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The Handmaid’s Tale: Just Little Bits of History Repeating

Maddie Reid
Gender and Technology
Final Paper
May 7, 2009
The Handmaid’s Tale: Just Little Bits of History Repeating
Maragret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a grim, first-person narrative about the futuristic land of Gilead. The protagonist, Offred, struggles to fit into this patriarchical theocracy day by day; she finds joy in the little things and resists many temptations, essentially to keep her both alive and sane. In class, we discussed what genre would appropriately fit this depressing yet sardonic tale. Though Atwood herself has dismissed the idea of her novel being science fiction, there are components from science fiction, political satire, and speculative fiction to name a few, that the book incorporates. Whereas I had originally viewed The Handmaid’s Tale as a form of cautionary satire, I now believe that this novel is instead a Jeremiad; “a tale of sorrow, disappointment, or complaint; a doleful story; a dolorous tirade; — generally used satirically” (WRU Dictionary). Satire is a constituent, but does not account for the downcast voice in which this tale was written.
In order for The Handmaid’s Tale to fit this genre, there must be a sense of disappointment concerning something; there must be a target of animosity. At one level, Offred expresses her animosity toward ruthless Gilead law through her subtle rebellions: no women in this society are to read, socialize, or love, and Offred manages to do all three. There is an animosity in The Handmaid’s Tale, however, that parallels, but is much louder than, Offred’s resentment for Gilead. The disappointment expressed in this novel is Atwood’s bitterness towards (or her acknowledgement of) contemporary societal trends, particularly those that continue to oppress women. Despite the fact that Gilead is a fictional dystopia, it is made up entirely of instances of callous discrimination that occur in eutopias, anti-utopias, and heterotopias around the world.
Many practices within the society of Gilead are eerily similar to societal practices current Western nations have deemed “taboo”; these practices, however, still occur worldwide, and have occurred previously in the history of many Western nations. These malicious acts of mass murder and pitiless bigotry account for much of the sorrow found in The Handmaid’s Tale. One of the more appalling procedures that Offred describes is the discarding of “Unbabies”. At the Center, the handmaids were taught that there was a 25% chance of giving birth to an Unbaby, “with a pinhead or a snout like a dogs’s…or webbed hands and feet…There’s no telling” (112). Unbabies were a result of chemical pollution and radiation from a time before Gilead. The increase of toxins in the water supply consequently increased Gilead’s infertility rates as well as the magnitude of birth defects; the machines once used to detect these instances in women were now outlawed (112). Today, much research conducted on the effects of pollution on fertility is ironically finding that men are at a high risk of infertility when exposed to enduring pollution , . Though the infertility of men is briefly discussed in The handmaid’s Tale, it is women’s fertility that is Gilead’s main concern. Suggesting that the men were at fault for the creation of an Unbaby is just blasphemous.
Atwood comments on the global and contemporary relationship between pollution and infertility, but also makes connections to the real world through the actual practice of discarding unsuitable infants. There is a glaring parallel between the discarding of Unbabies in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the female infanticide reportedly occurring in rural parts of India and China. In the Indian village of Usilampatti for example, there is a strong preference for male children over female children. Many female infants have been brutally disposed of. “Some were fed dry, unhulled rice that punctured their windpipes, or were made to swallow poisonous powdered fertilizer. Others were smothered with a wet towel, strangled or allowed to starve to death” . In The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaids and readers alike were at least able to remain ignorant concerning the actual discarding procedure; “We didn’t know exactly what would happen to the babies that … were declared Unbabies. But we knew they were put somewhere, quickly, away” (113). India Today writer S. H. Venkatramani comments, “In most parts of the country, a woman is still considered a burdensome appendage. She is an economic drain. She must be exploited or dispensed with as a non-person” . A non-person; an Unwoman, an Unbaby. Whatever the case, each is unfit for their society.
