The setting of The Handmaid’s Tale

In class on Friday Hayley asked if she could have some more information on the setting of the novel. So here goes:

In terms of the historical and cultural context we know the book presents a dystopian view of the world. Margaret Atwood calls her book speculative fiction and in it she explores a futuristic society. Her inspiration was Atwood’s appraisal of society at the time she was writing. Atwood looked at American society in the 1980s and did not like what she saw and this is reflected in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the novel the land has been ravaged by ecological disasters, chemical spills, nuclear accidents – the natural world is in crisis. To compound matters the birthrate has declined, which according to Professor Pieixoto can be attributed to factors such as abortions, birth control and more birth defects. It is a very bleak situation.

So what is Atwood’s purpose in writing this novel? She is critical of the Christian fundamentalists who in the 1980s wanted a return to what they saw as traditional values. They strongly campaigned against pornography, feminism, abortion, and feminism. She has created Gilead to warn readers against extremism and to show the dangers of totalitarian regimes. Atwood is also critical of the extremism of some feminists who she sees as equally extremist and divisive.

The novel is prefaced with a reading from Genesis, one that refers to handmaids being used to bear children. We learn that Gilead is a republic and based on the Old Testament. It is a repressive world and freedom, emotions and any signs of individuality are actively suppressed. It is a warning for us all and it is still relevant for contemporary readers.

Want to find out more about the setting?

Try Shmoop which discusses not only why we should read THMT but why we should care about its messages:

Well, The Handmaid’s Tale is a scary book, both in the make-believe way and for other reasons too. Its characters have no voice in their government and no control over their lives. In an interview with the New York Times, Margaret Atwood summed up her book like this: “it’s a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime” .

When you put it like that, it seems like the book’s implications are pretty universal. Although our world isn’t as totalitarian and frightening as Atwood’s futuristic vision of the United States as Gilead, it’s still not as good a place as it could be. We still live in scary times. We’ve got oil spills and wars to worry about and a global economy that suffers when just one country’s currency falls. Today there are places in the world where women don’t have the right to choose what clothes they wear or whom they marry, and where they can be stoned to death for committing adultery. Some of this stuff sounds eerily like the future Atwood made up, right? Even lighter restrictions, such as censorship, can lead to serious consequences. Some countries just ban movies from coming in at all. Sex and the City 2 got terrible reviews, but people in the United Arab Emirates won’t even get the chance to make up their minds about it themselves, unless they leave the country.

This is a scary book. But hey, at least we’re not in Gilead – at least we’re allowed to read it.

Or try Gradesaver, to find out all about the setting and Atwood’s inspirations. Here’s a little:

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) reveals the strange new world of Gilead. Once the United States of America, Gilead was formed by a military coup that shot the President and members of Congress, suspended the Constitution, and put a Christian Theocracy in the place of a democratic government. Desperate to deal with a shrinking birth rate caused by pollution, chemical poisoning and decreasing fertility, the government of Gilead creates the Handmaids, women with viable ovaries who are placed in the households of high ranked officials whose wives cannot bear children. Like Rachel and Leah in the Old Testament, these Handmaids are expected to bear their Commanders’ children in place of their wives. Caught up in a world of constant surveillance, strict regulation, and extreme punishment, the novel’s protagonist, Offred, attempts to get through each day while holding on to the belief that she will someday be reunited with her husband and daughter.

Want some more? How about Cliff Notes? This is what they have to say about Atwood’s motivations and purpose:

In an interview for The Progressive, Margaret Atwood explains how she came to write The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often labeled speculative fiction because it appears to predict or warn of a triumph of totalitarianism or what one reviewer calls a “Western Hemisphere Iran.” Having absorbed the New England Puritan tradition during her studies at Harvard, she observed the rise of the U.S. political right in the 1980s and compared the Moral Majority’s grass-roots menace to the phenomenon of Hitler. According to Atwood, the Nazi leader told the world what he intended to do; then he set about accomplishing his heinous aims. The ranting diatribes of late twentieth-century American right-wingers — who steadfastly push women back into the traditional roles common in the 1950s, delight in the AIDS epidemic among homosexuals, and threaten death to members of the gay culture — parallel Hitler’s fascist candor. Atwood claims to have acted on a what-if scenario: suppose ultraconservatives did achieve a coup d’etat and turned rhetoric into a stringent authoritarianism, replete with suspension of constitutional rights, racial cleansing, torture, perpetual sectarian wars, public execution of homosexuals and dissidents, a repressive police and spy operation, and assignment of roles to women based on their childbearing capabilities.


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