This is an essay I wrote in Ms. Blank’s English 102 last semester on a book assigned to the class: The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale: A Dysfunctional Dystopia (3/29/18)
Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale with considerably limiting self-imposed constraints in place. In the book’s introduction, she says she feared that the story would have a “lack of plausibility”, so she purposed not to “put any events into the book that had not already happened […] nor any technology already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities” (Atwood XIV). Because of the restrictions Margaret Atwood imposed on herself, such as only implicating language, events, and technology which were already familiar, The Handmaid’s Tale proves an unimaginative dystopia with a warning dissident to the author’s intent.
In the introduction of the book, Atwood explicitly cites the intended purpose of her story. She says, “The book is not anti-religion. It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether” (Atwood XVIII). It is apparent that she is not attempting to predict the direction of the United States but to warn against its becoming totalitarian upon the back of religion. The context of Atwood’s tale is widespread disaster, and her warning concerns what Americans will lean on to move forward in the aftermath.
In an article written as a critique of The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary McCarthy expounds on why the limitations Atwood imposed on herself hinder the literary power of Gilead. She writes that, “[…] the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life.” In most prominent dystopian stories, there are characters and language as fantastic and imaginative as their society is bleak and twisted. In The Hunger Games, Susanne Collins writes resilient characters to stand up under the wicked oppressors using language suited to a futuristic tragedy. Far from rendering it implausible, this approach strengthens the story.
Louis Lowry uses a premise similar to that of Atwood in her Newberry Medal winning dystopian novel The Giver. Lowry however is not afraid to write her dystopia imaginatively. It is a setting far less familiar than Atwood’s, yet it is certainly plausible and much more compelling. In the dystopian society of The Giver, the tyrants have gone so far as to eliminate the changing of the seasons, to render the world colorless, and to form a society which holds no memory of the days before them. The Giver invites readers to use their imaginations and welcomes them into a dynamic world where a story is happening. This opposed to the storyline of The Handmaid’s Tale which is told in a rather cryptic fashion. Atwood has determined that her story be the remnants of a bygone society stumbled upon by historians of the future. According to Atwood, the whole text is a transcription of tape recordings done in secret (Atwood 301). She also makes use of a disillusioned narrator who is trying to hold onto her sanity. Atwood makes these literary choices in the name of plausibility. What she ends up with is a story which is neither inviting nor compelling, one that sends a warning other than she intended.
In a letter to James Warren in 1779, Samuel Adams wrote, “While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader […] If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved” (Adams). Margaret Atwood wrote the story of Gilead with the intent to warn against the use of religion as a front for tyranny. The real warning reflected through the pages is one contrary to that intent. The effective admonition is not that American government could be overthrown by tyrants fronting an excuse for Christianity. And a poor excuse at that, for any claim to Christianity which makes captives, oppresses the lowly, or shrouds in darkness is entirely other than its true purpose. The scathing warning of The Handmaid’s Tale is one of a loss of virtue, the same virtue hoped of this nation’s citizens by Samuel Adams.
The story of Gilead would have been more poignant had it been told by a better suited narrator, one with the presence of mind to speak to the things Atwood intended the reader to pick up on. Offred does have at least a nominal understanding of Christianity, yet only makes passing remarks as to its being used as a political weapon. Her voice though the story is one of a kitten lulled into the hands of strangers: she laments for a while, and then relinquishes all hope. Towards the end of her narration, Offred’s death of spirit becomes painfully clear. After being caught for her secret meetings with Nick, she says, “I feel serene, at peace, pervaded with indifference. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. I repeat this to myself [sic] but it conveys nothing. You might as well say, Don’t let there be air; or, Don’t be” (Atwood 291) And then, sitting alone in her room contemplating suicide, she says, “That is what gets you in the end. Faith is only a word, embroidered” (Atwood 292). This language of an unwillingness to even acknowledge hope or a cause greater than herself is evidence of The Handmaid’s Tale’s truer warning: this local lulling to sleep and not the awakening of a foreign monster is “fatal to a free society” (McCarthy).
Atwood intended her novel to warn against tyrants using false religion. But because of a dystopia lacking imaginative quality and an unfortunate choice of narrator, the warning of The Handmaid’s Tale is one about civic virtue. The rise of the district of Gilead warns that the enemy should come when a nation is asleep, lacking good conscious and spirit. The horror is that they are caught without a single Joan of Arc, Spartacus, Churchill, or Benjamin Franklin in their company and are made willing slaves to a barbaric ideology.