Analysis: To What Extent is the Handmaid’s Tale a Typical Dystopic Novel?
The literary genre of dystopia derives from works of political philosophy like Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1561). In the Utopia, Moore explores his ideas of how to run the perfect society. Moore’s ‘perfect world’ is reversed in the dystopic, repressive societies portrayed in novels like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953) and 1984 (George Orwell, 1949). These novels engage with the problems of technology, totalitarianism and human rights. In an article published The Guardian in 2012, ‘Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale’, Atwood says

her “interest in dystopian literature” was deeply influenced by Huxley, Bradbury and Orwell, and admits a fascination with “the major dictatorships of the 20th Century”. She goes on to say, “once you’ve been intrigued by a literary form, you always have a secret yen to write an example of it yourself.”

Dystopia, and Utopia can both be classified as speculative fiction, allowing the writer to create new ‘worlds’ with clear rules, just as ideologies build new, ‘ideal’ societies through rigid rules, uncompromisingly enforced for the (hoped) benefit of all. Utopia is characterised by idealism just as political ideologies such as Communism were created in a spirit of improvement. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx set out ideas that would shape the twentieth century. Greater equality came with the Gulag, the KGB and the deaths of twenty five million Russians. Unquestionably, Marx dreamed of bringing relief to the ‘oppressed’ living in a ‘heartless world’ with ‘soulless conditions.’** In practice, Marx’s envisioned Utopia slid, through the totalitarian dictatorship needed to bring it about, into the dystopic horrors lamented by Orwell in Animal Farm (1945). There is not then, so clear a divide as might be imagined between Utopia and Dystopia. Dystopia is what results from the utopic project. Ideals are corrupted. Humanity is eroded. The individual is sacrificed for the ‘greater good’. In ‘Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale’, Atwood writes: ‘Gilead has utopian idealism flowing through its veins, coupled with a high-minded principle.’ In chapter 32, the Commander asks Offred her “opinion” on “what we’ve done”. The almost hysterical repetition of the word “better” drives straight down into the utopic ideals that underpin every dystopia:

‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.’

In designing the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood first designed the Utopic vision of Gilead. She follows the speculative model of asking ‘what if’, limited by certain rules. One of these, which she imposed on herself as a writer was: ‘I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist.’ This was done to ground the story, giving historical weight and realism – which is picked up in the final chapter where the historian lists precedents from ‘the immediate pre-Gilead era’. The reference to STDs, especially ‘the infamous AIDS epidemic’ and ‘the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides’ is chillingly close to home, and serves a second purpose. One of the major aims of dystopic fiction is to function as a warning. If we carry on in this vein… beware. Like the utopic writings of Moore and Marx, dystopic novels are meant to influence – but in the negative. Believability, therefore, is essential.

Throughout the twentieth century, Communism – beside Hitler – was the most obvious ‘utopic monster’. It is the backbone of Animal Farm, informs 1984 and the McCarthy era policies that influenced Bradbury. Atwood picks up on this and says, that for her ‘What if’, she wanted to ask a different question: ‘What if, while we were busy staring down the wolf at the door, another one was creeping over the back fence?’ (BA 1) This wolf, for Carter, was right wing Christian fundamentalism. Her novel is about more than totalitarianism and the reversal of eighteenth century Enlightenment ideals of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’.

The Handmaid’s Tale is unusual in that it is specifically about male control of women. She argues that her novel is not merely a ‘feminist dystopia’ in ‘Haunted by the Handmaid’s Tale’. It is not all women who are repressed, nor all men who are in control. But the effect of focussing on Offred as Handmaid, and the concept of female control and a return to traditional male-female roles, is to foreground feminist concerns. In this regard, her novel stands out from its genre.

As in Brave New World, Atwood imagines a political system based on enforced roles. Radically, though, her vision of the future is founded on historical precedent – of the biblical story of Rachel and Leah – not as we might expect, on future technology. Huxley deals with family and fertility as technological progress – with a darker side. Atwood’s vision is of a failure of fertility, caused by technology – of regress, not progress. The narrative behind Gilead is a thousands-year-old biblical story. Social roles are modelled on sixteenth century American Puritan ideals.

Like 1984 and Fahrenheit 541, Atwood deals with book burning, linguistic control – including neologisms similar to Newspeak…