The Handmaids Tale as a piece of extrapolative science fiction takes ideas and real substance from the present day as inspiration for possible futures, ranging from a perfect Utopia, to worlds similar to the dystopia found in Atwood’s novel. Atwood takes the ideology of the Christian Rite and extrapolates that forward to a future version of the United States where that ideology has been forced upon a society, where many women are infertile due to radiation. The society of Gilead she creates is admittedly an extreme one, however it serves as a satire of their attitudes and values, attacking them in her era through this work of fiction.
The Christian Rite was a right-wing Christian political group which was actively campaigning for their set of conservative policies to be implemented, attempting to graft the teachings of Christianity onto the political and social systems of America. Atwood as a woman and feminist makes use of extrapolative science fiction as a means to combat this, with her clearly Dystopian society of Gilead that she has created revealing an array of flaws in implementing their ideology on a large scale. The extremist patriarchal nature of Gilead, and the subservience of women, with the Handmaids sole purpose to procreate is a harsh, albeit accurate representation of what could become of a society that was to adopt the Christian Rite attitudes.
Science fiction novels can be interpreted as a comment on the society in which they are produced, and so we can make the above inference, along with further comments by Atwood aimed at the hard lined feminists of her time; Offred speaks at her mother in one instance and says, “You wanted a woman’s culture. Well, now there is one. It wasn’t what you mean, but it exists.” We can interpret this as a warning from Atwood as she critiques not just the Christian Rite, but the other end of the spectrum, the hard core feminists of her time, suggesting that their attitudes towards furthering their cause is not reasonable. Atwood herself can therefore be seen to avoid any ideological hardlines. Whilst it is fairly clear which side she favours – feminists – she refuses to be bound by their attitudes, presenting a measured, and reasonable outlook on the two ideologies.
I would not deem The Handmaids Tale a conventional, or expected sample of a Romance novel, in that it subverts the regulatory premise of many Romance novels – a girl and a guy are ‘meant’ for each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after. The society in which the author Margaret Atwood has placed the narrator and protagonist Offred could at best be described as unconducive to the creation of Romance, as individuality has been stripped, and replaced with roles, and titles. This prevent the vast majority of its citizens to go beyond anything but a formal relationship, particular across differing social ranks.
Perhaps the clearest example of the subversion of the Romance genre can be seen in the awkward, sex sequences. These sequences have been written by Atwood in such a way as to invoke the same feeling of awkwardness, and discomfort that the characters themselves experience, through Offreds narration. The manner in which the sexual intercourse is carried out is unnatural, and concocted, even given a title, “the ceremony” which upholds the formality of the society, thus breaking down any potential natural, ‘normal’ experiences of romance. The love making is described by Offred in chapter 16 is the reverse of what is considered ‘romantic’ in our time, with awkward, dethatched, one-sided sex, void of any emotion occurring, with the sole purpose of impregnating the woman:
“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.”
She does not even allow it to be termed ‘copulation’ as there is only one involved in the process – Offred removes herself as much as is possible from what is occurring. The fact alone that they remain virtually fully clothed, and in uniform supports this notion of formality, and distancing, even in what is the most intimate and close experience to humans can experience in Romance. The language used is itself confronting, and distancing, ‘fucking’ and ‘lower part of my body’ and ‘signed up’ reflect both the experience from a Handmaids point of view, and the way in which the society has infiltrated all aspects of humanity.
The developing relationship between Offred and Nick towards the end of the novel serves as a tip of the hat to the Romance genres true conventions, as the reader sees Offred develop what would be considered ‘normal’ emotions towards him, contrasted with the sex scenes that take place earlier in the novel. This is similar to how she remembers her true name, another sit of resistance for her, and she takes back for herself the tiniest bit of power from the society. Nick however does explicitly say to Offred “no romance” and she does not go into detail of the love making that takes place.
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood can undoubtedly be categorized as a dystopian novel, for a variety of reasons, including removal of identity, language, social division present, and the idealistic nature of Gileadean society. The novel is also a piece of speculative science-fiction, and the two genres often meet; there are limited examples of dystopian instances in the past but one can create infinite ones in our future. The totalitarian, highly oppressive and regime patriarchal society of Gilead controls the Handmaids by a removal of both language and knowledge, which enables them to begin redefining their identities, as the Handmaids memories begin to fade, and become replaced with this new system.
The Handmaids are in this instance stripped of their identities, as the government tries to effect change in the new nation. This beginning with the names of the Handmaids, and the naming process reflects a number of Dystopian features alone. The narrator’s new name is Offred, and the derivative of this comes from the commander she has been assigned, ‘Fred’ and the prefix ‘Of’, implying within it the ownership he holds over her. This immediately reveals the patriarchal set-up of Gilead, and way that the government uses language as a means for control. Offred’s site of resistance is that she continues to hold on to her old name, refusing to accept the one she has had imposed upon her, resisting in this small way against the nation. The ownership also reveals the strict social structures imposed in the society; there is a clear hierarchy present, and the Handmaids are below the commanders in status. While social hierarchies have always been present, the rigidity of one such as this – Offred has no hope of ever rising higher in Gileadean society – is to my knowledge a potential convention of a Dystopian society.
The clothing is another feature of the dystopia in Gilead, with the Handmaids enforced clothing another aspect of the regime imposed upon them. The handmaids are forced to wear white wings that hides their faces, and red dresses that removes their individuality further, and interfering with their identity. Their attire, “completely defines,” them to use the narrator’s words. The fact that all citizens of the society, even commanders wear a uniform reinforces the concept that what they are all doing is for the greater good, and not about the individual, but about the society, further revealing the idealistic attitudes imposed.
The characters all comply, however they do so with a knowledge that the punishment for not doing so is severe. This lack of freedom is what I feel makes the novel a true dysopian novel, as the lack of control that the members of society have is at odds to my own concept of what a utopia would be. Progresses in the last hundred years have been largely for equality, and freedom for particular social groups, so the reversal of this in The Handmaids tale is at odds with what to my knowledge is considered progress towards the utopian end of the spectrum, hence I would deem it to comply with conventions of a dystopian novel.