by Olivia Hershman, Ball State University
Margaret Atwood has long been an esteemed author, literary critic, and activist, popular for her books of poetry, award-winning essays, and her post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels. Perhaps her most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, only continues to grow in popularity since its recent adaptation into a Hulu original series. Atwood’s book follows the journey of a young woman, June, in a time of nuclear contamination, political instability, and widespread infertility. The Republic of Gilead replaces what was formerly the United States and, ripped away from her husband and daughter, June is taken captive. She, along with any other fertile women, are enslaved as Handmaids, or as women destined to bear the children of the Gilead elite, in place of their infertile wives. Handmaids are commonly beaten, tortured, brainwashed, and systematically raped. They, like all women of Gilead, are subject to widespread male oppression and socially regulated assimilation to the restrictive guidelines society now promotes.
Through such characters as June, Atwood draws attention to the current oppression of women in our own society and the physical domination men have over women. By showcasing these things in such a harsh and unforgiving light, Atwood causes readers to recognize the wrongfulness of such blatant oppression and to question the survival of such oppression in modern life. Both the book and the television series showcase an apocalyptic world in which women are systematically abused time and time again. Atwood’s novel leads audiences to recognize and question female oppression and patriarchal domination, while the TV adaptation more thoroughly explores these ideas and models how such oppressed women can and should resist.
While the television adaptation’s main character, June, is often the showcased recipient of such male oppression, she also demonstrates how oppressed women can resist. As a captive Handmaid, all of June’s rights as a human being cease to exist. Instead of a human, she is seen as an object to be used. Her only responsibility is to become pregnant after her male oppressor rapes her each month. June is beaten for information, tortured when she tries to escape, disempowered from the first moment she is captured, and silenced any time she tries to speak or resist. However, despite her suffocating circumstances and the physical domination of her body, June resists in, perhaps, the only way she can as an oppressed, enslaved women in a post-apocalyptic environment.
Despite everything she’s been through, June retains her dignity, her identity, and her mental strength. She regularly remembers her past life, and seems to glean strength from memories of love and happiness, while also discovering the hope and strength to carry on. Such flashbacks as the day her daughter was born, the night her husband decided to leave his wife for her, or her time at a feminist rally with her best friend seem to bolster her dignity as a woman and her identity as a wife, a mother, and a friend. These memories also reinforce the mental strength she needs to survive and ultimately tell her story. Internally, June practices using her voice to tell the story of her oppression. She continues to think independently, as seen in her storytelling abilities and her memories. Even though her body is physically dominated and socially oppressed, June resists her oppression by exercising her mental freedom and by finding ways to reaffirm herself as a witness to her oppression and as a human being. June’s identity, dignity, and mental toughness are more important and more powerful than the male domination and social oppression she experiences.
The Handmaid’s Tale clearly demonstrates a post-apocalyptic society, if we follow the definition James Berger gives. He says, “When the world ends, what really ends is not all of creation but– only– the world as we know it” (vii). This “ending of the world as we know it” is exactly what we see in the contrast between June’s current world and the previous world she often remembers. While some could argue that post-apocalyptic characters can’t or shouldn’t be seen as role models, characters who inhabit post-apocalyptic societies are often those that reveal or rediscover true human nature. In the case of June, everything she once valued has been stripped away. Now, she must rediscover what it truly means to be a human in a culture of slavery, how to preserve her identity, and what constitutes the human spirit of resistance. Post-apocalyptic characters help us define what it means to be human, despite the absence of the things we normally associate with identity and value.
Along with providing resistant, post-apocalyptic women as role models for modern women, Atwood also forces us to question the connections between the world of The Handmaid’s Tale and our own society. When questioned about why she chose to model such heavy oppression in her tale, Atwood maintained that she only wrote what she saw in society around the time of The Handmaid’s Tale’s 1985 publication (Neuman). Atwood’s tale is clearly a representation of our current society, highlighting the patriarchal domination and female oppression in our world. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale differs from other post-apocalyptic literature in that, at least in the TV adaptation, it proves that post-apocalyptic, socially oppressed women can maintain their sense of inner strength, identity, and dignity in a society bent on destroying it, such as we see in the character June. Atwood ultimately forces readers to recognize female oppression and look for it in their own worlds. However, Atwood also models how oppressed women can and should resist such oppression: by maintaining inner, mental strength, as well as a sense of personal identity and dignity.
Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Miller, Bruce, creator. The Handmaid’s Tale. Daniel Wilson Productions Inc., The Littlefield Company, Hulu Originals, 2017.
Neuman, Shirley. “‘Just a Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism, And The Handmaid’s Tale.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 3, 2006, pp. 857–868. doi:10.3138/utq.75.3.857.