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“The Handmaid Tales” Research Analysis

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Thesis: “The Handmaid Tales” is inspired by real situations of victimization to explore how fragile feminine empowerment can be and how a society like Gilead is neither fictional nor farfetched.

Swale, Jill. ‘Feminism, and politics in The Handmaid’s Tale: Jill Swale examines the social and historical context of Atwood’s novel. (Literature in Context).’ The English Review, vol. 13, no. 1, 2002, p. 37+. Literature Resource Center.

This article discusses Margaret Atwood’s use of real-life atrocity and how it shaped her creation of the dystopian society of Gilead. It suggests that the society of Gilead was not actually an imagined totalitarian regime, but instead a realistic look at both historical and future consequences of a society deemed too out of control by a patriarchal rulership. Swale addresses societies within the middle east and their oppression of women as well as cult and religious sectors known for similar treatment within U.S. borders.

“Her ideas accumulated as she collected press cuttings about pollution and the falling birth rate, and visited Afghanistan and Iran `where women are treated in the same light as they are in Gilead’s society–some ways better, some ways worse’.” (Swale)

“Although the Taliban did not hold power in Afghanistan until after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, a similar situation occurred in Iran in 1979. After the Shah was deposed and Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini took over, women had to don the veil, give up paid work and return to the home.” (Swale)

“In North America an all-male Christian sect, the Promise Keepers, has recently evolved which preaches that women should return to traditional roles and that strong families should be based on `Biblical values’. It is an amalgam of trends which she has already observed and read about in various societies, past and present.” (Swale)

Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid Tales” is described as a “highly provocative, dystopian fiction that points out the subjugated condition of women under patriarchal dominance.” (Banupriya) However, Atwood herself insist that it is not a work of science fiction. In fact, the article states that Atwood describes the society of Gilead as “a slight twist on the society we have now.” (Swale) Gilead was created in the image of our own society.

The book was released in 1985, at a time when the feminist uprising in the United States was at its peak and had transitioned nearly 180 degrees from yesteryears. Due to this radical shift, Gilead instead was created as the antithesis of the current society within the United States. It was illustrating to its reader what it might look like if the power granted to women in the current era was stripped and returned to an even more restricted version of its former patriarchal society. Margaret Atwood aspired to showcase that a society like Gilead wasn’t out of reach and didn’t conform to the perimeters of science fiction. Rather, it’s an unfortunate, but entirely realistic society, and that realism only further compounds the chilling loss of fundamental autonomy described within Atwood’s novel.

Neuman, Shirley. ”Just a Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism, and The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 246, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center.

This article focuses on Margaret Atwood’s own observations of radical religion and it’s affects within a society. It addresses the instances that shaped her creation of the “fictional” world of Gilead. Gilead was not only shaped out of realism, but it was also crafted as what Margaret Atwood might deem the repercussions of an overly feminist society and how the patriarch might respond to correct a society in which they felt their control being weakened by the uprising of feminine equality.

“Margaret Atwood conceived the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale as one logical outcome of what she termed the ‘strict theocracy’ of the ‘fundamentalist government’ of the United States’ Puritan founding fathers” (Neuman).

““Atwood, like many feminists of the period, was keenly aware of the fragility of the newly acquired rights and equalities of women: of the opposition to these rights and equalities in many quarters, of the many places and ways in which these gains were threatened or actively eroded, and of the intersection of women’s issues, feminist issues, and broader human rights issue.” (Neuman)

“Televangelists, some of them at home in the White House, told their congregations that ‘feminists encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians’ (letter of Pat Robertson to his congregation, quoted in Lapham, 37)” (Neuman)

Margaret Atwood addressed a serious concern when publishing “The Handmaid Tales”. Power that had recently been given to women could be in jeopardy. Margaret Atwood was said to be “keenly aware of the fragility of the newly acquired rights”. (Swale) In the same right that women were given the right to vote or given the right to work, it could – by its own design—be as easily removed. Even within the confines of its own narrative, women were not considered equal and these “rights” could not necessarily be quantified as “rights”. A right implies that it existed by its very nature rather than being granted at another’s will. Consequently, we would remain at risk of losing that which had been given if the patriarchy felt threatened or somehow compromised.

Gilead exemplified the loss of this empowerment by its creation of a totalitarian regime. Gilead was created in a not so distance future, thought to be approximately 10 years ahead of the time of its publication, where a society faced with record low birth rates responds to the crisis by entrapping those of who were still fertile, and of a lower class, and enslaving them to those whom were at the top of the social hierarchy in terms of wealth. In this, Atwood described what a society might look like if it was returned to a society that no longer gave rights to their women.

Greenwood, Amanda. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale in context: a dystopian text such as The Handmaid’s Tale can be seen as a commentary on the context in which it was written. Amanda Greenwood shows how the practical and philosophical choices available to women in the mid-1980s inform the novel.’ The English Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 2009, p. 10+. Literature Resource Center.

This article focuses on Margaret Atwood’s beliefs on what a society of “radical feminist” might illicit from those of hierarchy. This article emphasizes what measure those who feel their authority being jeopardized might make to correct the “balance” back towards their favor. This article addresses the time period in which Atwood’s created this society and how it was during a shift of feminine empowerment and uprising. Gilead explores the possible repercussions of such a shift.

“Arguably, the origins of the regime are traceable to the gap created by the shift from radical to cultural feminisms in the early 1980s. Radical feminism had focused largely on equality of rights and opportunities, claiming that gender differences are socially, and therefore patriarchally, constructed, while cultural feminism argued for the celebration and acknowledgement of (gender) ‘difference’.” (Greenwood)

“Radical feminism’s ambition to ‘have it all’ was seen by many women as impractical and untenable, making the prospect of a return to ‘traditional values’ and gender roles seem attractive by comparison.” (Greenwood)

“Her words are echoed by the Commander’s assertion that feminism was ‘just an anomaly, historically speaking … All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm’ (Ch. 34). ‘Nature’ here is not the matriarchal role-model of cultural feminism, but an appropriation of the vengeful Old Testament God who created ‘Man’ in His image and cursed Eve with the pains of labour.” (Greenwood)

Atwood’s use of Gilead was to superimpose existing and former oppression with that of a “fictional” society. Due to this use of realism, Gilead is neither fictional nor farfetched. Rather, Gilead is an entirely plausible society. In the novel, the Commander asserts that Gilead’s society wasn’t “an anomaly” and was a society returning to “nature’s norm”. While this is stated by a character within the novel, the truth of this statement surpasses the realm of fiction. “Radical feminism” was at the forefront of the generation in which this book was published, and while the storyline does not appear to be outright a tale of feminism, it is a message, or a warning rather, that this is within the range of possibilities. It’s an assertation to be mindful of the fragility of a feminist society because what is given can be taken.

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“The Handmaid Tales” Research Analysis. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from

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