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The Dystopian Vision in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale


“A Science fiction is a narrative (usually in prose) of short story, novella or novel length. As to what it is about is not easily classifiable. Such stories are about amazing variety of things, topics, and ideas. They include trips to other worlds, quests, the exploration of space, visits to other planets and interplanetary warfare.” (Cuddon). In the first quarter of the 21st century we are at the verge of advance science and updated technologies. We experience new technical and scientific explorations and inventions. Literature is also part of society or we can say it is the reflection of the society. Literary sphere is also not apart from the advancement and impact of science.

Cuddon quotes Brain Aldiss definition of Science fiction as, “Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or Post-Gothic mode”. (Cuddon 791) .

Science fiction is a form of fantastic literature that attempts to canvas, in varied terms, the future and the atmosphere or environment that is somehow differ from our own. This short of literature now a day is known as Speculative fiction. The term science fiction was first used, in 1851 the year of the Great Exhibition, in William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book upon a Great old Subject. The term ‘Utopia’ was coined by Thomas More in 1516, literary meaning ‘no place’; it describes an island where everything is perfect. A dystopia is exactly opposite to utopia, a place where everything is imperfect. This paper deals with the dystopian vision that are prevalent in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It explores the varied dimensions of the dystopic society and the consequences which rule the society and the inhabitants. How the advancement of science and technology is reverted from utopia to dystopia. The degradation of the society and the collapse of the system are the key ingredients of such nightmarish society. The reality is very harsh for the people who supported the utopian model and now that model has been reversed. Thus the society experiences the brutal flaws of their own advancement and progress.


A Dystopia (cacotopia, kakotopia or anti-utopia) is a fictional society that is anti thesis of utopia. It is usually characterized by an oppressive social control, such as an dystopia has the opposite of what one would expect in a utopian society. Dystopia are often portrayed as social structures that have collapsed under an environment burden or political regime. Due to their very nature they are often set at some indefinite point in the future; societies do not decay over years but over decades. (Mann). The word was first coined by J.S. mill in one of his parliamentary speeches in 1868, by which Mill denounced the government’s Irish Land policy.

The best examples of dystopian fiction are 1984-George Orwell, Anthem- Ayn Rand, Brave New World- Aldous Huxley, A Clockwork Orange-Anthony Burgess, Fahrenheit 451- Ray Bradbury, We- Yevgeny Zamyatin and many more.

A dystopian society is ruled by group with a private agenda shrouded in euphemisms or outright lies. This group will use conditioning or coercion to maintain their rule, which often mirrors such real-world systems as communism, Apartheid and the Roman Catholic Church. The controlling group regulates most aspects of the individual’s existence, everything from one’s daily routine to their family unit and career. The individual is not important as anything more than a part of the whole. As long as the status quo is maintained, the individual is typically safe, anonymous in the crowd. (Ferris 2).

In fact, as Moylan asserts, dystopian narrative is largely the product of the terrors of the twentieth century: A hundred years of exploitation, repression, state violence, war, genocide, decease, famine, ecocide, depression, debt, and the steady depletion of humanity through the buying and selling of the everyday life provided more than enough fertile ground for this fictive underside of the utopian imagination. (Moylan ix).

The chief dystopian visions are as under.

  1. Propaganda is used to control the citizens of society.
  2. Information, independent thought, and freedom are restricted.
  3. A figurehead or concept is worshipped by the citizens of the society.
  4. Citizens are perceived to be under constant surveillance.
  5. Citizens have a fear of the outside world.
  6. Citizens live in a dehumanized state.
  7. The natural world is banished and distrusted.
  8. Citizens conform to uniform expectations. Individuality and dissent are bad.
  9. The society is an illusion of a perfect utopian world.

Dystopian Visions in The Handmaid’s Tale

In the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood foresees the Republic of Gilead in which the society is subjugated to the fundamentalist regime in a nearby future. The whole of the story is fragmented; conception and the childbearing natural processes have been distorted by radiation exposure and nuclear fallout. The protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale is Offred. The handmaid’s are merely valued for their ovaries and lie down while the wives witness their husband’s attempts to impregnate another woman. All human closeness is condemned and women who once were wives and mothers must endure their roles as Handmaids and Marthas. Death is the penalty for not following the regime. The treatment of women is harsh and they in realty have no right. The leaders of Republic of Gilead have convinced the people that this new society is better for women than the old society, where the women were free to work and independent to choose their partners and even were free to move anywhere. The new power has curtailed the will and freedom of women and even men too. There is also one area on the outskirts of the Republic of Gilead in which women are put to death as punishment for some wrong-doing. The Jezebels are also sent there after their service in the brothels is complete. The new regime is for the protection of women and they pretend that they are supposed to be protected and made to feel important. This is all designed to protech women from sexual assaults.

