The Handmaid's Tale. A Feminist Dystopia

Term Paper, 2018

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Utopia and Dystopia as Literary Genres
2.1. Definition of Utopia and Dystopia
2.2. Characteristics of Dystopian Fictional Societies
2.3. Feminist Dystopias and Feminist Criticism

3. The Handmaid’s Tale as a Feminist Dystopia
3.1. Dystopian Elements
3.2. Feminism and Feminist Criticism as Central Topics
3.3. Critique of Current Feminist Tendencies through Satire

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Even in our contemporary society men and women are not equal, and social, political and economic discrimination based on gender exists, and there are several countries where women get oppressed and discriminated systematically by the regime. Only now, on the 24th of June 2018, did Saudi Arabia enact a law which annulled the prohibition of women driving. Thus, feminist movements are of great importance to finally achieve equality between the sexes. However, in our present society exist two extremes and both of them pose danger to this equalization. On the one hand, there are people who still do not take feminism and gen- der equality seriously and even override these social changes. This leads to the necessity of examining feminism and feminist criticism in literature to raise awareness that women are individual beings and no replaceable objects that should be dominated by men. On the other hand, radical feminism with radical beliefs to create a ‘women’s utopia’ can end up being used by anti-feminist organizations or even regimes for their own purposes. Therefore, it is important to examine how current feminist tendencies are criticized in literature by showing what they might lead to.

This paper reads Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist dystopia which provides feminist criticism through the representation of women’s oppression and their display as ‘Others’ in the patriarchal society Gilead. It will be shown that Atwood simultaneously criticizes current feminist tendencies through satire to raise awareness of how radical utopian feminist dreams can end up in dystopias.

To approach this topic, I will draw on insights from feminist criticism, because they focus on “the problem of women’s inequality in society” (Barry: 123), the “mechanism of patriarchy” (124) and women’s display as ‘Others’ (135).

As a theoretical framework is necessary for my following analyses, I will, first of all, define and characterize the central terms ‘utopia’, ‘dystopia’ and ‘feminism’ as well as ‘fem- inist criticism’ as I am situating my analyzation in the field of feminist criticism. In the third chapter, I will then analyze why The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist dystopia by examining the dystopian elements which can be found in the novel and by investigating the feminist elements and the feminist criticism provided. Finally, I will present Atwood’s critique of current feminist tendencies through satire by focusing on certain feminist aims which are met in the Gileadean society to show that people who belong to the right-wing can use radical feminism for their own purposes.

2. Utopia and Dystopia as Literary Genres and Feminism in Literature

In order to establish a basis for the analysis, this chapter aims to define and characterize the terms ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ in the literary context and deals with the characterization of feminism as well as feminist criticism. Moreover, typical elements of feminist dystopias will be stated.

2.1. Definition of Utopia and Dystopia

Utopia and dystopia are literary genres that “share the meaning ou-topos, […] in Greek, a non-existing place” (Voigts: 1). They represent fictional, non-existing societies, thus they are “fictional writings” (Abrams: 416) and “imagined forms” (Atwood 1999: 4). For this reason, Atwood describes writing about those as “writing about heaven and hell” (ibid.).

Utopian societies “have a quest for the ideal society” (Booker 1994a: 3) and “repre- sent an ideal […] political and social way of life” (Abrams: 416). However, what is prob- lematic is “arrant utopianism” (Booker 1994a: 3), because in most cases, dystopian societies emerge from this.

In contrast to utopia, dystopia stands for “bad place” (Abrams: 417) or “wicked place” (Voigts: 1), because it “has recently come to be applied to works of fiction […] that represent a very unpleasant imaginary world in which ominous tendencies of our present social, political, and technological order are projected into a disastrous future culmination” (Abrams: 417). This means that life in dystopian fictional societies is very hard and unpleasant due to several circumstances in all areas of life.

2.2. Characteristics of Dystopian Fictional Societies

Dystopian fictional societies are mainly characterized by the fact, as mentioned in chapter 2.1., that they are imagined and non-existing places where life is far from being ideal, but rather miserable by reason of terrible life conditions. Moreover, “the motif of disaster or catastrophe is frequent in dystopian narratives” (Voigts: 5).

Equally important is that “dystopian fictions provide […] perspectives on problem- atic social and political practices” (Booker 1994a: 3-4) and therefore show what these prac- tices might lead to in the future. In connection with this, a general aim of dystopian literature is the criticism of the present society through different ways of its display which is described as the following by Booker:

Dystopian literature generally also constitutes a critique of existing social conditions or political systems, either through the critical examination of the utopian premises upon which those conditions and systems are based or through the imaginative extension of those conditions and systems into different contexts that more clearly reveal their flaws and contradictions (3).

Another criterion is that in dystopian societies everything has to be “deliberately arranged” (Atwood 1999: 2). This refers to things as money and material goods, clothing, sex, and power (2-3); and their unbalanced and disadvantaged distribution. More accurate - “What is worn and what is forbidden?” (2), “Who can have [sex], how often, under what circumstances and with whom?” (ibid.) and “Who can hold [power] and how is it exercised?” (3) Considering the latter, in dystopian societies “we tend to have dictatorships” (ibid.) where everything is about the control of the population.