Another grim image in The Handmaid’s Tale is the wall of dead bodies that Offred and Offglen make an effort to pass on their way to All Flesh. This wall is representative of the array of public executions that are pervasive in many past and present societies around the world. Atwood highlights the Salem Witchcraft Trials as one of the “foundation events of American history” (Atwood interview) . The public executions of those deemed guilty of witchcraft in 1692 were performed under the same biases as were those in The handmaid’s Tale—any individuals who could possibly disrupt the flow of the political system were to be exposed of. In Offred’s first description of the wall, the men hanging are doctors and scientists. They are labeled with a drawing of a human fetus to symbolize that their previous medical procedures, presumably related to abortion, are now criminal acts punishable by the death penalty. Today, public executions are carried out in parts of the Middle East, China, and Korea to name a few, and are on the decline, yet nowhere near extinction. Public executions work to eliminate outsiders, but are also a means of controlling the remaining population by showing them what could become of them if they deviate from that society’s standards: “They have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed” (33).
Atwood bases many of the Gileadian traditions on historical and Eastern acts of violence and discrimination, which the Western reader may not be entirely familiar with. The story only becomes more and more doleful, though, as Atwood touches on the passive oppression of women that is present in Western societies today, and is by all means socially accepted. As Offred and Ofglen are leaving All Flesh, they pass by Japanese tourists. Offred nostalgically comments on the “Westernized” way in which the Japanese women are dressed; “The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them… the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture.” Offred continues, “I used to dress like that. That was freedom” (28). This scene distinguishes between the freedom to wear high-heels with the freedom from female oppression; they are not one and the same. How can high-heels be instruments of torture and represent freedom at the same time? This, I believe, is Atwood’s attempt to highlight the fact that even in Western societies that seemingly advocate gender equality, there are subdued forms of oppression that are nearly impossible to acknowledge, much less overcome. When gender inequalities are so deeply imbedded in the technologies and practices of any given culture, they are usually accepted effortlessly.
The Handmaid’s Tale encompasses countless instances of sorrow, disappointment, and complaint, all of which Atwood explains have already been performed by humans in actual societies (Atwood interview). It is the blend of these components—Eastern, Western, taboo, accepted, apparent, and veiled—that makes The Handmaid’s Tale more or less satirical. Although each component of the story is in it of itself a depressing look at an existing society, the combination of these “dolorous tirades” creates a ridiculous realm that is preposterous, nearly laughable. Just as satire is one key component of a Jeremiad, multiple components make up the genre of satire. These include ridicule, formal disguise, irony, sarcasm, and a play on words to name a few. Atwood has incorporated many if not all of these tools into both the text and context of The Handmaid’s Tale.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is the looming question of why Gilead has shunned the use of technology in light of their obsession with fertility. In order to answer this question, the somewhat satirical nature of the book must be analyzed against the background of current events in the early 1980’s when the book was written. The 1980’s marked the rise of multiple technological milestones, including satellite TV, the microwave, PCs, and the global introduction of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) , . The main technologies in The Handmaid’s Tale are the Compucheck, used along with compunumbers to replace paper money, and the Identipass, needed to pass through security checkpoints. Aside from that, material technology has either been effaced, or deemed illegal depending on how it was once used. Atwood’s dismissal of technology is very possibly mocking the way in which US society of the 1980’s became quickly infatuated by technology, launching a techno-topia that is still very much alive. Many of the technologies of the 1980’s can be explained as means of personal concern; personal computers, Gameboys, and microwaves are of little benefit to society at large (until, of course, the internet came-along). The technology in The Handmaid’s Tale puts an ironic spin on this, by only incorporating technology that contributes to the wellbeing of society: Government, power, and religion are the technologies of Gilead.
Hammer explains formal disguise in Atwood’s case as, “a satire which masquerades as a novel which in turn masquerades as an autobiography” . On one level, Offred’s manuscript masquerades as a novel, until the reader reaches the Historical Notes, only to find that this entire story is not actually being told by Offred, but is instead being explored within the context of a conference held in 2195 (Atwood, 299). On another level, The Handmaid’s Tale masquerades as a novel story. This book is extremely unique in so far as it represents a fictional, future world that Atwood explains contains nothing “that human societies have not already done” (Atwood interview); there is nothing new, or novel about this book at all. The autobiographical component is illustrated by the inclusion of the societal practices that Atwood sees as essential to Offred, and thus essential to herself. By having Offred experience both blatant and obscure means of female oppression, Atwood draws a parallel between the main character and herself as a female author.
