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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The 20th century of ideologies, like no other period in history, has shown to mankind the thread and terror of totalitarianism. The idea of social disease leading to the death of personality, strengthening of ideology, and power has become an unfortunate reality for millions of people around the world. No wonder, a dystopia as a literary form has become a distinctive feature in the writer’s toolbox of the past century being a reflection of society’s apprehension of that time.

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Status of Women in a Totalitarian Society

In this article, we will focus on the status of women in a totalitarian society envisioned by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as the tendencies of today’s world that imply a second-rate status for women.

The novel in a hyperbolized manner depicts a victory of patriarchal-fundamental “traditional values” in a fictional Republic of Gilead, formed within the borders of the USA. The outer form of the story resembles Orwell’s “1984” and involves such classical aspects of the dystopian style as total control over citizens, uniformity, the depravity of privacy, fake history, etc.

Most of the population in the Republic is infertile. Moreover, the ones, who are still capable of giving birth, refuse to bring children into the world of terror and despair. Therefore, the government takes extreme measures to increase the birth rate. The Institute of Handmaids is being established.

Handmaids – forced members of the institution – are surrogate mothers, whose only purpose is to bear children for the masters of the privileged families of the Republic.

The story is presented from a point of view of a woman named Offred. “Of-Fred” refers to Fred – the man she serves. Instead of going to a colony, being one of a few who could still conceive a child, she becomes handmade.

It should be mentioned, that the policy of the state dictates: that if a handmade cannot get pregnant by her master – no matter how many unsuccessful attempts he has with previous handmaids – it is always her blame.

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From the very beginning, the story states the clear and unconditional triumph of patriarchy – women are regarded as second-class citizens, being denied their basic rights and completely deprived of any form of freedom. The new military dictatorship is reorganized along the orthodox ideas of a compulsory Christian regime. This is a distinctive feature of the novel: when the classical concept of dystopia seems to deny religion, traditionalism, and family, the world envisioned by Margaret Atwood is greatly based on a twisted interpretation of these values.

While getting familiar with the details of Gilead’s order, it becomes clear that the fantasy of Atwood has its roots in the reality of some countries in today’s world. Despite the noticeable progress around the globe, the problem of abusing women still takes place.

In modern society prevails the image of a confident, successful, and free woman. However, for many representatives of the fair sex, all these privileges remain inaccessible. Prohibition of private property, restricted access to education and reading, and inability to socialize with other men – all resembles the position of women in some states of the third world. The truth is that the absolute majority of the female population in some of these countries is illiterate. Most of the girls are being given in marriage before they turn sixteen. 80% of women are being forced into marriage. In Afghanistan, for instance, domestic violence is so widespread, that 87% of women admit to suffering from it. Streets are being wondered by more than a million women, forced into prostitution. And the level of suicide among females is much higher than among men.

Throughout history, women were always treated as less worthy than justice and dignity dictate. That is in the very nature of humans – being somehow civilized beings deep down, we still managed to remain animals led by a scent of force and power. These are the roots of evil and unfairness caused to the weaker sex.

It’s worth mentioning that in the epilogue, the historians of the future justify the regime of Gilead. The society of the Republic faced a threat of extinction, and, therefore, extreme measures were taken. Though the unprejudiced mind, these “necessary measures” would seem absurdly hypocritical.

The Cultural Tendencies of Today

The cultural tendencies of today’s world point out that the rights of men and women are being more and more equalized. Although totalitarian governments around the world like North Korea and Cuba will continue to exist and some aspects of totalitarianism will appear even in democratic countries, the reality envisioned by Margaret Atwood will hardly take its place in the future. That is because the key perspective of the Novel – traditionalism – inevitably loses its influence in the modern world and will proceed to fade.

Having a close look at the traditionalistic values, we spot a denial of personal feelings, personal spiritual life, and sincere informal closeness. This means the rejection of the very basis of our worldview. And I think this is where the main lie of traditionalism lies – a family is no longer a union of mutual love and trust. That is when a family becomes a “cell”, an “economic unit”. Atwood’s novel highlights these features of the orthodox and conservative society.


In conclusion, I would like to say that there is no doubt that in the future, we will encounter lots of difficulties of political, ecological, and demographical sorts. But I look forward with optimism and believe that reason, intellect, and kindness will take over and lead humanity to the best possible solutions.

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