Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Oryx and Crake' - A Comparison

Term Paper, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx And Crake: A Comparison
2.1 Social and political Background
2.2 Genre, Inspirations for Writing the Novels
2.3 Epilogues
2.4 Reproduction, Religion and Sexuality
2.5 Comparison of the main Characters
2.6 Message of the Novels
2.7 Conclusion

3 Bibliography


Margaret Atwood's novelsThe Handmaid's Tale(T.H.T., 1985) andOryx and Crake(O. & C., 2003) are works of speculative fiction that are set in the near future. Both of the depicted scenarios take place in the U.S.A. and could be classified as "survivor's stories" as they are told from the perspective of a person that survived the new system or the catastrophe the books deal with.

T.H.T. takes the reader into an oppressive system that has become reality in the year 20051. In this system women are divided into different kinds of "functional groups" according to their abilities. The story is told by the handmaid Offred who — as all handmaids — is still believed to be fertile. Thus she is solely good for childbearing and has not got any choice. This system however is confined to the United States so that there is still hope for an escape to a better life for the people living under the system. The scenario in O. & C. on the other hand occurs around the year 20252 and depicts a world wide catastrophe where Snowman — the narrator of the story — is one of the few surviving human beings.

This paper will compare the two novels according to some points of analysis. I had to confine myself to a few themes as it is impossible to include all topics that could be of importance.

To start with, I will take a look at the social and political background of the time the novels were written in, followed by a generic analysis of the works. Secondly I will answer the question about the inspiration for these novels and I will deal with the epilogues Atwood added to her books. This will be followed by a chapter about the main topics of the novels which are reproduction, religion and sexuality. Last but not least I will compare the main characters and discuss the message of her works.


2.1 Social and political Background

Both T.H.T. and 0. & C. are novels that play in the near future but are closely connected to the social, political and environmental problems of the time they were written in.

As already mentioned, T.H.T. was published in the year 1985 and depicts an imaginary social system of the year 2005. The state of Gilead's inhabitants — most of them are infertile — reflects the people's fear in the 1980's of the consequences of the new methods of birth control that could not be foreseen. The spreading of AIDS and different kinds of sexually transmitted diseases through promiscuity and sexual freedom in general added to this fear."Though at that time men and women tried each other on , casually, like suits, rejecting whatever did not fit."3 "If you don't like it, change it, we said, to each other and to ourselves. And so we would change the man, for another one."4America's counterculture of the 1960s involving experimental use of drugs, race relations and all other topics mentioned above were surely Atwood's main contemporary "inspirations" for her nightmarish vision of the future. At the end of her book, professor Pieixoto lists up the possible reasons for this development towards infertility in Gilead:"the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion", "R-strain syphilis", "infamous AIDS epidemic", "still-births, miscarriages, and genetic deformities", "various nuclear —plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage", "leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites"and"the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays."5

As so often, Atwood was ahead of her time by describing the possible hazards of nuclear plants. In April 1986 the catastrophe of Tschernobyl occurred, which was the first great nuclear catastrophe that was reported to the public.6

The novel 0. & C. takes place in the year 2025 and was published in 2003, the year in which the entire human geno me was sequenced. In the same year the fiftieth anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery of the DNA was celebrated.7 This time she does not confine her dystopia to the United States of America but depicts a world wide catastrophe. Our world grows smaller and smaller and everyone can travel easily from any place on the globe to another. This kindles the fear that we are not only affected by problems and conflicts in our country or even our continent but that we can get involved in conflicts all over the world. The attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 proves that this is not an unfounded fear. Atwood began writing the novel in March, 2001, and went on writing despite the events of 9/11.

Thus this novel again reflects the contemporary fears of people: Fears of world wide terrorism, fears of biological warfare like the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States as well as fears of the consequences of new biotechnological possibilities. As always in history no one can tell what new discoveries might lead to and every new invention can be used for good and for bad purposes.

"The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment — the way it always was, Crake would have said — and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate."8 Thus 0. & C. can be regarded as a sequel to T.H.T. The social horror scenario depicted in the earlier novel which was still confined to one country escalated into the world-wide catastrophe in the latter.9

2.2 Genre, Inspirations for Writing the Novels

From a generic point of view the novels have a lot in common. They are no real science fiction but classified as"speculative fiction"10by Atwood herself.

"I said I liked to make a distinction between science fiction proper — for me , this label denotes books with things in them we can't yet do or begin to do , talking beings we can never meet, and places we can't go — and speculative fiction, which employs the means already more or less to hand, and takes place on Planet Earth."11

Both of the stories are kind of extraordinary if looked at from the contemporary point of view but they are not so unrealistic that the reader is not convinced that those scenarios could possibly become reality one day. Especially O. & C. picks up recent developments in biotechnology like the development of clones, genetic manipulation of plants and animals and the ongoing extinction of species. This correspondence to reality classifies them as speculative fiction and helps to keep the attention of the reader to the book.