Religion is a business as the Soul Scrolls print out prayers. Knowledge and education are reserved for only a few. In this dystopian world, everyone is monitored, “Under His Eye”, and as Offred discovers, the van will come and take the disobedient away. In this world, humans are enslaved, punished, and tortured, allowed no love, light, or any enjoyment. The protagonist with proven fertility is forced to become handmaid and was separated from her husband and her daughter who is taken away to be raised by another family. She is now a handmaid in the home of Commander Fred and his wife Serena. Her real name is June but she is given a new name Offred, means of Fred-the Commander. Her own identity is nothing, she is just treated as property of the Commander and her own personality is lost.

Order is maintained by an omniscient government, known as “The Eye”. Religious discourse is used within the novel as a form of social conformity, marginalising women’s place in society. Even men are deprived of their rights and are not allowed to have passion driven desires. Everybody misses passion and intimacy. The patriarchal takes the consent of women to exploit them. MacKinnon further claims:
Women notice that sexual harassment looks a great deal like ordinary heterosexual initiation under conditions of gender inequality. Few women are in a position to refuse unwanted sexual initiatives. That consent rather than non-mutuality is the line between rape and intercourse further exposes the inequality in normal social expectations. So does the substantial amount of male force allowed in the focus on the woman's resistance, which tends to be disabled by socialization to passivity? (MacKinnon 532)

The present paper locates the seven parameters for the study they are: Post-apocalyptic World, theocratic government, humanity in Crisis, female in suppressed state, disintegration of society, technological failure and search for identity.

Post-apocalyptic World

The United States of America is now a past. A new Christian doctrine led government is reigning on the principles of Christianity. The new nation built on this theology is called Gilead. This new world has lost many values of the past civilization; freedom, liberty and individuality. Even the nature abused has struck humans brutally by snatching the productivity of human beings –females of the state are unable to reproduce due to the affect of the epidemic. They are treating women with viable ovaries as Handmaids. They are the victims of this religious fundamentalism which restores the right to reproduce of the elite class of the society and oppress the right of the lower classes.

The novel begins at the Red Centre, a training camp cum brainwash centre for Handmaids. The trained Handmaid is assigned a specific home. Even she has to adopt the name of the owner of the house as Offred i.e. of Fred –Commander who is in charge of house where our Handmaid will have to live and reproduce the heir of Commander.

Theocratic Government

Gilead has a theocratic government. The state is ruled by Christian doctrine and thus is an amalgam of both government and religion. Religion is dominating every aspect of the society and everybody has to follow it and obey it, willingly or unwillingly. Everyone residing within the geographical boundaries is under the surveillance of the Eye. The centre of the novel is Handmaid –Offred. Her only duty, job or existence is based on the event of Rachel and Leah. The fertile maid has to deliver for the progeny of the owners. The infertile Commander’s wife goes for the ceremony every month –intercourse of Commander and Offred and she thinks it is religious ceremony to have a child from Offred (new maid of Gilead) and grow human race.

Humanity in Crisis

The new state of Gilead is hell on the earth for those who are not willing to follow the Christian doctrine and the rules of the state. People are killed brutally and hanged on the Wall to show that anyone who is against the state is the enemy of the state. This brutality is not the only one atrocity on the public of Gilead, everybody is under surveillance and a wrong step could lead to death.

Female in Suppressed State

The State of Gilead is the implantation of patriarchy in all forms. There is a chronic inequality in the gender roles in this state. Due to terrorism globally, women are the victims and has been in the same state in war times in past. The United States is destroyed due to the terror attacks and the new Christian government is strictly against the rights of women. All the properties, jobs and positions of women in the country is snatched away by the new government. Thus every woman in the country is now dependent and her liberty is at the kindness of the new order.

In this religious fanatic state, women are classified into many categories, such as; Wives, Daughters, Handmaids, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, Unwomen and Jezebels. The Wives are the top most elite in the society. They are wives of the ruling class like Commander’s wife Serena Joy. Once she was an advocate of the religious values and even stood with the marginal role of women in society, now a victim of her own web of thoughts. The Daughters are the natural or the adopted children of the elite. The Handmaids are the women with viable ovaries, fertile enough to bear children to the elites. Offred, our protagonist is the Handmaid is the one who undergoes brutal physical and mental pain in this suppressed world for women. Aunts are the one who trains Handmaid and just brainwashing the fertile women about their role for the society and future. Marthas, servant class of the society, they are old and have some domestic skills, a voiceless human machine in the society. The Econowives are the one who have married to low-rank man in the society.

