Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) (novel)

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – Novel Meaning

The feminist author Margaret Atwood, when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was concerned about the rise of the Christian religious Right in the United States and the so-called ‘backlash’ against feminism that, in part, sought a return to ‘traditional values’ or was disinterested in pushing forward the feminist agenda after the normalisation of its enormous successes in the 1970s.  She saw these trends in alarming and threatening terms as representing a horrific potential shift towards right-wing totalitarianism.  To Atwood, the Christian religious Right should be feared rather than merely laughed at.  Conversely, Atwood also wanted her readers to value or revere the contributions of feminists and other progressive politically-correct political activists rather than take them for granted or focus on finding fault in them.  Atwood believes that younger women owe the older veteran feminist activists a great deal of gratitude and respect, and they should join in with them to continue the progressive political struggle. 

Atwood experienced and supported the radical politics of the 1960s that featured the rise of the New Left and hippy counter-culture (what could currently be called the politically-correct Left or identity politics) in that decade and beyond, but worried that what she saw as great gains could not be taken for granted.  She feared that a right-wing counter-movement, which could rapidly rise up and then quickly sweep aside the political gains that she valued so dearly, could establish in the place of these gains a brutally oppressive regime. Her dystopian novel about the grim life of a woman in an anti-feminist totalitarian puritan religious regime represents her warning to her readers about the threats posed by right-wing politics. 

As a feminist who is also an environmentalist, who was writing during the climactic phase of the Cold War, Atwood imagined a scenario where the pollution from industry, from chemical weapons, and the use of nuclear power and weapons has made large areas uninhabitable and created mass infertility so that the value of fertile women’s bodies is at a premium resulting in totalitarian efforts to control women’s bodies for reproduction, which, in turn, involved limiting women’s choices and opportunities.  The re-establishment of an overbearing patriarchy and the systematic subjugation of women are at the heart of this fictional oppressive regime.  The central character of this novel is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman allocated as a kind of domestic servant to the household of a member of the ruling elite who uses her to produce the child that his wife could not provide.  Atwood presents much of the oppression and exploitation of women by this reactionary regime as being rationalised with references to the Bible. 

To create the dystopian society of the novel, Atwood cherry picked oppressive measures from various periods and episodes in history and put them together to create her composite, comprehensive version of a right-wing totalitarian scenario.  In this way, she hoped, to have credibility since she could claim that every form of oppression depicted in her novel was based on something that actually happened.  

With this being primarily a feminist novel, much of it deals with the oppression of women.  Women are not allowed to read, study, attend university, participate in the paid workforce, or hold bank accounts.  Nor can individual women have their own name that is distinguished from that of the man to which they are subordinated.  In this regard, Handmaids are called, for example, Offred, which means this Handmaid belongs to Fred.  Women are restricted in what they can wear, and when, where, and with whom they can walk or travel.  They are denied the control over their bodies and they are valued most for their capacity for reproduction. Powerful men can practice a form of polygamy by having a Wife and a Handmaid.   Domestic violence by men is allowed as long as it involves blows from the hands only.  Women who believe in ideologies other than feminism are depicted in Marxist terms as duped by a false ideology and as having a false consciousness that is contrary to their true interests. They are presented as foolishly believing in policies that will oppress all women including themselves. 

This totalitarian regime conceived by Atwood and depicted in her novel is a rigidly hierarchical society.  Sections of this society are run like a concentration camp, such as the Red Centre where the Handmaids are indoctrinated by the domineering Aunts.    Much of the rest of the community resembles a military occupation or police state.  Armed guards and paramilitaries, Angels and Guardians, patrol the streets that feature checkpoints, watch towers and searchlights.  Travel is severely regulated.  People have to carry identity cards.  The media is closely controlled.  The economy is limited and restricted, and depicted as somewhat decrepit.  Many pleasurable consumer products and small luxuries are unavailable, or they have to be purchased, at some risk, via the black market.  They are usually purchased by elites who manage to flaunt many of the restrictions that govern most others. Ideologically-designated enemies of the regime are publically executed and then hung from a public wall to serve as deterrence to any potential dissenters.  Many of these executions involve public ceremonies intended to bolster support for the regime and put fear into potential opponents.  A network of spies and informers exists, called Spies, who serve to restrict speech and assembly and create an atmosphere of fear that encourages the kind of self-censorship that contributes to political stability. The language of popular discourse, such as ritualised greetings, is controlled.  Most people have learned to regulate what they think and say to avoid the perils of sudden arrest or execution or banishment to ‘the Colonies’, which are dangerously polluted areas where political prisoners perform cleaning duties until they die. In this totalitarian society, there is a denial of legal rights.  There is also a permanent state of war in the distant border areas against opponents of the regime and a fear of a mysterious underground of rebels and networks of dissenters who may engage in acts of terrorism but usually they help victims of the regime escape to Canada as refugees.  However, suicide is another form of escape for the victims of the regime. 

Atwood, as a radical third-wave feminist, regards women as an oppressed group.  She tends to see feminism in terms of promoting group rights rather than individual rights.  Consistent with this, she desired women to become politically conscious as women and to exhibit a feminist political solidarity among the sisterhood.  Yet she observed that a great many women did not share this sense of female solidarity or any feminist perspectives and, in the course of their lives, were prone to resent some women or put down other others, including feminists.  Atwood was fascinated, puzzled and disturbed by these and other tendencies among women, and her ideology led her to see this as a paradox, which stands in contrast to the feminist claim that their ideology is the ideology of women and for women and leading to the betterment of women.  She uses her novel to present women who did not support feminist beliefs as unwittingly promoting the oppression of themselves among other women.  She shows women who achieve some status in the patriarchal system, such as the Wives of members of the elite, as disappointing examples of women since they are content to oppress other women lacking this status.  Or, she presents the women who are employed to oppress other women, such as the Aunts who train and monitor the Handmaids, as opportunistic or as true believers in a false ideology. 

In addition, Atwood presents the Christian religious Right as brutally oppressive towards homosexuality.  She presents homosexuals as in mortal danger if their critics on the Christian religious Right ever came to power.  Homosexuals are executed by the regime. 

In addition, she presents the Christian religious Right as intolerant of other faiths including other Christian sects.  This intolerance is presented as violent and homicidal.  Members of other faiths and Christian sects are executed by the regime.  However, Jews are respected for their role in the origins of Christianity and they are usually deported rather than executed. 

The novel is written to appear as if it is a work of a witness who has endured and fortunately escaped an oppressive regime, but who has left a secret memoir that is later studied as a primary source document by future academics seeking to understand a dark period in history.  In this manner, Atwood implied that her fears of the rise of the Right are justified regarding the near term but these fears will be overcome in the longer term.  Atwood is a progressive, and the futuristic postscript (set about 200 years after the end of the Handmaid’s story) that concluded her novel, which presented an academic conference discussing the Handmaid’s memoir, presented the kind of bright politically-correct future that Atwood and many of her left-wing fellow travellers would desire.  It is a time when there is a feminist, multicultural society where like-minded tertiary-educated women, indigenous people, and minorities are prominent, if not dominant, among the elites.  

Student and teacher resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students and teachers seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Handmaid’s Tale meaning, The Handmaid’s Tale themes, The Handmaid’s Tale analysis, The Handmaid’s Tale notes