(Ayatollah Khomeini turned Iran into an Islamic Republic. ) Not only were alarming events like these happening in Middle Eastern countries like Iran, they were happening in our own backyard. Neuman goes on to say: By 1984, in the United States, the gains women had achieved during the previous decade had come under attack from several directions. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, women made up an increasing percentage of those in the lowest-paid occupations, and they made no gains or lost ground in the better-paid trades and professions.
The number of elected and politically appointed women declined. One-third of all federal budget cuts under Reagan’s presidency came from programs that served mainly women, even though these programs represented only 10 per cent of the federal budget. The average amount a divorced man paid in child support fell 25 per cent. Murders related to sexual assault and domestic violence increased by 160 per cent while the overall murder rate declined. (859-860) It seems like all over the world, women were not getting the treatment that they had worked so hard over the years to receive.
Real-life events like these most likely inspired Atwood to create the Republic of Gilead, and to warn readers about the path that the world leaders were taking society down if things did not change. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the reader sees many instances of women being stripped of their rights. The infertile women are either wives or servants, and if they are neither of those they are sent to the Colonies to work or be killed. The fertile women are prized in Gileadean society, but not in a favorable way.
Their job is to bear children, and nothing else. They are stripped of their identities and as expected to act pious, even though what they are doing is quite opposite. They are used as sex objects, being required to have intercourse with their Commanders once a month, with the wives sitting right behind them while it is happening. It is degrading to the handmaids, and to make matters worse, the handmaids are blamed if they do not conceive a child after a certain period of time, and they are sent to the Colonies.
At one point Offred says: “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136). Outwardly, the narrator complies with everything that is expected of her. Inwardly, she is not brainwashed to think that this is right. It could be because her mother and best friend, Moira, were feminists before Gilead. Ironically, the women with the most freedom are the ones that are basically prostitutes. They work at Jezebel’s, an underground club where the Commanders go to get drunk and look at and show off women.
The women that work here are basically forgotten about by society, so they can do as they please. They dress in skimpy outfits, and many of these women were lawyers, businesswomen, and sociologists in a former life. Atwood’s portrayal of women is a warning that something needs to be done about womens’ rights before it gets to this point. The Handmaid’s Tale was written during the Post-Modernism era of literature, and Atwood stays true to the postmodern way of writing. According to Literaryarticles. om, one of the characteristics of postmodern writing is pastiche, which is: ”to combine, or ‘paste’ together, multiple elements. In Postmodernist literature, many postmodern authors combined, or “pasted” elements of previous genres and styles of literature to create a new narrative voice, or to comment on the writing of their contemporaries” (Literary Articles).
Atwood demonstrates pastiche well, because there are many elements in the book that would be considered modernist. In “North American Encounters: Essays in U. S. nd English and French Canadian Literature,” Dieter Meindl says: “In a well known study of contemporary English Canadian fiction, Margaret Atwood is treated as a postmodernist writer. This strikes one as problematic… Margaret Atwood is, for all practical purposes, a writer in the modernist tradition” (44). Atwood grew up during the modernist era, so perhaps she was influenced by authors of this time and wanted to incorporate elements of it in her works. According to Professor John Lye, one of the characteristics of modernist literature is the stream of consciousness way of narrating.
Stream of consciousness is “the continuous flow of sense perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories in the human mind” (2001). The book is a first person narrator, and we are not only given what she says, but we also know her thoughts, feelings, and memories. According to Lye, another characteristic of modernist literature is that the “Modernist narrator gives his/her point of view, emotions, subjective, limited” (2001). This is also true of The Handmaid’s Tale again, because we know the feelings and opinions of the narrator’s, and nobody else’s.
Another characteristic of postmodernism that Atwood uses is the rejection of Western ideals. Literary Articles says: “Whereas Modernism places faith in the ideas, values, beliefs, culture, and norms of the West, Postmodernism rejects Western values and beliefs as only a small part of the human experience and often rejects such ideas, beliefs, culture, and norms” (Literary Articles). The Handmaid’s Tale is filled with instances of rejection, including: religion, environmental issues, womens’ rights, the government, the social class system, and international relations.
In the scholarly article “The Politics of The Handmaid’s Tale,” Gorman Beuchamp says: In Canada, they said, ‘Could it happen here? ‘ In England, they said, jolly good yarn. ‘ In the United States, they said, ‘How long have we got? ‘ The British response is the calmest, viewing the work, that is, purely as fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland or Lord of the Rings. Canadians feel, apparently, some modest degree of apprehension. But it is in America, where the tale is set, that reaction has been most intense, most alarmed. 11)
These reactions are evidence that Atwood is writing about very real things going on in North America at the time. In fact, Atwood rejects the idea of people calling the book science fiction, because, even though it takes place in the future. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Atwood says: “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist” (Kornbluf).
So, the events in the book are inspired by real life, and they are not something that Atwood made up off of the top of her head. Atwood seems to be saying that if society continues what it was doing, then this world would be the result. The Handmaid’s should be added to this course because it reinforces the importance of reading and literacy in society. So often, literate human beings take the ability to read for granted, because it is something that is done on a daily basis.
Offred is forbidden from reading and writing in this new society, so she reverts back to the original form of telling a story: orating. In the scholarly article “(Fl)orality, Gender, and the Environmental Ethos of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” Deborah Hooker says: “Because she figures herself as composing orally beneath the wreath, however, that depiction invokes another moment in the chronology of literacy–the transitional moment of the classical orator, situated between the fading world of primary orality and the initial onset of literate ominance” (286).
The historians in the historical notes find the story recorded on tapes. In the beginning, Offred says: This isn’t a story I’m telling. It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along. Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. () This line emphasizes the idea that it is human nature to tell stories.
Ever since communication was invented, humans have been passing down stories, and some of them even survive today. Although Gilead forbade reading and writing, Offred found a way around it to tell her story. Although she was able to record her story, there are many instances in the book where she clings to her ability to read. When doing a simple activity, such as sitting she thinks: “I sit in the chair and think about the word chair. It can also mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution.
It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh. None of these facts has any connection with the others” It is little thoughts like these that really make the reader think about what it would be like to not have the ability to read. Another striking line in the book is when Offred finds the phrase “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”() carved on the inside of her dresser door at the Commander’s house, left by the previous handmaid. She has no idea what it means, but just the power of reading feels good to her.
When she is called to the Commander’s office, they play Scrabble and he allows her to read through old magazines. After she feels more comfortable with him, she asks him what this mysterious Latin phrase means. He tells her it translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, and he thinks it is funny because it was an old joke when he was in school. Offred takes it seriously, and she realizes that her predecessor was leaving her advice. After she finds out the meaning, Offred thinks of this phrase often, and it may even influence her fighting spirit to the very end.
It is this instance in the book where the reader can see how truly powerful just a few words can be. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic novel that is warning humanity to change their ways, or else this dystopian world will be the result. Although this book was written in 1986 touching on many things that were going on at the time, it is still relatable today. This terrible world reminds the reader that they are very fortunate to be able to read and have the rights that they do, because life would be miserable without them.
It is written in true postmodern style, tying in elements of literature that came before it. Postmodernism does not sugar-coat anything, and there is no better style to write this novel in, because its purpose is to shock readers. Perhaps the most important reason this book should be added to Literature in English II is that it is a testament to human spirit. Offred has been through so much tragedy, but she possibly survives everything and never “lets the bastards grind her down”.