The Reality in Atwood's Dystopia

Image credit: Ellen Birch

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985; in the last year it has seen a dramatic resurgence in popularity. This is due in part to a new television adaptation, which I confess to not having seen, but that isn’t reason enough. The dystopia has already been overdone in the twenty-first century and I expected this television show to pass quickly into obscurity. Instead, Atwood’s novel has taken on a global significance. The red uniforms of the handmaids are recognisable; they have featured in abortion protests in the US and Ireland, and French and Saunders thought they were iconic enough to feature in 300 Years of French and Saunders, a one-off satire of modern society which aired over Christmas.

It is maybe not so baffling that The Handmaid’s Tale has become so popular, since its themes are pertinent in today’s world. It takes place in a fictional republic called ‘Gilead’, the antecedent of the United States, and the main character Offred (Of Fred, the Captain, who owns her) is one of few fertile women left, and her job is to be ‘an ambient chalice’, a walking womb. In the 1980s, Atwood was parodying both the oppression instigated only a few years before by the Islamic Revolution and conversely the anti-free speech ideas of the 1980s feminist movement, which helped to lead to Gilead, a world where women have ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to’. These concerns have come sharply back into focus in recent years; identity politics coupled with the rise of the alternative right has given feminism a central position in political thought and debate, whilst the discourse on free speech continues to rage. In the midst of this, protesters of restrictive and misogynistic laws, namely abortion in Trump’s America and the Republic of Ireland, have latched onto a narrative of oppression as a warning against the pursuit of such policies. The dystopian novel traditionally takes political themes of the present day and uses hyperbole to warn against them; Atwood’s are so pertinent that Gilead has become the literary benchmark against which Trump’s America is being measured. It’s all conjecture – but in comparison to political rhetoric, the narrative of fiction feels so much more real.

The usual problem with real life dystopias is that they affect people without a voice. In the words of Vera Claythorne, ‘Death was for... the other people.’ These laws can be brushed over if they seem irrelevant to the elites. That may be why the movement against the NRA has picked up so much in the last week; any child could be the target of a school shooting. Laws against women, and particularly underprivileged women, have been historically ignored, but surprisingly it is fiction which is helping us to change this. The first-person narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale with its broad and iconic brushstrokes of oppression allow identification with Offred from everybody. Literature and television cross social boundaries. Maybe Margaret Atwood is the imaginative aid we need to rise up in arms against misogyny and censorship; without such a potently conjured picture of the consequences of our inaction, passivity is by far the easiest option. Narrative forces us to recognise that death is not just for the other people; Offred’s anonymity means she could be anyone, and that anyone is the reader.

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