Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was controversial and influential in the decades following its publication. The book acquired best-seller status in the 1980s and has continued to sell in North America and abroad being translated into more than thirty-five languages, including Chinese and Serbo-Croatian. The Handmaid’s Tale has been transformed into a film, an opera, a complete radio adaptation, a play and a series. Most importantly, it has been introduced to many young readers and in art programs in the United States and Canada. During the years The Handmaid’s Tale has also been compared to some of the greatest dystopian works of all time which includes Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), the works of Franz Kafka from the beginning of the 20th century, Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). When the novel was first published, Publishers Weekly decreed that The Handmaid’s Tale deserves a place of honor on the small shelf of warning tales that have entered modern folklore. Its toughest critics, including conservative taxpayers seeking to ban the novel from school curricula and liberal writers dismayed by its critique of feminism, have admitted that Atwood’s novel draws its power from accurate, albeit troubling, criticisms, standards contemporary cultural. Additionally, the cultural issues that Atwood explores in The Handmaid’s Tale – religious fundamentalism, feminism, consumerism, environmental decline and rampant technology – have become more debated since the mid-1980s, making the novel seem more and more foresighted and relevant. Atwood herself said, ‘The thing to remember is that there is nothing new in the society described in The Handmaid’s Tale, except time and place. All the things I wrote about – as noted in the’ Historical Notes ‘at end – they were done more than once. ‘
Margaret Atwood discusses the events and ideas that inspired the ‘maid’s story’ in nearly a dozen interviews and essays. Readers of that era will see this novel as a cultural roman a clef, full of faint thoughts and personalities from the mid-1980s. Decoding their identities is a pleasure linking fiction to historical roots. Atwood pointed out that her life was characterized by political instability and radical social change. The Holocaust began before her birth in 1939, and World War II dominated her entire childhood. In August 1945, the Allied forces deployed atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, making the World War II a controversial and devastating war. Although Atwood may have been too young to understand the events, her perspective on political injustice increased with the age.
She was keenly aware of the anti-communist cleansing movement of the 1950s, and in her teens was inspired by Arthur Costler’s Darkness at Noon and Orwell’s Nineteen and Forty-eight. Politics became also a personal issue: ‘As a college student,’ she said “I was a volunteer worker with immigrants wishing to improve their English, and my charge was a woman doctor who’d escaped from Czechoslovakia. She was a wreck. I got an earful” (“Note to the Reader.”)
Apparently, the horror of atomic war has penetrated Atwood’s epistemology, so much so that she uses nuclear metaphors to portray the act of creating The Handmaid’s Tale:
Every book is a sort of mushroom cloud thrown up by a large substance of material that has been accumulating for a lifetime. I had long been interested in the histories of totalitarian regimes and the different forms they have taken in various societies; while the initial idea for The Handmaid’s Tale came to me in 1981, I avoided writing it for several years because I was apprehensive about the results—whether I would be able to carry it off as a literary form. (“Note to the Reader”)
At the beginning of the 1980s, the ‘mushroom cloud’ of experience produced by ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ began to take shape when Atwood says she felt like the words frequently spoken by American religious leaders shocked her more and more and that the events cannot be ignored, especially the rising fanaticism of the Iranian monotheistic regime.
She believes that religious fundamentalism, both at home and abroad, poses a threat to freedom. During her short stay in Afghanistan in 1978, she and her family saw the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. At the time, Afghanistan was undergoing a change; decades of civil war and a devastating war with the Soviet Union had devastated the country and left it vulnerable to religious fundamentalists.
In Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power and began to lead the way for a coup aimed at overthrowing the shah. While in Afghanistan, Atwood was disturbed because the men spoke to her partner only and not directly to her. She marked the absence of women on the streets and markets. (“When Afghanistan” 204-6). But one of her strongest impressions arose when, driven by her curiosity, she bought a purple chador, a full-length ‘veil’ costume that is mandatory for some fundamentalist Muslim women who show up in public. Atwood knew at that moment that the chador was more than just a dress:
I…knew that clothing is a symbol, that all symbols are ambiguous, and that this one might signify a fear of women or a desire to protect them from the gaze of strangers. But it could also mean more negative things, just as the color red can mean love, blood, life, royalty, good luck—or sin. (“When Afghanistan” 206)
Although Atwood hoped that the garment would give her a sense of freedom-acting as a fantasy ‘invisibility cloak’ that would give her ‘the power to see without being seen’- but she found it kind of alienating:
Once I put it on, I had an odd sense of having been turned into negative space, a blank in the visual field, a sort of antimatter—both there and not there. Such a space has power of a sort, but it is a passive power, the power of taboo. (“When Afghanistan” 207)
In the ensuing years, when war broke out in some countries in the Middle East, Atwood’s fears of increasing totalitarianism intensified, and anti-Western political rhetoric by Muslim dictators increased sharply. And this is the moment The Handmaid’s Tale was conceived. It was created out of Atwood’s alarm at the frequency with which she heard, from her American friends, the facile expression ‘It can’t happen here’ in response to Atwood’s accounts of ‘excursions into the darker side of religious fanaticism in Iran and Afghanistan. (Oates)
In the early 1980s, Atwood began writing some newspaper clippings that documented the rise of fundamentalist theocracies around the world. That included the theocratic movements in the United States that wanted to remove traditional boundaries between the church and the state. These clippings in particular laid the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the end, Atwood argued that there was nothing in the novel not based on history or something that already has happened in other countries at some point in time, or for which no relevant supporting documents is not available. These documents allowed Atwood to keep an eye on the rise of global totalitarianism and to imagine specific technologies that governments could use to implement greater control over citizens. Orwell predicted in 1984 that language is often used as a tool to control understanding among people. For example, in the Philippines, the term ‘salvaging’ has become a government-recognized euphemism for the officially authorized murders of political dissidents. In general, the control of citizens is reflected in the control of female bodies. In Romania, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu controlled women’s fertility and announced a ban on birth control and abortion. Atwood also pointed out that China’s ‘one-child’ policy legislation provides the opposite effect. She tracked down what happened in Romania. In Romania, the Ceausescu regime forced women to have babies, and it happened when in China women were forced not to have children.
When Atwood began to write The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, the North America’s cultural climate became more conservative. To welcome Orwell’s 1984, social critics were busy assessing the development of totalitarianism in the world since the publication of Orwell’s novel in 1949. They report with frustration that the world is still troubled due to oppressive governments. The capitalist empires of the ‘First World’ and communist countries of the ‘Second World’, did not manage to achieve the atmosphere of peace and social justice that many people hoped to achieve after World War II.
And the ‘Third World’ (which we now call a ‘developing country’) continued to be in a state of economic and political chaos, a perfect incubator for authoritarianism. Appropriately, Atwood began writing The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin, which perfectly expressed the deadlock between the political worlds. She pointed out that in the spring of 1984, she had no way of knowing that in five years, the wall would fall and the Soviet Union would disintegrate.
In the 1980, Britain, the Commonwealth (including Canada and Australia), and the United States all dealt with conservative revolutions in which the new government defined itself against liberalism. In 1984, Canada’s liberal prime minister, Pierre Eliot Trudeau, who has served since 1968, was fired by Brian Mulroney, a progressive conservative who obtained majority in parliament.
However, Canada’s new Mulroney Conservatives are relatively modest compared to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, Britain’s first female prime minister, the main architect of the conservative movement which aims to challenge the socialist systems and dominate UK from 1979 to 1990 (and, through the government of her protégé John Major, from 1990 to 1997).
Thatcher faced a troubled economy, deindustrialization and a thriving welfare economy. Her predecessors’ policy reforms included restoring supply-side economics; strengthening privatization of previous government agencies; new restrictions on welfare, isolationist foreign policies and attacks on trade unions.
