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Canadian author Margaret Atwood is one of the most famous but at the same time most controversial authors of modernity. She has written not only prose but also poems, and has won several literature awards. Atwood is famous for her feminist views and active political position. Her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale contains both identifications of Atwood’s feminism and her concern about the threats of fundamentalism in politics. It was written in a genre of speculative fiction and received Arthur C. Clarke Award. The story describes something that have never happened but that might happen if the trends of religious fundamentalism ruled the politics. In the eighties, when the story was written, women’s movement experienced a number of defeats, and the religious right received greater power in government. In addition, pollution caused some cases of sterility and mutations, which became a ground for heated debates in the society. All these factors influenced Atwood’s work. The author presented her views on what the consequences can be if these trends are not overcome. Distortions of the Bible and history, oppression of women, rigid social hierarchy and totalitarianism are the hallmarks of the theocratic Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, and these traits are Atwood’s precautions against the extreme religiosity that inevitably turns into religious fundamentalism.
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The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985. Several major trends of that time found its expression in Atwood’s work. First of all, the rise of the religious right in the politics of the United States became evident with the election of Ronald Reagan. Traditionalism and conservative views formed the mainstream of politics throughout the world, not only in the United States. Margaret Atwood recalls that by a strange coincidence she visited Afghanistan six weeks before the war began and Iran eight months before the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah (“Genesis of The Handmaid’s Tale” 10). Those vivid manifestations of the rise of religions could not pass unnoticed by Atwood who was concerned about the dangers of fundamentalism.
Secondly, the Equal Rights Amendment elaborated to bring equal rights to men and women was not ratified until its deadline in 1982. This meant the failure of feminist attempts to gain equality guaranteed by law. For many activists, including Atwood, this event was an obstacle on the path of further emancipation of women and could mean a step backwards in gender politics (Brians 1). On the opinion of conservative politicians, women should stay at home.
Thirdly, statistics shown a decline of fertility rates and a rise of mutation rates in the industrial West, caused by pollution and chemicals in the water and soil (Atwood, “Genesis of The Handmaid’s Tale” 10). Of course, this trend presented a threat for the society, and Atwood predicted what would happen if the pollution were not stopped – a utilitarian attitude for women who are viewed purely as an instrument for reproduction.
Lastly, Atwood was disturbed by the vast implementation of new technologies that could possibly be used for social control (“Genesis of The Handmaid’s Tale” 10). Such a conventional thing as a credit card can help state bodies track every citizen’s movements, and it is particularly easy to restrict or even deny access to money for anybody, which was actually done in Atwood’s story at the time of formation of Gilead.
Therefore, the threats of religious fundamentalism, sexism, industrial pollution and technologies for social control have found their reflection in Atwood’s novel. The author imagined how the life could become if these rends take precedence over democratic principles.
Religious fundamentalism as the basis of the state of Gilead
Religious fundamentalism in Atwood’s novel is the major theme of the present essay, and its manifestations in the Gilead reality will be discussed below. It is obvious that no other factors would have so drastic consequences if the religious fundamentalists did not take the power in the United States and created a theocratic Republic of Gilead instead.
Parallels between 17th century Puritanism and Gilead’s theocracy
Margaret Atwood recognized that her study of the 17th century Puritan America had a great impact on her, and many things she knows about Puritans were reflected in her dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale. She believes that 17th century Puritans did not actually dream of democracy, like all of us used to believe; instead, their society was a “rigid theocracy”, according to Atwood (“Genesis of The Handmaid’s Tale” 9-10). Puritans were trying to build an ideal society based on religion, and all who disobey should have been punished. To enforce their rules, the first things they build were a prison and a gallows. Similarly, any opposition was outlawed in Gilead, and those found guilty in disobedience were severely punished – sent to the Colonies or executed.
As Duplay fairly notes, Puritan New England and theocratic society of Gilead “share an obsession with religion and knowledge, and do not hesitate to resort to extreme measures in order to enforce what they consider orthodox” (27). In addition, it is obvious that Atwood was also thinking about another similarity – the role of women. She dedicated the novel to Mary Webster, who was accused in witchcraft in New England in the 1680s. During that epoch, women were perceived as inferior creatures that should obey men and be occupied exclusively be housekeeping. Those who distinguished themselves from this stereotype were taken with suspicion and often accused in witchcraft. In Atwood’s novel, the situation revives. Women are perceived mainly as reproductive instruments, and those who are sterile are “Unwomen”.
Therefore, Gilead and Puritans share intolerance to different views, violence in oppression of opposition, and a slighting attitude to women. However, in Gilead this attitude becomes also purely practical and utilitarian, serving the political goals of the rulers.
