The Handmaid's Tale as a Warning to Society
Margaret Atwood's renowned science fiction novel, The Handmaid's Tale, was written in 1986 during the rise of the opposition to the feminist movement. Atwood, a Native American, was a vigorous supporter of this movement. The battle that existed between both sides of the women's rights issue inspired her to write this work. Because it was not clear just what the end result of the feminist movement would be, the author begins at the outset to prod her reader to consider where the story will end. Her purpose in writing this serious satire is to warn women of what the female gender stands to lose if the feminist movement were to fail. Atwood envisions a society of extreme changes in governmental, social, and mental oppression to make her point.
Early on it is evident that the authority of this society has been changed from a theocracy to a totalitarian government. The first sentence reveals that the current living quarters of the main character, Offred, are located in "what had once been the gymnasium" (3). The narrator recounts the past fifty years in this place from felt skirts of the fifties to the green spiked hair of the nineties. Then she turns to describe its transformation into what resembles an army barrack but is actually functioning as a kind of prisoner of war camp. In these few short sentences, Atwood has described the conditions of a place called Gilead, which is located in what used to be called the United States. In chapter four the author reveals that the current government is waging a war against the church. This is evidence that this society has shifted away from recognizing God as its supreme authority. The narrator then mentions that church songs like Amazing Grace are no longer sung in public as they once were. In the same chapter, Offred refers to the fact that the highly visible black vehicles that move among the people to maintain law and order have been given biblical names. In the previous world this would refer to God and His omnipresence as he watches over his people. However, now the name symbolizes the eyes of a totalitarian government watching to see that no one breaks the rules. This especially applies to the women of the society.
In Gilead the social relationship that once existed between men and women is a thing of the past. In the former society women had value and felt good about themselves and how they looked. However, in the new society the men have stripped the women of their freedom and equality and lowered them to varying degrees of status. The young healthy women are labeled handmaids and are "issued" (24) by the government to various high-ranking...