In the United States, the ‘Reagan Revolution’ paralleled the rise of the Thatcher and Mulroney governments in Britain and Canada. Like Mrs. Thatcher, former film star Ronald Reagan, who had served as governor of California, inherited a troubled economy, a culture of deindustrialization, and an unwanted rise in the cost of government entitlements.
However, Reagan was indirectly elected because of the rise of the Muslim theocracies. Meanwhile, Atwood had been watching for more than a decade the fundamentalist Islamic coup d’état in Iran. For years, Iran was ruled by the authoritarian Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was installed in 1953 with the support of the CIA. On November 4, 1979, a group of students took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and detained 52 hostages under the instigation of long-exiled fundamentalist religious authority Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Six U.S. diplomats managed to hide in the Canadian embassy and secure the Canadian passports during a rescue operation planned by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, now known as ‘Canadian Caper.’ Worldwide, the detaining of American hostages for 444 days was considered a violation of diplomatic tradition. In the meantime, the United States itself was actually ‘hostage’ as the world received anti-Western remarks from Iran’s leaders. In April 1980, Democratic President Jimmy Carter ordered the Operation Eagle Claw, a secret rescue operation, which ended in failure, tarnishing the nation’s prestige. The failed rescue mission exacerbated the public humiliation in the United States and ensured Carter’s failure in the 1980 presidential election, setting the stage for the Reagan revolution. It must be noted that Reagan released the hostages six minutes after taking the office on January 21, 1981. It was later revealed that Reagan had agreed to provide weapons to the anti-US Iranian government, thus releasing the hostages.
As a response on these events, Margaret Atwood expressed a strong sense of Canadian identity and has worked hard to maintain a certain separation from Canada’s south neighbor. However, Atwood, like most of her compatriots and women, found it impossible to ignore the influence that U.S. The presidential election in 1980 was also affected by the so-called ‘Moral Majority’, a Christian political action committee that reportedly gave two-thirds of the white evangelical votes to Ronald Reagan.
Although this voting group helped to defeat Carter, its growth and strength showed the rapid changes in the American cultural climate. Founded by the evangelist Jerry Falwell in 1979, the Moral Majority advocates an agenda that includes declaring abortion illegal, opposing state recognition and acceptance of homosexuality, opposing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), implementing traditional views on family life, and censorship the media that promotes what the movement considers to be ‘anti-family’.
The only force in American society that defines itself as opposed to so-called ‘women’s rights” was the Moral Majority. In 1973, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortions in the United States and, as a consequence, provided targets for those who opposed feminism. Feminists had defined women’s control over their own fertility as an important basis for women’s rights. Many opponents of abortion now use “the right to choose” as a litmus test for conservative political candidates. The Political Action Committee saw many conservatives who called themselves ‘pro-choice’ rather than ‘pro-life’ as targets of political failure, and opposed abortion as the main ‘plan’ in the Republican political program. The anti-abortion supporters emphasized ‘fetal rights’ rather than ‘women’s rights’. As Kristen Luker points out in her study Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, the Evangelical Christian Political Action Groups has successfully defined anti-abortion as an important component of Republican identity, thus effectively including all conservatives in their circle of influence.
From the 1920s, when the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution empowered women to vote, to the 1970s, when labor and consumer laws were updated to eliminate certain gender discrimination, women’s rights experienced many advances. In the early 1980s, women’s rights, once portrayed by simple equality and fairness, were now seen by some in the United States as a threat to ‘traditional’ cultural values, especially to ‘Christian’ families which were composed of a working father, a housewifely mother and several children. In 1979, The Equal Rights Amendment of the United States Constitution according to which “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” was rejected when some states failed to ratify it (including those who canceled the ratifications in response to political pressure). Meanwhile, some opponents argued that ERA would mandate taxpayers to fund abortions and legalize same-sex marriages, issues that have become a controversial political issue which was awkward to deal with for many conservatives and liberal politicians. In 1982, A Supreme Court appeal against the ERA’s defeat failed to restore it, and although it was reintroduced in every Congress since 1984, it never received sufficient support for ratification.