Manifestations of religion in social hierarchy
As it was already mentioned, rigid hierarchy distinguished the society of Gilead. The division of society into several groups does not leave room for any uncategorized existence, and the names of most of the groups are taken from the Bible. Thus the rulers attempt to leave an imprint of religion on all spheres of life. The ruling class has the name of “Commanders of the Faithful”, and, as such, is entitled to many privileges inaccessible for the rest. Being the Commanders, they, of course, should themselves be truly “Faithful” – at least, by appearance. As Offred says, “it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 71). Soldiers who are used for “routine policing” are called “Guardians of the Faith” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 20), and more honored soldiers who fight in wars are called “Angels”. There are also many other examples of the borrowing of names from the Bible, like the name “Marthas” for the class of female servants originating from the New Testament story of Jesus visiting Martha and Mary. This demonstrates that the ideologists of Gilead tried to impose some sacred roles on their citizens and give the religious meaning to their functions.
One of the major social roles, the role of handmaid, was justified by the ruling class with the help of reference to Bible, namely, the story of Rachel. Even the tradition of “birthing stool” comes from this story: “with its double seat, the back raised like a throne behind the other” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 117). Through this construction, it should have looked like the Wife participated in childbirth. Thus, even the most disgusting rules and institutions were justified by the reference to the Scripture.
Misreading the Bible
Indeed, the Bible was extensively used by the leaders of Gilead to justify their actions. To make things easier, the Bible was prohibited and locked, and when specific passages are cited, they are distorted and misquoted. Since nobody has an access to the original, nobody can prove that the statements are false. However, the “transitional generation”, as Aunt Lydia identified women like Offred (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 117) holds the memory of how it should be and notices the substitution.
One of the most striking examples of such substitutions is the misread quote of St. Paul – “From each according to her ability; to each according to his needs” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 117), which becomes a slogan in Gilead. It can offer a perfect explanation to almost every regulation and cynically reveals the intent to use women in order to serve men.
According to Vehley, the biblical tradition is remembered but also dismembered in Gilead; little episodes are shorn of their context in a larger narrative (159). The elite had a monopoly on reading, so they could safely interpret any writing in any way they like with the aim of supporting the ruling regime and patriarchy. Indeed, the holy texts of almost any religion contain many controversial places that could be interpreted in this or that way or misused on purpose if being torn out of context. The examples of such abuse can often be tracked in modern Islam fundamentalist speculations that rely their justifications of violence on Quran. Gilead society also successfully used this instrument to support its oppressive regime. God is not viewed as a supreme power; God is viewed as a “National Resource” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 213).
History receives as little respect as the Holy Scripture does. It is being rewritten by the regime to serve their purposes. In Gilead, “The truth is not recorded but manufactured” (Duplay 32). Offred’s remarks suggest that the history that is now told is nothing more but an illusion, and she does not see her in this history: “from the point of view of future history, this kind, we’ll be invisible” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 228). Indeed, no record, no photos of handmaids are made, and no traces of these women would be left for future generations. In addition, the regime practiced secret repressions of the relatives of handmaids who managed to escape in order to prevent the formation of bad image of Gilead in foreign countries.
The stronghold of knowledge, Harvard University, has been taken over by Eyes, the internal intelligence, and the knowledge they acquire is quickly lost since Gilead has a habit of destroying its own records, as Professor Pieixoto complained in the Historical Notes. Thus, hardly any trustworthy information can be gained from the official documents. However, Professor still has little trust for the Handmaid’s tale and tries to find out the real history of Gilead that he perceives as a history of powerful man (Vehrey 164). Thus, he supports the view that the history happens first, and then written, and with this interpretation we can never know the truth, and the “so-called iron laws of history do not have any validity, except maybe ideological constructs intended to disguise the basic meaningless of reality” (Duplay 31).
Therefore, the religious motifs are very strong in the Atwood’s novel. Practically every name, every ceremony, every social role intends to have a religious meaning, and in this preoccupation with religion Gilead has much in common with the Puritan New England of the 17th century. Both societies oppressed women and were utterly intolerant to nonconformists. However, despite this religiosity, the Holy Scripture was deliberately distorted to make up quotes that would justify the politics of oppression, violence, and utilitarian attitude to people, especially to women. History was distorted too to leave the new generations without the past and thus eliminate any threat of disobedience in future. By describing the horrors of the theocratic totalitarian regime of Gilead the author prevents us from resorting to excessive religiosity and fundamentalist views. Margaret Atwood described something that might happen if nothing is done to change the current trends. Of course, many of the circumstances have changed since then but the warning is still topical.
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