Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…
Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is set in the near future where a Christian theocracy has overthrown the government. The main character, Offred, is a handmaid for reproductive purposes. Although Offred does not possess an authoritative role, she is in the midst of a new world that reflects contemporary society. This alterity introduces the thematic subject of gender, which revolves around its theme of existing double standards within a futuristic setting. Feminism is another thematic subject present in Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and is highlighted by the gender struggles and the class system’s marginalisation of women.
In 2005, Atwood spoke to The Guardian about how she labels her novel as speculative fiction, and the conventions that can be found within: exploring the limits of humanity, delving into the proposed changes to social organisation, and the possibility of new and advanced technologies. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, there is no futuristic, advanced technology and its abandonment altogether makes way for primitive ceremonies. The limits of humanity are seen through Offred’s role as a handmaid for The Commander, and her subsequent relationship with him. There is no legal protection, no outside force trying to overthrow the totalitarian ruling, and Offred and the other handmaid’s are forced to accept the little power that they have. Also, the proposed changes to social organisation are the Gileadean regime and its efforts to control sex and sexuality. This government ultimately destroys itself, which is unsurprising because the regime seems to underestimate the importance of sexuality. Offred contemplates suicide in the novel, but she ignores this and continues her affair with Nick because she enjoys their sexual intimacy and confides in him. This enforces the power of sexual acts, and illustrates how Offred will not submit to the pressure and torture of the government.
Atwood manipulates the setting to exaggerate the flaws of contemporary society. The government enforces the unfair distribution of power between characters, and this illustrates an abuse of power. Atwood’s incorporation of setting helps drive the piece and highlights power dynamics between characters. Although this idea of a ‘new world’ is a common convention within speculative fiction, its main function is usually to challenge the nature of humanity. In addition to highlighting the flaws of contemporary society, Atwood pushes the boundaries of this genre convention by exploring each character’s reaction to their new setting and their attempt to break free from their trapped physical and psychological state.
Other influential narrative techniques in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are the use of present tense to heighten and maintain suspense, and the word ‘night’ to introduce and conclude the story. This imagery represents the dark, bleak life that has befallen Offred.
My Score: 9/10
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