A Sketch on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Atwood's novel begins with three quotations: One taken from the Old Testament, the other from Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal and the last from a Sufi proverb, and the novel does not disappoint the expectations about these three quotations as the effects of them can be traced throughout the text. In its literary, sociological, psychological, philosophical and feminist context, the novel boldly demonstrates the present situation of society, written as if in future, but told in the past tense. This deliberate shift in time is also sustained by the three quotations. The reason is, the novel carries out the religious theme of Rachel and Jacob, which exemplifies the first quotation taken from Genesis 30:1-3; on the other hand Atwood offers a proposal by creating an imaginative government representing the future situation of the western world, and finally the universality of the Sufi proverb is exemplified through the restrictions imposed on the people of Gilead, who form a miserable community from the very top to the bottom. Atwood presents Gileadians as the victims of the totalitarian regime which claims to offer a new life to everybody regardless of sex, whereas which reduces them to objects. In a state of discomfort and despair the idea of individual responsibility is brought to minimum level.
Nonetheless, instead of a "modest proposal" Atwwod illustrates the vanity and the absurdity of the norms of a society which is given the name "Republic of Gilead" with a highly ironic and satirical outlook. Therefore, the novel turns out to be an allegory of the world we live in. Though handled with a serio-comic tone, the novel can be defined as a speculative fiction which sheds light on political, social, economic as well as psychological problems. As a result, regardless of any categorization the novel becomes a mixture of science-fiction, fairy-tale, gothic novel and political fiction.
The novel centers on a new system created by the Gileadians towards the end of the twentieth century and the process of living this new life is handled with irony. Atwood does not create a new language while conveying the attributes of this new system, but expands the possibilities of language and uses it for her purpose of reflecting the mral decadence of this society. Offred's function as a handmaid together with the other handmaids in the novel exemplifies the quotation taken from Genesis 30:1-3. Without taking into consideration the fact that the handmaids are also individuals, the system reduces them to fertility machines. The Commander resembles "Jacob" as stated in the Old Testament, therefore as a product of the same system he is entrapped with the idea of getting the handmaids pregnant. Serena Joy and the other wives on the other hand envy the handmaids and thus the novel portrays a hideously competitive society in which everybody is jealous of each other.
By depicting all the characters in a morally decaying society in which religion and political system are used to dehumanize people Atwood satirizes the clash of ideologies. Scenes like the group weddings that are organized to reward the warriors and the public executions which require hanging people on the walls warning can be seen as exaggerations through which Atwood does not make a "modest proposal" unlike Swift, but tries to take off the blinkers of people.
The Sufi proverb "In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones" best formulates Atwood's belief in the self-control of the individual or the social control of the society. In its most basic terms the statement denies the authoritative nature of the politics; human beings are given the natural ability of knowing what to do and what to avoid, instinctively at the most crucial moments.
Finally, it can be said that throughout the novel Atwood makes ample use of the three quotations which she gives at the beginning. The religious theme of Rachel and Jacob is handled with humorous touches: Offred's awareness of the power of her body amuses her and encourages her to use this power freely: "They [the guardians] touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt away around me. It's like tumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach... I'm not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there." (Atwood 22) Atwood's proposal is not a modest one, unlike the famous eighteenth century writer and ciritic Jonathan Swift's. On the contrary, she conveys her message by taking the subject to its extreme points. The Sufi proverb justifies the exaggerated situation of the "Republic of Gilead."

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986.

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