familiar aspects of our society, like the game Scrabble, football stadiums, fake news, etc. Another reason Atwood chose to write a dystopia that may not be depicted as very futuristic or fictional was that, as she states in her interview with The Guardian titled, The Road to Ustopia, “There is nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale that didn’t happen somewhere,”(The Guardian Atwood). McCarthy fails to understand that Atwood’s novel is not completely a dystopia and that also Offred is not solely a pawn to highlight the dystopian feature of Gilead. As stated previously in Gulick’s dissertation, I believe that Offred does not lack character, and in fact her personality develops over the course of the novel.
Offred’s self-discovery is a rediscovery of the person that she previously was before the creation of Gilead. She reminds herself to remain sane and “to not forget”, for her knowledge and memory of the past are the only individualistic aspects that she can hold onto. Offred’s faulty or inaccurate account is also a response to the Utopia that Gilead attempts to build. She uses her own inadequate language when telling her account and she is critical of the fundamentalism in place. Her own language, including the “blank spaces,” which is symbolic of the language left for and used by the handmaids because although they have another language to interpret for themselves, such as the Latin phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” it is still not theirs even if they build off of it. Thus, nothing is truly theirs therefore Offred relies solely on her ability to construct a story, her story.  

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