3 Historical Inspirations Behind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale That’ll Keep You up at Night

If you haven’t read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you must be living under a rock. But at least you aren’t living under the rule of an ultraconservative patriarchal theocracy, am I right? Well Margaret Atwood will have you know that this isn’t actually too far from reality, and if society isn’t careful, you’ll be wishing you were still living under that rock. Anyway, rocks aside, I know what you’re thinking – you’ve never heard a boulder claim before; Western culture is shifting toward respecting women, and y’know, not being a theocracy, right? Atwood herself has referred the novel as a “speculative fiction,” which is backed up by her promise that she “would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some place or some other time, or for which the technology did not already exist.” This separates the novel from a dystopian drama, and a true reflection of the terrible things humans are still capable of doing if we don’t learn from our mistakes. In the following article I will guide you out from under your rock, help you learn from some of recent history’s greatest mistakes, and of course transform you into a chronic insomniac; here I’ve put together the chilling ‘3 Historical Inspirations Behind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale That’ll Keep You up at Night.’

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#1 Decree 770 – Romania

As I’m sure you gathered from the subheading, one of the events that inspired the Handmaid’s Tale was the result of Decree 770 in Romania. This was a law passed in 1967 that banned the use of contraception, or any form of abortion. It was issued by the country’s new dictator (a man) in order to rapidly increase the population to satisfy his obsession with state autonomy. The government had already introduced a 6% income tax on married couples if they didn’t have children while between ages 25 and 50, but it was proving ineffective. During the 60’s, abortion became the most common form of birth control, as there weren’t really any other options; this resulted in a sharp dip in birth rates, which ultimately prompted the enactment of Decree 770. Without any form of birth control, that year birth rates soared higher than ever before, approximately double those of the previous year. There were financial incentives offered to families who bared many children, however, they weren’t enough to properly raise a child; this resulted in countless women dying by attempting illegal abortions, and tens of thousands of horribly mistreated orphans, which was covered up for over 2 decades through state propaganda. Heavy surveillance of the population evoked fear of expressing any discontent of the decree. Now I know driving women into extreme circumstances, and mass neglection of children are messed up on a whole bunch of levels, so I’ve left this picture of a puppy here to cheer you up.

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Aww, look at him – he just wants a lil pat ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

Uh, anyway, the point is not everyone gets what they want; in this case, Romanian women were denied their want of control over their own bodies. Not only had the government literally assigned all women as compulsory baby-makers, but they had invaded their personal life. A Romanian woman was quoted as saying, “When the state usurps the private, the body is undressed in public,” which to me is just a fancy way of saying the state should mind their own damned business; their breach in privacy was comparable to stripping women in public. We see Offred in the novel shares a similar situation, except she copes by placing herself in a “state of absence, of existing apart from the body,” which is perhaps even more horrific. In Gilead there is no privacy to begin with; after performing ritual sex with a stranger, it is unlikely Offred would use being undressed in public as a comparison to the state’s control over her body.

Contraception is also banned in the Gilead, but not quite for the same reasons. Romania was looking to boost its economy with population growth, whereas Gilead was trying to do everything it could to just re-establish its population. We see Aunt Lydia tells the handmaids everything will be better “when the population level is up to scratch again,” to give them a sense of purpose within society. Another similarity between Romania and Gilead would be the heavy surveillance. Gilead is riddled with surveillance; there are the ordinary guards, the Aunts, the Eyes, and even the handmaids themselves, who are used to spy on each other. Because of this Offred has thoughts such as “perhaps he is an Eye” upon meeting someone, and she won’t express herself to her partner handmaid in fear that she is loyal to Gilead.

So how does this all relate to us? The key takeaway is that there are people in power (politicians) who think it’s alright to make laws controlling the bodies of others. Don’t believe me? Of course you do, look at the Trump administration. Trump’s sexist language has sparked fear in many he would revoke women’s rights such as the right to use contraceptives, the right to an abortion, and the right to taking maternity leave. If America can go as far to make this man their president, who is to say it can’t be taken a step further?

 

#2 The People of Hope – New Jersey

“Clip-clippety-clip, out of the newspaper I clipped things,” said Atwood as she showed her research notes to journalists. And out of the paper she happened to clippety-clip an article on a 1100 membered religious sect gaining control of a Roman Catholic Church. Established in 1975, they called themselves the ‘People of Hope;’ from this one might think-thinkety-think they prayed in hopes for the betterment of society. Well, not quite; a better description of them would be a fundamentalist cult. The sect had reportedly indebted residents using financial leverage, such as buying them houses to entice them into joining, and later prevent them from leaving. They subordinated women, and treated them in a “very Islamic” fashion; they discouraged social contact with non-members; they pre-arranged the marriages of children; they prevented children from dating; and they placed their teenage disciples in “households” for indoctrination. Ex-members of the sect described it all as a form of “subtle brainwashing.”

TL;DR they’re manipulative misogynists disguising themselves as Catholics.

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The wives of the sects’ coordinators were called “handmaidens,” which Atwood had underlined in the news article for obvious reasons. Outside of the use of the word in the title of Atwood’s novel, ‘handmaiden’ or just ‘handmaid’ isn’t a very common word anymore (thankfully). You can probably partially guess its meaning on your own, but its literal definition is just any subservient woman. The sect ironically used this term as a compliment to these women, as they were the servants of God. Funnily enough (not really) they were also the servants of their husbands, who in turn gave them power within the group. Because of this they were less similar to Atwood’s handmaids, and more comparable to the Commanders’ wives, whose titles also define their subservience.

