Setting essay – The Handmaid’s Tale

Still adding essays to moodle and I added material to research for those of you emailing with questions. Hope this helps.

To what extent is setting OR symbolism OR structure a significant feature of novels? Respond to this question with close reference to novel(s) you have studied.

The geographical, social and even time setting of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is an extremely significant feature of the novel. This is because Atwood skilfully uses elements of setting to communicate ideas about the nature of the society presented in the novel and how it came about. Atwood uses the setting to make her social commentary on the nature of humanity more deeply entrenched in the novel, instead of just being a surface theme alone. Each part of the setting is calculated by Atwood who said that nothing in her novel has not happened somewhere at sometime in the world.

This is significant of the nature of the society that the protagonist, Offred, lives in. Gilead is a monotheocratic state based on fundamentalist Christian principle, where women have no rights and any deviance from the expected norm is punishable by brutal penalties. Setting the novel in a totalitarian state demonstrates that there must have been some failing of humanity to allow such a cruel regime to come about, and so suddenly. This is used by Atwood to show that there is much to be lost if people do not stand up to retain their rights. Essentially setting the story in a regime like Gilead is a warning about the dangers of complacency.

Offred represents the greater mass of people who are unlikely to do anything when their freedoms are being threatened, because they do not want to ‘rock the boat’. They are too used to their rights and privileges that they take them for granted, and don’t believe anyone would actually take them away from them. This especially targets females, because the Gilead regime functions on the principle that the feminine is submissive and the male dominant. This is epitomised in Offred, who doesn’t do anything when slowly her rights as a woman are taken away from her before the inception of Gilead. She, like most of the everyday people, looks the other way and ignores the changes going on under her nose. This is a chilling reminder about the difference between ignorance and ignoring, because, as Offred said, “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

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