Setting essay

This is an essay from one of our students on the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale. Any thoughts?

“The setting of any book offers us clues as to the direction of the voyage of discovery we make as readers.” By referring to a novel you have studied, discuss how the setting helps us better appreciate what we ‘discover’ as we read.

In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Maragret Atwood the setting in which the story takes place is crucial to our understanding of the novel as a whole. The setting is in a dystopian (or ‘speculative’ as Atwood prefers it) future in Cambridge Massachusetts (renamed Gilead by the regime in power), in which most men and women are infertile, and fertile women are forced to bear children for high-ranking men.

The setting of The Handmaid’s Tale is so important to the reader’s understanding that it is impossible to separate the action of the novel from the setting in which it is based. Gilead uses bible quotations interpreted in a very extremist way to justify the enslavement and legally allowed rape of fertile women. Atwood created Gilead by fitting together various facts from different periods of history (the physical setting- Cambridge, Massachusetts, is significant because it was the root of the puritan movement in the USA) and so creating a terrifyingly real setting. The setting of The Handmaid’s Tale is what makes it one of the most believable of the dystopian texts. As Atwood herself put it “in Britain they said ‘nice story’, in ‘Canada they said ‘could it happen?’ in America they said ‘how long have we got?’

Atwood’s explanation of America’s reaction to The Handmaid’s Tale can be better understood if the political setting she was writing in is taken into account. She was writing at a time when there was a strong right wing backlash against the first wave of feminism. She felt that young women, like Offred in the novel, has become complacent, and unappreciative of the risks that the older generation had taken in order to gain them the rights they too for granted. Atwood was writing in part to caution against this lack of social responsibility, and also to voice her concern about the splintering of the feminist movement. In the novel we see Offred remembering her other attending rallies against pornography, and how the feminist groups had argued over it. Atwood felt that the division of the feminist movement made them weaker, and their preoccupation with comparatively minor issues was blinding them to the larger picture, that many of the rights they had fought for were being undermined. In Gilead the women have been too complacent about their rights for too long, and even now that they are almost completely stripped of them, women like Offred still don’t object strongly enough to take a risk and try to change things. As Offred observes, “you can get used to anything, as long as there are a few compensations”.

The compensations Offred speaks of are comparatively minor things, but their importance becomes obvious when placed against the setting of Gilead. Offred’s compensation is her affair with Nick the gardener, and the compensations for other women, like the Aunts and the Wives, are the small amounts of power they hold over other women. By manipulating women in this way, placing them as enemies, instead of allies Gilead increases its level of control. Atwood realised that this was happening in the early 1980s, when she was writing. Instead of the ‘Sisterhood’ espoused by the early feminists, women were being encouraged to view one another as competition. Atwood seemed to feel that, as women were increasingly competing with one another, the level of mistrust they felt towards other women made it easier for their rights to be removed slowly, until, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, they had reverted back to a situation worse than what they had before. Overall the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale is crucial to it’s success as a convincing and concerning dystopian text. Without the realistic and horrific setting Atwood creates the novel would not have the same impact that it does. It is because the novel so deftly weaves Offred’s current point ofview with a “palimpset” of the past that we can see how such a place might occur, that the setting which at first glance seems to be pure fiction might not be so unlikely after all.


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