In most dystopian fiction, a corrupt government creates or sustains the poor quality of life, often conditioning the masses to believe the society is proper and just, even perfect. Most dystopian fiction takes place in the future but purposely incorporates contemporary social trends taken to horrendous extremes. The novel, The Handmaids Tale, by Margaret Atwood focuses on the choices made by those controlling the society of Gilead in which increasing the population and preservation of mankind is the main objective, instead of freedom or happiness. The society has undergone many physical changes that have extreme psychological consequences.
I believe Atwood sees Gilead as the result of attitudes and events in the early 1980s, which have spiralled out of control. The Handmaids Tale reflects Atwoods views and critiques on civilisation. In an interview with Gabriele Metzler Atwood says, There is nothing in the book that hasnt already happened. All things described in the book people have already done to each other(2). Throughout The Handmaids Tale Offred is constantly conscious of her life before Gilead. This is reflected in the sections of the book headed Night. Offred often refers back to her life with her daughter and Luke, Luke was in the living room.
He put his arms around me. We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then? Because we at least had that: arms, around. The realization of how much her life has been altered occurs in the beginning of the novel when Offred comes across a group of Japanese tourists, They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds about things like this. Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom. Westernised, they used to call it. Offred is also envious of the women as they still have freedom of choice, whereas all she has are memories of how she used to be.
The Handmaids Tale shares with many futuristic dystopias, certainly 1984, an interesting mode whereby our time in retrospect is heavy with nostalgia Bernard Richards (3). The Handmaids Tale belongs to this genre of anti-utopian (dystopian) science fiction. It is set in the late twentieth century when democratic institutions have been violently overthrown and replaced by the new fundamentalist Republic of Gilead. In the novel the majority are suppressed using a Bible-based religion as an excuse for the suppression. In Gilead, members of the society are labelled by their age and economic status.
The deep red cloaks, the blue embroidered dresses, and the pinstripe garments are all uniforms to define a persons role in society. In particular, the handmaids cloaks also say a lot more about their position. The fact that they are like a nuns gown, and are also called habits, signifies chastity and dedication to God. The colour red indicates that they are fertile and menstrual. However, red is also the colour of blood, death and violence, which is therefore closely associated with women in this male-dominated ultraconservative government. One aspect that Atwood explores in her critique is religion.
Not religion itself, or followers of religion, but the way that people twist religion to abuse their power and create tyranny. Not to believe in the new puritan religion is certain death, we were careful to exchange nothing more than the ordinary greetings. Nobody wanted to be reported, for disloyalty. This comment made by Offred shows the cohesive fear felt by society when the Gilead regime was in its first stages of practice. This story is not the first to create a civilisation in which the only two important beliefs in a society are the ability to procreate and a strict belief in God.
It is seen several times in the Old Testament, of the Bible. The Biblical society is not as rigid as the Republic of Gilead, which Margaret Atwood has built, but it is very similar. It is in Genesis, 30:1-3, where the story of the handmaid originated. However, what the handmaids refer to as the Red Centre is actually called the Rachel and Leah Re-Education Centre; Rachel and Leah are both derived from the bible passage. This is a prime example of how the regime uses religion and links their practice to religion to justify what they are doing.
Before the ceremony occurs, the commander must read out part of the passage, this is also in attempt to excuse or validate what they are about to do then comes the mouldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the centre. Give me children, or else I die. I am in Gods stead¦ that I may also have children by her. Offred, the main character, also recognizes their use of religion as she mentions how they had it drummed into their heads every breakfast, as we sat in the high-school cafeteria. Another example would be when they were played the Beatitudes, Blessed be the poor in spirit ¦ Blessed are the silent.
I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, they left things out too, but there was no way of checking. Gilead manipulates religion to suit their fundamentalist ideas, adding and leaving out small parts so that it is adapted to their requirements. The Gilead regime transformed the idea that religion is something to do with personal beliefs; and changed it to a commodity, which can be used by the state, The banner covers the buildings former name, some dead President they shot. Below the red writing theres a line in smaller print, in black, with the outline of a winged eye on either side of it: GOD IS A NATIONAL RESOURCE.