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Handmaid's Tale

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Novels create imagined worlds in order to comment on current issues. Discuss.

A novel can be defined as an extended piece of prose fiction that is created from a writer's mind or imagination. By this definition, the world constructed in such a text will be 'not real'. Nonetheless the author of a novel draws upon their own world and current ideologies to inform the world of their imagination and through doing so, will thus offer comment either intentional or unintentional about important issues from that 'real' world. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale, does exactly that. She says herself "a novel isn't simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination". From this statement it can be deduced that The Handmaid's Tale will in all likelihood offer a cultural critique of late twentieth century society. Atwood describes her novel as "A cognate of A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four" in that it is written "not as science fiction but as an extrapolation of life". Some issues which come under close scrutiny in this novel include censorship, gender roles, family, war, fundamental religious groups, oppression and power relationships. All of these issues are explored to some extent and by doing this, Atwood offers comment on their place in society and her attitude toward them.

While all of these themes are represented within The Handmaid's Tale, hereafter THT, Atwood has attached particular importance to oppression, religious fundamentalism, family, and feminism. There is more effort made by the author to comment on the relevance of these in today's society, and can be, therefore, considered more central to the text.

According to an unnamed Fellow of the California State University "Atwood has long been concerned with the perils of absolutist certainty." That is, she realizes the dangers of the human desire to be assured about opinions and beliefs. It is this concern that may have inspired her to build so much of her created society, Gilead, around the negative aspects of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.

Through THT Atwood comments on the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the 1980s. Fundamentalism in Canada and the United States of America has been on a steady increase since the late seventies, starting to become a significant movement just as Atwood was writing THT. Atwood was known to distrust the opinions and influence of fundamentalists in American society, feeling them to be gaining ascendancy within the culture. Her suspicions are somewhat confirmed by the election in 2000 and 2004 of Christian fundamentalist George W. Bush. Although not aligning himself with any particular fundamentalist church, his stances on issues such as abortion, contraception and stem cell research have aligned him with many of those groups. He has, in turn, appointed many self-confessed fundamentalists, especially within the Health portfolio, which has necessarily had an impact on America. The influence of these extremist Christians on Atwood is evident in the way she has based the society of Gilead on fundamental Christian foundations. There are also many similarities to fundamentalist sects of the Muslim faith.

Atwood's imagined world of Gilead incorporates many of the elements of a puritan religious society. She uses elements borrowed from several different faiths to construct a society based on 'religious principles.' She examines the use of fear and hysteria within religion to force the participants to conform. The salvagings are an example of the use of a hysterical outburst to bind people closer to the regime. By giving the women a common enemy and inciting them to brutalize him they simultaneously unite them in a common purpose, and create the seeds of fear. This fear is that, what they have done to this man could just as easily be done to them. This can be likened to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, where fear and hysteria helped to execute hundreds of innocent people. Throughout this scene the language to describe the mob becomes impersonal, Atwood uses words like "surge" and compares the women to "a crowd at a rock concert in the former time" . Yet again biblical references are misquoted by the figures of power, the Aunts, to prove the man's guilt. Aunt Lydia states that "the penalty for rape, as you know, is death. Deuteronomy 22:23-29". By legitimising her claim with a biblical quote Aunt Lydia creates a feeling of justice and goodness in the act of brutalizing the supposed rapist. The hysteria and fear is similar to that of the Iraqi people prior to the recent presidential election. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein there was considerable fear and no mechanism through which the people could actuate change. In creating this element of comparison in Gilead Atwood criticizes the fundamentalist religions, both Christian and Muslim, and their use of fear tactics and hysteria to compel obedience in their followers. She also criticizes the quoting and misquoting of the bible to create feelings of allegiance and legitimise the actions of the society.

Oppression is a key issue that Atwood draws attention to through THT. The oppression of women is particularly obvious, as they are a clear second class within the society, but the oppression of men is also evident. The wall is an obvious and ever-present element used to oppress and frighten the people of Gilead. Atwood may have drawn this form of punishment from a number of sources. Firstly, feudal English lords hung the bodies of the enemy on their castle walls after a siege. Today there is little need for such an exhibition as the communications revolution has made it possible to publicize these images without the need for the actual bodies (see Figure 1) . The wall symbolizes the oppressive terror forced by the state on the citizens. The descriptions of the bodies and the wall itself are appallingly graphic, and encourage the reader to react with revulsion and pity for those within it. The Wall represents the Gileadean regime and the bodies those it entraps. Atwood creates the bodies as faceless, which, as Offred describes "makes the men look like dolls on which faces have not yet been painted" . By removing their identity the reader is given the impression that the fate of those hanging on the hook "like steel question marks, upside-down and sideways" could belong to anybody. This apparent disregard for human life positions the reader to look negatively upon the oppressive nature of Gilead and align themselves more closely with Atwood's viewpoint.

The selection of women for various roles; Marthas, Handmaids, Wives, etc, demonstrates how little choice women



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