The Handmaids Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale ISP Essay – The Handmaid’s Tale Many fictitious novels written today mirror real life; this tactic can provide readers with a sense of formality. Yet in some cases, fictitious novels provide readers with the shocking realization of a society’s self destruction. I believe The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, falls in the second category. Issues raised in this novel such as manipulation, public punishment, ignorance, and pollution are problems we face in the world today. Atwood’s conception of the future encompasses many of these problems, and her use of these extreme conditions force readers to recognize her book as a warning; against creating the realities of Gilead in our world today.

In the novel, men abuse their power in order to satisfy their personal needs. One mastermind of the Gileadean Era perfects his control over Offred with each secret visit. As a handmaid, with the added responsibility of being a companion, she learns of her inevitable servitude towards her Commander from an old friend. He’s my Commander, I say. She nods.

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Some of them do that, they get a kick out of it. It’s like screwing on the altar or something: your gang are supposed to be such chaste vessels. They like to see you all painted up. Just another crummy power trip. – page 228 The Commander’s Wife also takes advantage of the power she has over Offred’s life.

In return for performing the illegal act of having sex with a man other than the Commander, the Wife will produce a picture of Offred’s long-lost child. This form of blackmail cruelly introduces hope to Offred, a notion which has been foreign to her for many years. She suddenly envisions hope of regaining her previous life, along with all of the rights she once took for granted. The day which began this horrible nightmare, is one she will never forget. In this one day, Offred lost her job, access to her life savings, and any say regarding her future. This is a frighteningly similar situation to an article written in the July ’97 issue of Homemaker’s Magazine.

A ragtag band of bandits called the Taliban .. thundered into the capital city of Kabul on September 27 of last year, and overnight the lives of women and girls were catapulted back to the dark ages. After hanging the government leaders in the public square, the Taliban announced their draconian decrees on the radio: schools for girls were immediately closed. Women could no longer work. They had to be completely covered .. because a woman’s face corrupts men.1 (Global Issues) Muslim scholars all over the world say this is a grab for power and control in a country that’s been struggling with unrest for 18 years.

It is also misogyny, a contempt for women that goes hand in hand with the disturbing rise in extremism in Muslim countires.2 (Global Issues) Men who abuse their power, for whatever reason, pose a serious problem to society’s advancement. As Atwood presents this issue in her book, the connection to the situation in Afghanistan establishes an alarming insight into a conceivable future. Besides the issue of women being manipulated, the government of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale abuses its power in other ways. Public hangings, or Salvagings, are another example. This method to deter subversive activity is taken to the extreme; the criminals of society are first drugged, and then hung in an absurd setting, where the whole town is forced to witness an act that present Western civilization considers private. Yet in Atwood’s future world, dead bodies hanging on the Wall are a common sight.

We stop, together as if on signal, and stand and look at the bodies. It doesn’t matter if we look. We’re supposed to look: this is what they are there for, hanging on the Wall. Sometimes they’ll be there for days, until there’s a new batch, so as many people as possible will have the chance to see them. – page 31 The Eyes who control Gilead choose to kill off all political dissenters, falsely accusing them of committing illegal acts, then punishing them in a public manner that is very disturbing.

This fictitious scene is not far from the truth in India, where the lynching of a village girl and her two alleged lovers made Canadian newspaper headlines. The public lynching was thought necessary by the court in order to punish the 16-year-old girl of eloping with members of different castes. The young men were hanged for transgressing the village code prescribed for their Chamaar community.1 (Reuter) The lynching sentences intensified the tension in the 3000-year-old Chamaar-Jat rivalry. India’s caste system is quite similar to the social set-up in The Handmaid’s Tale. India’s caste system – a complex social order in which certain groups are viewed as superior to others – originated thousands of years ago in one of the holy texts of Hinduism.

