Dystopia is a concept that any Tom, Dick, or Harry can contemplate; after all, if Utopia is nowhere than its antithesis must be everywhere. At the same time, however, Dystopia has a more narrow meaning – it is a locale where very unpleasant things tend to take place, and there is frequently little hope of changing it. For the standard-issue reader, Joe W.A.S.P. Average, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World resonate well. For his wife Jane, The Handmaid’s Tale has a very particular orientation.
Dystopia For Women; Atwood’s Nightmare World
Set in a hypothetical future where the United States government is overturned and replaced with a theocratic regime dubbed The Republic of Gilead, the role of the average woman is devolved to the point of slavery. Facing a particularly grave crisis of fertility, women are (naturally) assigned blame for this crisis and all but the most sinless of married women are reduced to performing the paraphrased role of, as our protagonist Offred puts its, ‘Wombs with legs.’ Ah, but what’s this? What kind of name is Offred? Well, she is of Fred, of course; Fred is the name of the government leader who effectively owns this woman and determines her future. If she is shown to be capable of having a child, she will be forever thanked by society by knowing she need never be challenged in this way again by her next master.
If she fails to have a child, however, she is to be declared “Un-Woman,” and sent to clean up toxic waste in one of the many regions that have been defiled throughout the Republic of Gilead. This barbaric treatment is naturally downplayed to foreign visitors, outsiders who are only allowed to see what the government shows them. This limited picture certainly excludes a wall where people are executed and a label is provided demonstrating the reasons why – a yellow star to show they were Jewish, for example, following a trend reminiscent of The Scarlett Letter. Offred’s existence is a tenuous one, indeed, and the tale of her arrival at this predicament is, as discovered at the end of the novel, a series of tape-recordings of her reminiscence about the days before the government was overthrown and she, her husband and her daughter lived a typical middle-class existence.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s Role in American Culture
As one of the “newer” Dystopian authors, Margaret Atwood’s work is far from ingrained in the American consciousness. While its true that the book is even taught – and, according to an article in The Star (http://www.thestar.com/article/571999), challenged – in some high schools, it hasn’t reached the cult status of other Dystopian novels. While Atwood herself remains an up-and-coming author, with recent novels such as Oryx and Crake continuing her exploration of worlds which are unpleasant – even devoid – of humans, her first novel remains a defining work in her career.
The themes Atwood addresses are, at present, not exactly threatening to manifest themselves. The American political system is too strong to be easily disrupted, and even if the leadership of America was eliminated it’s implausible that the military would simply concede to an organization of religious fanatics. A more comparable situation is the one that Iran found itself in, before the rise of the Islamic republic; a country with a largely reviled government that lends itself to a popular overthrow. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for watching the encroachment of religion into public life – should the government begin to ensconce religion in its practices, it falls on the people to rebuke them before things can grow too outlandish.
In short, Atwood’s tale creates a feasible example of an America gone wrong and crossed with a fundamentalist dictatorship the likes of which she is fighting abroad, today, in the real world. As with all Dystopian literature it serves as a warning to resist the forces of totalitarianism, but whereas two of its aforementioned predecessors cater to the common audiences of their day, The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on those who could well fit its Chaucerian title; the plight of women in a world of hellish nightmare.