The other two category of the women is also interesting in this so called religious world. The Unwomen and the Jezebels are the two known as the illegitimate class in the society. So the religious society is indirectly recognizing such women. The Unwomen are the sterile women, widows, feminists, lesbians and all who are not needed in the utopic Gilead. In this state the oppression of woman is not done by the opposite gender but instead it is the women’s role to discriminate other women of the society.

Disintegration of Society

Society is always the cause of its suffering and development. The common agenda of the psyche of the society decides the present and future of the society. Religion, class, gender, economy, liberty, development, sustainable growth and various other factors determines the existence of the society. In Gilead, the society is governed by a single law, yet it acts differently with people of the same society. The classification of women is the best example of it. The male society is also divided into segments and they act rigidly. The guards are not allowed to talk to Handmaids and even they don’t have to look at their face. The small labourers are also part of it and are far away from the liberty enjoyed by the commander and other elite of the society. People in the state are not satisfied and thus they make some major or minor rebels against the law prevailing in the Gilead. Commander’s move to Jezebels and the secret black market is surprising, we find that the founders of this state are also not with the ideology of the state and they seek some loopholes to enjoy their freedom and desires. We find that Moira, Ofglen, Offred, Serena Joy and Nick all are in quest of freedom from the bonds of this religious government and want to break the rules to celebrate their liberty.

Technological Failure

The new age is pseudo-progressive; it delivers the technological things with alternatives. The machine Compucheck is the ironical replica of our scanning devices, used for payments and other barcode reading; here it is used to read symbol tokens. In this new technological World, Computers are important part of daily life, the instrument called Compucount is the modern credit card of Gilead. In the present novel we come across terms such as compucheck, compucount, compudoc, compunumber and computalk. This novel was written and published around 1985 and thus this computer related terms were quite familiar globally. The internet was not yet in public use and thus we don’t find such things here in the present text in context. This is a future speculative fiction and the scenario is also post-apocalyptic. The atomic explosion probably has ruined the fertility of the majority of the women. The elite class woman deprived of motherhood seeks Handmaids to regain their motherhood. This religious government has banned very possible aspect of medical advancement in the progeny of the society. IVFs are a history now, no contraceptive aids and no adultery. In spite of the setting in the near future we don’t find and technological advancement to preserve the fertility for the human race. Even the doctors are corrupt and they are engaged in the sinful deeds to impregnate the Handmaids with their sperms. Corruption is widely spread all across the state and technology is just a past notion to dwell upon. Televisions are used as a propaganda tool. Everybody is under strict surveillance and daily life has become mechanical.

Search for Identity

The Handmaid’s are kept at Red Centre, so that they can be trained and get out of their personal identity and become ardent followers: Handmaids. They have lost their identity and now they just remains Handmaids of they don’t know. This is the official name which they have to borne after very new assignment. The Handmaids are nothing but the production houses of Gilead. In the very first chapter they whisper their names, ‘Alma, Janine, Dolores, Moira, June..’ (Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale 14)

Offred is lurking in the past and present. She herself envisions the days of her liberty and that of the United States of America. But now she is no more a new woman, instead has become an object of the society. She feels the normal humane sensations, “I hunger to commit the act of touch” (Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale 21).

Serena Joy and Offred are the two major female figures of the novel who are in constant search for self-identity. Serena belongs to the elite whereas Offred is just a Handmaid of Gilead, a moving fertile womb for the multiplication of population of the state. Commander’s Wife is not very interested in Offred but still want child from her. She gets annoyed when Offred calls her ‘madam’, because she thinks that only Marthas can avail this privilege not the Handmaids who are just there for childbearing.


The dystopia which Atwood wanted to show the world about the rising intolerance and the subjugation of the women and their rights is clearly seen in this novel. Offred is the representative of the women who will be enslaved and suppressed with the rise of such religious government. Today we see the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and African countries. Hardcore hinduism in India and the rigid Christian theocracy in the East. All such doctrines or vision are for Utopia but what they lend into is what we see today as dystopia. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the alarming vision of dystopia to the world.

Works Cited

  1. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. London: Vintage, 1985. Print.
  2. Cuddon, I. A. Dictionary of Literarry Terms and Literarry Theory. Penguin, 1999. Print.
  3. MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory.” Signs 7. 3, Feminist Theory (Spring, 1982): 515-544. Print.
  4. Ferris, Harley. A Study in Dystopian Fiction. Print.
  5. Mann, George. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. london: Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2001. Print.
  6. Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Westview press, 2000. Print.

Prof. Jagdish Joshi, Professor & Director, HRDC, Gujarat University, Ahmedabad
Milind K Solanki, Research Scholar, HNGU, Paten