Political satire in The Handmaid's Tale

Atwood's targets

The Handmaid's Tale is an effective satire, in which Atwood draws her readers' attention to:

  • Unpleasant, brutal and horrific events in the recent past and in contemporary society (The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1985)
  • Social trends
  • The ways in which human beings tend to behave to one another. In chapter 30, Moira comments that, ‘You can't help what you feel...but you can help how you behave.' Offred is aware that this may not stop people behaving in unexpectedly vile ways: ‘Context is all', says Offred.

During her novel she draws on many examples of régimes which have Srebrenica graves, photo by Michael Büker, available through Creative Commonstheir echoes in Gilead. The rapid change into extraordinary brutality from an apparently civilised society - as, for example, the massacre at Srebrenica of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in the former Yugoslavia in 1995 - shows Atwood's awareness of how easily our way of life could at any time be horrifically transformed.

The relevance of Hitler and the Nazis

Hitler's rise to power in Germany in the 1930s is in several ways reflected in Gilead:

  • Hitler promised his followers a new Germany with a stress on family values. However, this rapidly turned into oppression of any who did not share his vision and the slaughter of those who were not of the ‘pure' Aryan race he demanded
  • He encouraged the fanatical adulation of the young through the Hitler Youth movement - a situation echoed in Atwood's Gilead when she writes in chapter 4 of the Guardians of the Faith that: ‘The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical'
  • Books that were considered to have any seditious or undesirable content were burned by the Nazis. Gilead too has severe restrictions on literature and indeed on literacy
  • In Hitler's ‘Third Reich' people were encouraged to betray any perceived lapses in others, even close family members, just as in chapter 41 of The Handmaid's Tale Offred realises that Nick might betray her and it is therefore ‘foolhardy' to trust him
  • In order to brainwash his countrymen into accepting the genocide of Jews and gypsies, Hitler described these groups as ‘Untermenschen' - less than human. In chapter 30 Offred realises that ‘This is what you have to do before you kill... You have to create an it'
  • Even before Hitler set up the death-camps in which millions were slaughtered, Jews were required to wear the distinguishing badge of a yellow star. The same badge would be affixed to the body of a hanged Jew in Gilead, according to Offred in chapter 31
  • Perhaps most poignantly, children of ‘undesirables' in Hitler's Germany were forcibly removed from their parents, to be adopted by loyal Nazis, reminding us of Offred's lost daughter.

The relevance of China and the Cultural Revolution

In China in the 1960s, the leader of the Communist state, Mao Zedong, felt that Communism was being diluted and that bourgeois elements were infiltrating the Party. He instigated a violent social and cultural upheaval which radically altered the way of life of millions of people:

Red guards

  • Mao launched an appeal to those who believed in his ideas, and China's youth responded by forming the Red Guards. China's citizens found that, just as in Gilead, ‘The young ones are often the most dangerous, the most fanatical'
  • Intellectuals were particularly singled out for ill-treatment and University life came to an end, as it does in Gilead
  • Books were, as Offred comments wryly about Gilead in chapter 15, seen as ‘an incendiary device' and - except for ‘the Little Red Book', the Thoughts of Chairman Mao - were burned wholesale. Gilead too has severe restrictions on literature, and indeed on literacy
  • As in Nazi Germany, people were encouraged to betray any perceived lapses in others, even close family members - in chapter 41 of The Handmaid's Tale Offred realises that Nick might betray her
  • Similarly, like Offred's lost daughter, children of the ‘bourgeoisie' were forcibly removed from their parents to be adopted by Communists loyal to Chairman Mao.

Echoes of Islamic groups and régimes

Afghan women in burkasSome of Atwood's ideas about repressive laws in Gilead may be influenced by her observation of some Islamic societies and fundamentalist groups. Such groups wish to see strict Islamic attitudes imposed universally, including segregation of the sexes, very modest dress for women and a ban on dancing. Perhaps more notorious in the Western world is the Taliban, an extreme Islamic fundamentalist group which became particularly powerful in Afghanistan about ten years after the publication of The Handmaid's Tale. Taliban views include:

  • A refusal to allow girls to be educated
  • Insistence on women being fully covered, including the face, by a head-to-toe veil or burqa
  • The imposition of brutal sentences, such as amputation and public stoning to death, for what are perceived as breaches of Sharia Law.

Echoes of the attitudes and methods of such fundamentalist groups can be seen in the strict dress codes imposed in Gilead and the public punishments and executions which Offred witnesses. She notes in chapter 42 that reading would be punished by having ‘only a hand cut off'.

Punishments such as flogging and amputation are still inflicted under Sharia law in Sudan and in Saudi Arabia, where currently women are not supposed to drive cars or to travel without being escorted by a male relative. Atwood's feminism makes her particularly hostile to such attitudes, which she observed at first hand in Afghanistan during her world tour in 1978.