The controlling theocratic structure of Gilead is also comparable to the structure of The People of Hope. Both of them use the Bible as an excuse for their authoritative, misogynistic crap. In the handmaid’s tale religion mostly resembles puritanism, as the handmaids are told they are chosen by God. Their ‘ritual,’ aka state-sanctioned rape, is directly justified in the bible’s verse, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” The People of Hope’s fundamentalist ideologies mean they take the bible at face value with no further interpretation, though it also means they ignore passages that don’t suit their ideologies, which reminds us of the Gileadean “modified” bibles. A passage relevant to the sect’s actions would be “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent;” this refers to women’s authority within the church (which is stupid enough on its own), but fundamentalists can extrapolate its meaning to be all women are subservient.

This is especially relevant to Atwood’s message on the fragility of democracy, as she has stated in interviews that “nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.” America has a “deep foundation” in Puritanism, therefore it’s reasonable a theocracy could possibly be formed given chaotic circumstances. The People of Hope are a proof-of-concept miniature-scale example of this happening, a fundamentalist ideal building itself on top of a Catholic one. Oh, and by the way – they still exist to this day

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#3 Soviet Uranium Mines – Soviet Territory

We’ve all heard about the Soviet Union, lovely group of people no? Okay maybe not. Well then you probably wouldn’t find it hard to believe that during the 1970’s they forced prisoners to perform manual labor in heavily radiated uranium mines. This aimed to gather materials for the soviet’s growing arsenal of nuclear weaponry. Prisoners were expected to live no longer than 2 years, as their bodies would fall apart thanks to radiation poisoning. I would provide some imagery into what that would look like, but I’m only trying to keep you up at night over here, not traumatize you (let’s just say it isn’t a pretty way to go out). The camps were allegedly used as a death sentence, which is backed up their “almost 100%” death rate. Many prisoners that collapsed with exhaustion had their skull smashed open with hammers to ensure they weren’t faking their deaths to escape; their bodies were then thrown down a mineshaft and covered with dirt. More prisoners were brought in via train every few months; all the walkways and buildings were fully enclosed to hide the movements of prisoners, and the existence of the camps. Prisoners with especially deadly sicknesses were taken out of the camp to be studied so that the Soviets were aware of the effects their bombs would have after detonation.

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This of course partially inspired Atwood to create the colonies, which are “toxic dumps and radiation spills” where they sent “old women […and] Handmaids who screwed up their 3 chances […] discards].” Other less brutal colonies were mentioned, but Atwood didn’t dedicate very much ink to describe them. She likely chose toxic waste instead of Uranium because it was much more relevant, and likely to happen in America at the time, as there were worries surfacing about the U.S. congressional hearings on the regulation of toxic industrial emissions. They are both similar though in the sense that they are used as death sentences; the colonies primarily consisted of old women and infertile handmaids because they are no longer of use; they had been disposed of. Offred tells us, “They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to,” so they clearly weren’t expected to live long, probably even less then the Soviet prisoners.

A big difference between the colonies and the Uranium mines is that the mines were a hugely kept secret. It took years for vague pictures of them to be smuggled out of Russia, and even now not much is known about them. Alternatively, the colonies were well known by every man and his handmaid, why is this? This is because the colonies served a second purpose, to subjugate through fear. Offred says the Aunts “showed me a movie” about them, where they purposefully excluded footage of the “not so bad” colonies. Atwood would have added this detail to add some stakes to the narrative, there needed to be some sort of connection between Offred and the colonies to make them relevant to the plot.

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Anyways I have a question for you after my little comparative analysis: which sounds worse, the colonies or the Soviet mines? And then on top of that, how did you feel while reading about the conditions in the mines? Were you quivering in disbelief? Did you get bored? Go back and look at them. No, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty; it’s easy to separate yourself from this sort of thing, to you it’s just a story. Offred herself reinforces this in her recollection, “newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others […] they were awful without being believable.” And to me this is exactly what the Handmaid’s Tale is about, it cautions us on the desensitization to the horrific shit we should be afraid of, which leads us into a sort of apathetic complacency, allowing the sluggish, detrimental changes in society to be dismissed. And now you, the reader (yes I’m talking to you) have demonstrated this process yourself. If that won’t keep you up at night, I don’t know what will.

(or maybe I’m just projecting and was completely wrong, who knows?)

 

Conclusion

We might not be living in the Stone Age, but society certainly isn’t perfect at the moment, and honestly I doubt it ever will be. By taking inspiration from history, Atwood has legitimized her criticisms of society by demonstrating each separate aspect of her novel is possible on a smaller scale. By linking a seemingly fictional dystopia with real life, we have found ourselves examining the true nature of humans once given power, and the mechanisms by which we nonchalantly let them abuse said power. If you’ve developed crippling insomnia and can no longer function as a regular human being, look, ok I’m sorry but I warned you in the title didn’t I? On the other hand, if you’re still enjoying a good night’s rest be sure to complain in the comment section, I look forward to it.

Oh, and one last meme…

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by J.D.

7 thoughts on “3 Historical Inspirations Behind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale That’ll Keep You up at Night

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