2.3. Feminist Dystopias and Feminist Criticism

Before it is possible to identify which literary works can be counted as feminist dystopias, it is important to identify what ‘feminist’ even means and with which issues feminists are con- cerned in the first place. First of all, ‘feminist’ is a “political position” (Barry: 124) which can be put on a par with the wish of women being equal to men and which fights the old- fashioned idea of women being subordinated to men. In addition to that, “[f]eminists […] take issue with material forms of social, economic and political discrimination” (Meyer: 190) and therefore campaign for “women’s independence and autonomy” (Bouson: 135). In this correlation, another characteristic of feminist literature is that “gender difference is the foundation of a structural inequality between women and men, by which women suffer sys- temic social in-justice” (Morris: 1). Furthermore, “[t]he cultural construction of women, the question of women’s identity and representation […] have become dominant issues of fem- inist theory and fiction” (Meyer: 190).

In feminist dystopias all those aims of feminism go into reverse, hence there are often patriarchal societies where women are subordinated to men and oppressed by them and by the regime. Moreover, as feminists are concerned with the identity of women, this is thema- tized as well in dystopian fictional societies. In most cases, women get ripped off their iden- tities and get objectified.

Most of the literary works which can be seen as feminist contain feminist criticism at the same time. It deals with, as it was mentioned in the Introduction, “the problem of women’s inequality in society” (Barry: 123) and the “mechanism of patriarchy, that is, the ‘mind-set’ in men and women which perpetuated sexual inequality” (124). But not only does it deal with women’s inequality and patriarchies, but also with women’s display as ‘Others’ (135).

To gather the strands of the argument together, feminist dystopias and the closely connected feminist criticism deal with “feminist anxieties about male domination and sexual exploitation that have always plagued women” (Bousen: 136) coming true, and therefore “key themes of feminist dystopian writing [include] sexuality, reproduction, economic and social inequality” (Cortiel: 157) as well as “patriarchal totalitarianism” (ibid.).

3. The Handmaid’s Tale as a Feminist Dystopia

Based on the main characteristics that define dystopian societies and literary works of feminism and feminist criticism which are stated in the chapters 2.2. and 2.3. I will demonstrate that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist dystopia and provides feminist criticism in the following chapters. Moreover, I will discuss the current feminist tendencies which are criticized by Atwood through satire.

3.1. Dystopian Elements

Before attaining to the question what elements turn the society in The Handmaid’s Tale into a dystopia, it is important to note that “one man’s utopia” is “another man’s dystopia” (Booker 1994b: 15) as the commander tells Offred by saying: “Better never means better for everyone […]. It always means worse for some” (Atwood 1998: 211). This means that not everybody suffers in a dystopia, but rather the bigger part of the population and not only ‘some’ as the Commander states.

The dystopian fictional society which exists in The Handmaid’s Tale is the “totali- tarian regime” (Howells: 127) called the Republic of Gilead. It is an imagined and non- existent state which replaces the United States (Booker 1994b: 78) and where life is miser- able for a whole lot of the population as the state rules by means of a system of fear and display. For example, there are public hangings (Atwood 1998: 32) and ‘Particicutions’ (278) as a particular form of ‘Salvaging’ where the Handmaids are allowed to beat men to death who are supposed to have convicted a crime like rape (279-280). By doing so, the system continually raises people’s awareness that they had better obey the law and honor the state by following its practices and traditions obediently because if they didn’t, they would end up the same. Thus, Gilead matches the definition of a dystopian fictional society as being a “bad place” (Abrams: 417).

Moreover, Gilead represents the disastrous future culmination of a society facing the problems of “[s]tillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities” (Atwood 1998: 304) due to “various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage […] as well as […] leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites […]” (ibid.) and thereby fulfills the criterion of containing “the motif of disaster or catastro- phe” (Voigts: 5).

Additionally, in the Gileadean society control plays an enormous part which is char- acteristic of dystopian fictional societies and of the “totalitarian regime” (Howells: 127) the state represents. Therefore, “[t]he novel [is] an exposure of power politics at their most basic” (Howells: 128). Booker describes Gilead as a “police state, with the movements and activities of its citizens closely monitored and controlled” (Booker 1994b: 78). The instances of control are the so-called ‘Angels’ who are, as Offred describes them, “objects of fear to [the Handmaids]” (Atwood 1998: 4). They are “soldiers or political representatives” (Schmidt: 242) who patrol outside of the ‘Red Center’ (Atwood 1998: 4). Moreover, there are the ‘Eyes’ who work as “the watchforce of the political system” (Schmidt: 242). They go undercover to spy on the population, in the majority of cases on the Handmaids, because they are most important for the society’s aim of repopulation. They often “serve as chauf- feurs […], shopkeepers, and service personnel” (Freibert: 281). Offred even considers the possibility that Nick, who works at the Commander’s house, is one of those “private Eye[s]” (Atwood 1998: 239) because she never finds out what his true intentions are and on which side he actually stands. Furthermore, there are the ‘Guardians’ who “are used for routine policing” (20).

Something else that is controlled in the Republic of Gilead is sex which is character- istic for a dystopian fictional society (Atwood 1999: 2). As everything in Gilead is about reproduction, sex is merely a tool for the purposes of the regime. It is regulated by law that once a month there has to be an impregnation ceremony to get the Handmaid concerned pregnant and as their consent is not necessary and their only choice is between signing up for this and being sent to the colonies (Atwood 1998: 93-94), this ceremony is ritualized and “state sanctioned rape” (Johnson: 68) what contributes to the fact that Gilead is a bad place.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Handmaid's Tale. A Feminist Dystopia
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
handmaid, tale, feminist, dystopia
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Sandra Schäder (Author), 2018, The Handmaid's Tale. A Feminist Dystopia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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