Scapegoats?

However, it should be noted that Atwood is also aware that unpopular ideologies can be used as scapegoats. She hints that it is too easy to blame Taliban followers for all terrorist attacks, and that conspiracy theories suggest this may be a mistake. As Offred realises in chapter 28, when a ‘few things were blown up, post offices, subway stations':

‘you couldn't even be sure who was doing it. It could have been the army, to justify the computer searches and the other ones, the door-to-doors'.

Punishment and human rights

Atwood depicts Gilead as a régime which enforces obedience by brutal punishments. The use of torture is seen in the public display of bodies on the Wall which Offred and Ofglen witness on their regular shopping walks, and what Offred imagines happening to Luke in chapter 18. This is part of Atwood's comment on the judicial punishments handed out in many real societies. She has a strong interest in promoting human rights and her novels provide ways of making her readers think about the issues.

The fictional state of Gilead reflects the fact that harsh punishments, including amputation for theft and flogging for adultery, are still common in some countries. Atwood would also be very aware that, although capital punishment in her native Canada was not practised after 1962, it has remained a possible sentence in neighbouring America. Different American States have different laws but the death penalty is being increasingly used. Although public execution, such as that witnessed at the Salvagings in Gilead, does not take place in the USA, several hundred specially invited witnesses may be present for a death, including relatives of murder victims. Countries such as Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and China still carry out public executions.

Slavery

Slavery was abolished in the United States of America by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. However, it had been a dominant way of life for hundreds of slave owners (mostly white) and hundreds of thousands of slaves (mostly black) for several hundred years.

Brutality

In The Handmaid's Tale, the Children of Ham (black people) are being deported by Gilead - or ‘resettling' as the television reporter says in chapter 14. This reflects the slavers' perspective that black Africans were seen as racially inferior and hence it was acceptable to treat them as animals. Millions of slaves were shipped to America from Africa and thousands died on the way. The brutal treatment that many of the survivors endured whilst working on the plantations led the bravest or most desperate to attempt to escape, though failure meant severe flogging and often death.

Escape

The plight of the slaves led sympathisers in the north of the USA to help those fleeing their cruel masters and brutal existence, and an escape route to Canada, known as the Underground Railroad, was created. Attempts to escape, and the help given fleeing slaves by Quakers, were vividly depicted in Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In The Handmaid's Tale, the Underground Railroad becomes the Underground Femaleroad, a feminist version of the slaves' escape route - mocked in the Historical Notes section by Pieixoto as ‘The Underground Frailroad'. In chapter 38 Moira describes how, with the help of Quakers working with the Underground Femaleroad, she nearly reached the Canadian border.

Linguistic repression

Throughout history, régimes have known that if they can control the literature and means of communication of their citizens, they will be well on the way to complete domination. Even in apparently more liberal régimes, censorship has been used to ensure that citizens see and hear only what the powers-that-be decide is suitable. In Gilead, reading and writing are very strictly limited.

Reading

  • In chapter 9 Offred comments that there used to be postcards, ‘and you could write on the postcards and send them to anyone you wanted'
  • We learn (chapter 22) that a few privileged people such as the Aunts are allowed to read and write, because they compile reports
  • The Commander is officially allowed a Bible from which he reads to the household (chapter 15). The other books and magazines in his office are banned publications; it is completely illegal for him to keep them
  • Offred is aware that words - especially, perhaps, the Word of God in such an influential text as the Bible - can inspire ideas of freedom. She says of the Bible:

    ‘It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?'

Writing

Offred also knows that writing is a powerful tool. Holding a pen (chapter 29), she:

‘can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy, Aunt Lydia would say'.

When Offred plays Scrabble with the Commander, in chapter 23, she feels the sensuous thrill of individual words and the deliciousness of certain words on the tongue. Handmaids are supposed to stay silent or to use prescribed formulaic responses, so for Atwood the free use of words reflects individuality. In the dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell, the régime invents Newspeak, a version of English with a vocabulary so narrow that it limits the power of thought.

Real examples

In some real-life cases, régimes have endeavoured to repress the actual language of those they control, particularly of ethnic groups they take over. Examples include:

  • Russian insistence on the use of Russian in Hungarian schools during their post-war occupation of the country until 1989
  • the British insistence until fairly recently on English as the primary language in Ireland and Wales
  • Current Chinese attempts to circumscribe local ethnic languages
  • In the USA, many Native American children were, in the nineteenth century, forcibly ‘assimilated' into white culture by being forbidden to speak their native languages.

Like Atwood, writers have responded to such limitations of language by using their own word-power to satirise or undermine it: examples are the plays Mountain Language by Harold Pinter and Translations by Brian Friel.

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