The depiction of utopia and dystopia in modern feminist literature by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood

Seminar Paper, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Utopia and Dystopia
2.1 The Function of Utopian Fiction
2.2 The Reversion of Utopia – Dystopian Fiction

3 Utopia and Feminism

4 Woman On the Edge of Time
4.1 The Depiction of Utopia in the Plot of Woman On the Edge of Time
4.2 Piercy’s Message in Woman On the Edge of Time
4.2.1 The Contigency of Piercy’s Utopia
4.3 Central Themes in Woman On the Edge of Time
4.3.1 Gender Roles
4.3.2 Ethnicity
4.3.3 Age
4.3.4 Societal Organization
4.4 Summarizing the Discussion of Woman On the Edge of Time

5 The Handmaid’s Tale
5.1 The Depiction of Dystopia in the Plot of The Handmaid’s Tale
5.2 Atwood’s Message
5.3 Central Themes in The Handmaid’s Tale
5.3.1 Gender Roles
5.3.2 Societal Organization, Nature and Fundamentalism – A comparision of Woman on the Edge of Time and The Handmaid’s Tale
5.3.3 The Daughter Theme

6 Conclusion

1 Introduction

Utopian fiction has been the center of much literary discussion ever since the publication of its first manifestion in Thomas More’s Utopia from 1516.

Utopian novels aim to show the reader alternate and improved concepts of life by emphasizing the moral and political inadequacies of the society to which it is contrasted. They are usually concerned with sociopolitical issues such as the organization of life in a society, its government and social structures and the distribution of wealth and power. Yet, especially in recent decades, an increasing number of female authors such as Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and Margaret Atwood have received positive criticism for their utopian works while focussing on primarily feminist themes such as gender roles and expectations.

It is the aim of this paper to analyze contemporary female utopian literature by critically discussing and comparing the novels Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, focussing on their depiction of utopian and dystopian ideologies and the political messages they convey. Firstly, there will a short discussion of the literary genre utopian fiction per se and the connection to modern feminism. Secondly, Woman on the Edge of Time and The Handmaid’s Tale will be analysed in more detail. The focus will be on the novels’ depiction of utopian or dystopian concepts and their criticism and reflection of society as manifested in plot, characters and themes of the two novels, especially with regard to sociopolitical issues such as gender roles, societal organization and hierarchies.

The goal of this paper is to answer the questions of how utopian or dystopian thought is delivered in the two novels and what the reader as an individual part of society can gain by reading utopian and dystopian fiction.

2 Utopia and Dystopia

The history of utopian literature goes back to the early 16th century when Thomas More published his work Utopia. As the Greek title implies, the term utopia describes an ideal society which does not exist. These ideal societies as they are depicted in utopian novels are often set in the future and they are contrasted to the society that the novel’s protagonist is a member of.

Even though utopian novels can differ much regarding setting and content, the plot is often similar. A person from the writer’s contemporary time is being shown glimpses of the utopian, futuristic society while being guided by a person from that utopian society who explains things as the protagonist perceives them with reference to protagonist’s own society. Usually, the protagonist later returns to his or her old society, having realized his or her own society’s shortcomings and being enlightened by the utopia as to how things can improve if people were willing to fight for change. (Ferns 2 ff)

2.1 The Function of Utopian Fiction

While some critics argue that the utopias depicted in utopian fiction are often presented to the reader as unquestionable and static social and political ideals, many argue that this thought would be a simplification of utopia. „Rather than a monolithic ideal, whose unquestionable superiority to existing society is taken for granted, utopia becomes more a matter of exploring possibilities, indicating new directions, offering glimpses (…) of how things might be otherwise.“ (Ferns x) Thus, many authors trust and teach their readers to be competent, critical thinkers who are willing to think in different directions, weighing out possibilities without expecting a fixed guideline to a better world without injustices, discriminations and social difficulties.

Sociopolitical themes such as government and social structures, gender roles and the distribution of wealth and power are common themes of utopian novels. Alternatives to existing structures are shown and it becomes the reader’s task to decide whether or not the depicted utopia is desirable or not and, if so, for whom. The primary function of this genre therefore seems to be to teach the reader to think critically and question his or her own society without giving clear-cut guidelines to an ideal life in a perfect world for everyone.

2.2 The Reversion of Utopia – Dystopian Fiction

While utopian works offer the reader improved versions of a protagonist’s contemporary society, dystopian novels on the other hand depict versions of the future that are much less desirable and the function of dystopian fiction is rather a deterring one. Dystopian novels show how social and political inadequacies such as discrimination, fundamentalism and dictatorship can culminate in a scenario of total chaos and mass destruction.

„Dystopian fiction portrays a society whose undesirability is far more clearly self-evident than the desirability of ist utopian counterpart“ (Ferns 111)

While most readers would probably agree that the dystopias presented in dystopian fiction do resemble a nightmare and should thus be prevented, the question in how far a utopian concept is desirable or not seems to be more open to the choice of the reader and is often dependent on his or her morality and political standpoint.

The focus of this paper will be on two prominent examples of both, utopian and dystopian fiction, by contemporary female authors. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood will be discussed concerning their depiction of utopia and dystopia and differences and similarities will be worked out .

While both novels are written by female authors, the work that is usually associated to feminism more closely is Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.

3 Utopia and Feminism

Ever since More’s Utopia, some themes have been identified as classic themes of utopian fiction and can be found in most works of the genre. For example, most utopias are concerned with government and hierarchial issues, societal organization and the distribution of wealth and power in one way or the other.

