The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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‘Give me children, or else I die.’ – This phrase lies at the core of the first epigraph to the novel which is taken from Genesis 30:1-3. One of the most interesting aspects of Atwood’s dystopia is the idea of how a society might react to a massive fall in the birth rate. White males in The Handmaid’s Tale react to this with a programme of extreme crisis management in which producing children suddenly becomes society’s overriding priority; females, by contrast, display a more visceral and emotional need for children in the novel. This – occasionally desperate – desire of women to procreate is what the patriarchs of Gilead use as a means to control them, or, more precisely, it is what leads women themselves to cooperate with the state to the exclusion of almost all their previous political and economic rights, solely in return for the possibility of at least some women having children. Wives, Handmaids, Marthas all share this overriding preoccupation with procreation, and in many ways it unites them, even though the relationship between the three groups is inevitably tense. Women, seen as a whole gender, are given the chance of children; in return, they accept oppression and subservience to powerful men, who have created a lifestyle in which they are rewarded with both a successions of concubines as well as free access to the services of state-supported prostitutes.

Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal – Atwood’s second epigraph establishes that her book is satirical in much the same way as Swift’s famous pamphlet, which argued that the problems of starvation in Ireland in the early eighteen century could be overcome by the roasting and eating of Catholic children. In both Swift’s ‘Proposal’ and The Handmaid’s Tale tendencies within the writer’s society are exaggerated to the point where they become unacceptably grotesque and repulsive – something that leads the reader to question the real tendencies the satire is addressing. In Swift’s case, this was directed primarily against the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, whose policies were so cruel and inhumane that they might as well have included the cannibalising of infants. Many of Atwood’s satirical concerns in The Handmaid’s Tale revolve around the possibility that existed in the 1980s of a political alliance between anti-pornography feminists and the religious right in America.

In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. – This Sufi proverb can be understood in several different ways with regard to the novel, but its most obvious meaning points towards the dystopian nature of the text. The social changes found in Gileadean society are the result of severe environmental pollution which has created a metaphorical ‘desert’, ‘barren’ in the very specific sense that a section of humanity has lost its ability to procreate. In these extreme conditions, all normal mores and expectations are suspended. People will put up with almost anything – as a starving man or woman in a real desert might suck on a stone for comfort.

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