In it, society is divided into four general castes, with thousands of sub-castes. Existing outside of these four castes are the ‘untouchables’ – outcasts traditionally associated with ‘unclean’ jobs such as removing human excrement.2 (Reuter) The only difference between the two is that the caste system in India is separated by the wealthy and the poor. The system in the novel is separated by those who can procreate and those who are unable to do so. Yet in each instance, the most important element to the community is what distinguishes the castes. Money is of little importance in Atwood’s future, therefore it is not the basis of Gilead’s caste system. The handmaids are the most important individuals, and the government finds many ways to segregate them from the rest of society. They ultimately have no control to make any decisions, and no ambition to escape, because they have witnessed the punishment.

Another method of controlling the handmaids involves drugging them, this is evident in the structure of the novel. Every other chapter is entitled Night or Nap, to symbolize the drowsy feelings the handmaids carry, which result in no ambition. This consequence is also designed to hinder the nurturing need most women experience throughout their lives. The government has determined that without this need, the handmaids should become less attached to the children they bear. The government also dejects any acts of heroism, which can come from the same need to help others. The unfair and cruel methods of control used by the Gileadean government is taken too far when the handmaids are not only forced to ignore the needs of the less fortunate, they are compelled to kick ’em while they’re down. The two Guardians let go of the third man’s arm and step back.

He staggers – is he drugged? – and falls to his knees. His eyes are shrivelled up inside the puffy flesh of his face, as if the light is too bright for him. They’ve kept him in darkness .. I know that whatever he’s done I can’t touch him .. He says something.

It comes out thick, as if his throat is bruised, his tongue huge in his mouth, but I hear it anyway. He says, I didn’t . . . There’s a surge forward, .. [Ofglen] pushes him down, sideways, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, three times, sharp painful jabs with the foot, well-aimed.

Now there are sounds, gasps, a low noise like growling, yells, and the red bodies tumble forward and I can no longer see, he’s obscured by arms, fists, feet. A high scream comes from somewhere, like a horse in terror. – page 262 Fortunately, our society has not yet strayed completely from civilized behaviour. Rather, we are learning to aid those in need as we learn about the harm ignorance causes vs. the benefits true unity and kindness grant us. In Bombay, campaigners for women’s rights are attempting to put and end to an ancient Indian transaction that forces young girls to join a Hindu religious cult that turns them into prostitutes for life.1 (Ehrlich) Women’s groups are now trying to take the cult to court, in order to spare these young girls from exploitation. The concern these women have for these children is unique in that they are determined to get everyone involved, including militant feminists, and international equality organizations.

With the combined efforts of these groups, the captivity of these children will be stopped. While Gilead forces its inhabitants to choose ignorance, we have been taught to assist the needy. Yet there is one aspect of real life that is captured perfectly in this novel; pollution. This problem creates so many difficulties, in both the novel and our world. Atwood’s warning regarding pollution is stated as follows.

Still births, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were wide-spread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shut downs, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal – in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system – and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays. – page 286 Atwood believes that pollution is causing the demise of the human race, and most ecologists would not argue with her. Pollution in every industrial area of Russia exceeds acceptable standards, often by many times. According to two Russian government reports, scientists have calculated that 15 percent of the territory of Russia is ecologically unsafe for human habitation. That’s an area of 2.5 million square kilometres – an area the size of Ontario and Quebec put together ..

Infant mortality is soaring .. If trends continue, doctors have calculated that only 15 to 20 percent of all babies [born in Russia] will be bon healthy by the year 2015.1 (Hearst) Atwood’s visionary talents have aided her in creating a masterpiece, which will most likely be suitable in every age. The problems she deals with in The Handmaid’s Tale are very real and obvious in our lives today. According to Atwood, it is our duty to destroy manipulation, inhumane punishment, ignorance and pollution. If her warning is not taken seriously, these problems may escalate to create the need for a Gileadean society. Drastic needs call for drastic measures, but is this book our ideal future? Bibliography Bibliography 1) Ehrlich, Richard (1992) Trying to change a system that creates ‘religious’ prostitutes.

The Vancouver Sun. May 23, 1992. Global Issues. Homemaker’s Magazine. July 1997 3) Hearst, David (1992) Russia’s Ecological Holocaust.

The Ottawa Citizen. October 8,1992. 4) Reuter (1991) Public hangings tighten caste tension in India. The Ottawa Citizen. April 4, 1991. English Essays.


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