Yet, especially in connection with the New Feminism arising in the 1960’s and ’70s when women once more became intensely aware of and questioned their role in a patriarchial society, female utopias have become popular. In addition the themes mentioned above they often contextualize the handling of love and sexuality, gender roles and expectations and women’s place and value in society. Like most utopian novels, the feminist works criticize the protagonists’ contemporary societies and offer sociopolitical alternatives. Their main function is to make women aware of their situation while emphasizing the shortcomings of societies where men are still regarded as being in many ways superior to women. (Hogeland 160 ff)

One of the most prominent feminist utopian works is Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy which was published in 1976 and shall be discussed further in the following chapter.

4 Woman On the Edge of Time

When it was published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time turned out to be major success and a milestone in feminist literature. Unlike many other utopian novels where a utopian society is simply contrasted to an imperfect society, the utopia depicted in Woman on the Edge of Time can be seen as a contigent utopia (Hogeland 106 ff). Piercy does not predict the future as it is necessarily going to look like in 130 years, but she rather emphasizes the importance of the individual and his or her actions to change a society’s inadequacies and therefore lay the foundation for a utopia as depicted in her novel.

4.1 The Depiction of Utopia in the Plot of Woman On the Edge of Time

On first sight, the plot of Woman on the Edge of Time seems to follow the classic structure of a utopian novel – a person from the writer’s contemporary time manages to time-travel and is being shown around in the future by a guide from that time who is familiar with the person’s situation.

The protagonist in Woman on the Edge of Time is Connie Ramos, a 37 year old Latina living on welfare who is brought to a mental hospital after beating up a violent man who prostitutes her niece. She is picked as a medical guinea pig by a group of psychiatrists who claim to be wanting to cure their patients by operating on their brains to manipulate their emotions. While she is hospitalized, Connie suffers greatly under the circumstances and the medication and while she reflects on her life and her sad role in a patriarchial, discriminating society, she makes contact with Luciente who is a woman from the future.

Connie is chosen to be taken to Mattapoisett, a village in a futuristic setting of Massachussetts in the year 2137. Luciente calls herself a sender which means that she is able to contact people from the past and she has chosen Connie as a catcher, for Connie proves to be sensible for Luciente’s signals. Like many protagonists of utopian fiction, Connie is guided through Mattapoisett and everything is explained to her by the people who are very educated and often set things in contrast to things how they exist in Connie’s society in the New York City of the 1970’s.

The people of Mattapoisett know about the past and are able to relate things as they are in the future to things how they used to be and how Connie knows them.

Like many utopian novelists, Piercy makes use of time shifts to emphasize the differences between the society that Connie is a member of and the world of Mattapoisett. The reader can thus directly compare the two worlds and understand Connie’s mental and emotional developments that explain her actions.

Woman on the Edge of Time differs from other utopian novels in so far that the utopian society that is described and thus contrasted to Connie’s society is not a perfect future, but rather a future in progress (Ferns 202 ff). There are still things that are not perfect in Mattapoisett, yet the utopians have found ways to work on their problems.

Piercy thus emphazises that the realization of social and political shortcomings is actually the first step towards an improvement of the circumstances and she shows how important an individual human being like Connie is, even though she seems to be the last in the social hierarchy and does not seem to be willing nor capable of leading a revolution.

By experiencing both, her life in the mental hospital in New York, being born poor, hispanic and female into a racist and patriarchial society, and the harmonious life in Mattapoisett, Connie realizes how she has been wronged and that she needs to act in order to master her life and save her sanity. When all of her attempts to return to society as a healthy and valued individual fail, including as escape from the hospital and Connie is scheduled for a brain surgery which would cause her to lose control over her actions and emotions and make her a science puppet, Connie literally declares war to her oppressors and finally decides to save her sanity by poisoning the doctors. Even though Piercy does not mention how Connie is punished for her crime the reader may see the ending as a victory for Connie who has won her own war and fought for herself just as the utopian society has tought her to.

4.2 Piercy’s Message in Woman On the Edge of Time

Instead of granting Connie a classic happy ending with a joyous life ever after, Piercy shows how much Connie gains even though she probably loses her physical freedom forever. After commiting the crime, Connie thinks of all the people she has loved and who have in one way or the other been hurt by society. „(…) to you I dedicate my act of war. At least one I fougt and won“ (Piercy 375). In her novel, Piercy depicts one individual’s inner growth. Even though Connie will probably be punished for her crime in the end and nobody who has wronged her seems to regret it, Connie’s realization and her self-awareness can be seen as a first step towards a future like Mattapoisett where people fight for their ideals and believe in their own skills and value. Piercy thus emphasizes the importance of becoming aware of social and political injustices and being willing to do something about it in order to ensure a better future for the one’s descendants.

What makes the plot of Woman on the Edge of Time so interesting is the contingency of the utopia that she depicts. (Hogeland 106 ff)

Marge Piercy challenges the reader to think of ways to make Mattapoisett possible and by doing so she emphasizes her political message: that a utopia like hers requires peoples’ willingsness to think and change.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


The depiction of utopia and dystopia in modern feminist literature by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Amerikanische Literaturwissenschaft)
Female Utopian Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
389 KB
Marge, Piercy, Margaret, Atwood, Female, Utopian, Literature
Quote paper
Wiebke Uhlenbroock (Author), 2007, The depiction of utopia and dystopia in modern feminist literature by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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