"But in all kinds of fiction, the business of the author is not so much factual truth as plausibility. Not that a thing did happen or even that it could happen but that the reader believes it while reading 1-...]."12

T.H.T. is a classic dystopia13 such as Aldous Huxley'sBrave New Worldor George Orwell's1984. In fact Atwood states that she was inspired by1984when writing T.H.T., particularly when writing the epilogue.14 The last chapter in Orwell's novel, an essay on Newspeak, finally explains the doublethink language in his book which is beforehand used but never explained. The same thing happens in T.H.T.: Offred's story is told in the first person throughout the whole novel. Only in the epilogue does the reader get to know that the whole book was not really an experience that was directly told by the handmaid Offred as a narrator. Historians found"approximately thirty tape cassettes"15 with Offred's recordings which they had to order in the first place and finally make up the whole story from these evidences.

In the real 1984 Atwood began writing T.H.T., a dystopia written from a female point of view which was highly unlikely during that time. By doing so she didn't want to create a "feminist dystopia"16 but give women the right to have a character and personality of their own just like men always had.

The power that rejected the oppressive system of her book is one more item for which she drew the inspiration from Orwell:

"The force that opposes the tyranny in my book is one in which Orwell himself 1...] always put great store: ordinary human decency [..]"17

O. & C. has as well many dystopian elements in it but is still not classified as a dystopia by Atwood:"I'd say instead thatOryx and Crakeis a combination antigravity ray and marshmallow toaster. It's an adventure romance — that is, the hero goes on a quest — coupled with a Menippean satire, the literary form that deals in intellectual obsession."18This statement shows that Atwood does not really want to push her novel into one of the existing genres as for her it is not really tangible like one cannot really grasp a ray of light or a toasted marshmallow.

For 0. & C. it was not another novel that gave the main inspiration though one can argue that 0. & C. has been influenced by Swift'sGulliver's Travels. This time it was a"dream vision"19 that inspired Atwood to start writing the book.She was fascinated by a red-headed crake, a rare bird that lives in Australia and eventually even provided one

part of her novel's title. While watching this bird, the20

"dream vision"of her novel

appeared in her mind."The details of the story got worked out later, but without the vision there would have been no book."21

By writing T.H.T. and 0. & C., Atwood shows that she was not satisfied by writing solely one single piece of speculative fiction. One reason for her writing two generically similar novels is that she likes the freedom this genre offers her as a writer:"These kinds of narratives can do some things that novels 1-.4 cannot do."22 For 0. & C. this is to"explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways, by showing them fully up and running"23. For T.H.T. it is to"explore proposed changes in social organization in graphic ways, by showing what they might be like for those living under them."24

In addition to this, a further motivation is surely the fact that futuristic novels, especially dystopias, are always a warning sent out to the contemporary world. Atwood does not simply want to accept the state of the world and ignore the possible dangerous ways that humanity might take but she wants to illustrate them to her readers and make them aware of their situation."Understanding the imagination is no longer a pastime or even a duty but a necessity, because increasingly, if we can imagine something, we'll be able to do it."25


1 Corall Ann Howells, „Margaret Atwood's dystopian visions: ,The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake'" in Corall Ann Howells (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Cambridge 2006: 163.

2 Howells 2006: 163.

3 Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, London 1996: 60/61.

4T.H.T.: 239. (Note: To avoid ambiguities I will refer to Atwood's novels as T.H.T and 0. & C. in the


5T.H.T.: 316/317.

6 In 1957 another nuclear accident had already occurred. This explosion in the nuclear plant of Majak, Russia, was kept from the public for many years. ( i mUral.html, 4.8.2007)

7 Howells 2006: 163.

8 Margaret Atwood,Oryx and Crake, London 2004: 267.

9 Howells 2006: 161.

10 Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's TaleandOryx and Crakein Context," inPublications of the Modern Language Association of AmericaVol. 119, No 3 (May 2004): 513.

11 Atwood 2004: 513

12 Atwood 2004: 516

13 A dystopia is an imaginary place where life is extremely difficult and a lot of unfair or immoral things happen. (Della Summers (ed.),Longman. Dictionary of Contemporary English,Harlow 2003, 491.)

14 Atwood 2004: 516.

15 T.H.T.: 313.

16 Atwood 2004: 516

17 Atwood 2004: 516-517

18 Atwood 2004: 517.

18 Atwood 2004: 517.

20 Atwood 2004: 517.

21 Atwood 2004: 517.

22 Atwood 2004: 515.

23 Atwood 2004: 515.

24 Atwood 2004: 515.

25 Atwood 2004: 517.

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Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Oryx and Crake' - A Comparison
University of Constance  (Literaturwissenschaften)
Margaret Atwood's Later Fiction
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Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, Comparison
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Martina Schönherr (Author), 2007, Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Oryx and Crake' - A Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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