Irony can be found through Atwood’s use of words—literally—to hint at the considerable intelligence of the female protagonist in this extreme patriarchy. As Offred plays scrabble with the Commander (which is absurd enough as it is), she spells Larynx, Quince, Zygote, Sylph, and Prolix, to name a few. Have these words ever graced a scrabble board? Much less, nonchalantly? The importance of words not only on the Commander’s Scrabble board, but also in all of Gilead, parallels Atwood’s way with words throughout the novel in its entirety. Very clever plays on words can be found from page to page; a personal favorite is the discussion of the word “job”:
“It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet…The Book of Job. All those women having jobs: hard to imagine, now, but thousands of them had jobs, millions” (173).
Atwood uses one literary tool, a play on the word “job”, to highlight another: the irony that a professional, employed woman even wrote this book. Offred, as well as Atwood’s evident intelligence in a male dominated world further emphasizes Hammer’s claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is an autobiographical text. When Atwood was confronted with the question of whether or not it was autobiographical, she responded, “How can it be autobiographical? It’s set in the future” (Atwood interview). I sense a hint of sarcasm.
The play on words continues. An additional factor that leads me to believe The Handmaid’s Tale is the epitome of a Jeremiad is in the origin of “Jeremiad” itself. The term Jeremiad is a direct reference to the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament of the Bible (OE Dictionary). It is no coincidence that the book of Jeremiah reads, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jeremiah 8:22 English Standard Version). By re-interpreting the meaning of this passage, just as the Aunts do in The Handmaid’s Tale, I see it asking an essential question: Why is it that in so many functioning societies, which The Handmaid’s Tale is a blend of, gender equality is so difficult to achieve? The Old Testament also tells the story of Rachel and Leah, the two wives of Jacob, who are both unable to bear children. Instead, each of them employs their handmaids to sleep with Jacob, acting as surrogate mothers. This story if from Genesis 30:1-3, which the Commander reads aloud from his sanctified bible. It is at the Rachel and Leah Center in The Handmaid’s Tale that Offred is educated on how to become a handmaid. Biblical references can be found throughout the book, but the connection The Handmaid’s Tale has to the Old Testament in particular is no mistake.
There is also something satirical about the ways in which religion is misinterpreted throughout the novel. Just as human societies tend to rely heavily on technology, many cultures look to religion in times of need, or when seeking justification; Gilead is no exception. In the sitting room, the Commander reads a passage from the Bible to the handmaids on which Gilead is heavily based: “Give me children, or else I die…Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (88). When the messages of the Bible are misinterpreted to the extreme, the result is a Gileadian dystopia, a twisted society, wrongfully vindicated by a higher power. Thus, the land of Gilead is a rash exaggeration of the consequences of the human tendency to forcefully search the Bible for answers. Atwood proposes that the Bible is a vast symbol; everyone who picks it up can interpret it differently. Offred refers to the snakes and swords on the doorway of the doctor’s office as “bits of broken symbolism, left over from the time before” (60); the original intent is lost. This too is characteristic of the Bible as used in the society of Gilead and in the society of nearly every nation today. Is misinterpreting the Bible, even to the point that mass murder is being justified, really that much of an exaggeration? Now, the Jeremiad comes full circle. The vast use and misuse of religion in The Handmaid’s Tale may at first glance appear to be a satirical exaggeration, but upon further introspection, this component actually highlights one of the most pervasive pitfalls of human society.
Defining the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale, or any novel at that, helps the audience to determine just what message the author is portraying. By classifying this novel as a Jeremiad, there is an allowance for a witty banter that audiences may find more accessible. Once the reader can respect and relate to both the protagonist and the author, however, a more solemn story seeps through. In this way, the reality of the cyclical nature of oppressive history may be better attended to by the audience; readers will gradually realize that both Offred and Atwood’s position is not far from their own. Thus, The Handmaid’s Tale becomes more than just a fictional book; it becomes a fictional approach to non-fictional issues. This novel can be appreciated as a means of entertainment, or understood as a reflection of society. Either way, The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable account of a peculiar world, which should not be dismissed as entirely impossible. Context is all.