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notes on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

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  1. 1. The Handmaid’s Tale
  2. 2. Margaret Atwood (1939 - ) • Canadian novelist and poet • Fiction with social/cultural context: about society as much as individuals • Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Oryx and Crake (2003): two dystopian novels—broad global scope • Speculative Fiction: what *could* happen to the world
  3. 3. Republic of Gilead • Pollution (toxic chemicals and nuclear radiation) and fundamentalism leads to declining birthrates • Fundamentalist takeover of northeast USA: end of democracy—replaced with totalitarian government • Drastic changes in position of women • Women and society reorganized to prioritize birthrate • Clothing indicates social position and function: – blue, red, green, striped (see p. 21)
  4. 4. Women in Commanding Positions(?) • “Aunts” (Aunt Lydia). indoctrination – “freedom to” vs. “freedom from” (p. 24) • Wives: Commander’s Wife: “Serena Joy” – Pregancy issues, tensions (Offred’s “third time”) (pp. 15-16) – Scene in “Milk and Honey” store: Pregnant Handmaid, belly like fruit (p. 26)
  5. 5. Women’s roles… Present • Aunts • Wives • Handmaids • Marthas • Econowives VS Women’s roles in the past…. Serena Joy / Pam…. Offred ….Moira
  6. 6. Us vs. Them; Past vs. Present • Violently opposed dualities – Japanese tourists in miniskirts (pp. 27-29) – The color red… (p. 33) – Aunt Lydia’s symbolic but empty gesture, vs. familiar bread-baking smells (p. 47): motherhood of the future vs. motherhood of her own past
  7. 7. palimpsest: (see p. 1): writing material or medium that has been erased, bearing traces of erased or scratched out writing or image; OR (more broadly) something that is complex and multi-layered—where lower/half concealed layers are exposed.
  8. 8. Utopia • vision of an ideal form of human society • either in fiction or philosophy • social organization created by people working together for maximum benefit of society • often a commonwealth: ideal distribution of authority and responsibility • Origins in Renaissance: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) – More’s title is a pun on two Greek words: • eutopos: good place • outopos: no place
  9. 9. Dystopia • In some ways the opposite of utopia—a disturbing vision of human society • Usually projected into the future—speculation, warning of what could happen • More modern idea—develops 1890s, early 20th century • Examples: – H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895) – Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940) – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  10. 10. Context: Feminist History by the 1980s • First Wave Feminism: “women’s suffrage” (right to vote). 1920: women over 30 in US attain voting rights • Second Wave Feminism: 1960s and 70s – Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer – Women’s economic equality: “equal pay for equal work” – Sexual liberation: (controversial) • birth control / abortion as rights • Take back images of women from popular media (burning of magazines seen as exploiting women (See p. 38)
  11. 11. Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in USA • The ERA: proposed amendment to the US Constitution • First proposed in 1923, passed by US Congress in 1972, repealed in 1982 when it fell short of ratification by three states)
  12. 12. Full Text of the ERA • Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. • Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. • Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
  13. 13. 1980s Perspective: Feminism in Retreat? • Novel as response to net loss of feminist advocacy in Western world • Atwood’s perspective: claims to have seen images in Handmaid’s Tale 3 years before writing • Much of the system of control over women in Gilead exists or has existed around the world: – Romania under Nikolai Ceaucescu in 1970s: ban on birth control and abortion, PLUS mandatory pregnancy testing once per month! – Laws in Canada forbidding abortions to women without consent of husbands / family members • Dystopian vision works by imposing laws, conditions of other nations on women of the US: remove readers from comfort zones
  14. 14. Third Wave Feminism: 1990s to present? • Develop, challenge, complicate ideas about gender and sexuality • Emphasis on cultural diversity of women’s experiences around the world • No single set standard for women’s “freedom”
  15. 15. Third Wave vs. Second Wave • Splintering of older “waves” of feminism? – Less united by united political/social agenda – generational conflict over “girl power” culture • Third Wave Feminisms: embracing multiplicity – different cultural possibilities for women’s authority – Potential loss of radicalism? – Female body/motherhood as culturally constructed – Individuality: a Western construction?
  16. 16. Feminism and The Handmaid’s Tale • Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, published 1986 – in between waves (anxiety about decline of feminism in 1980s) – Second Wave issues: Equal Rights Amendment • Potential loss of *assumed* liberties, *assumed* equality – Dystopic vision: makes the too-comfortable present become the past—as a palimpsest