Dystopian novels often criticise aspects of our current society by providing a possible future in which that specific aspect is allowed to spiral out of control. Huxley’s Brave New World, Collins’ The Hunger Games and Orwell’s 1984 are all novels which fall under this genre. Although these all present possible futures with advanced technologies, which also classifies it under the genre of science fiction, which partially neglects the criticisms that the texts hold.
The Handmaid’s Tale is different though; Atwood herself describes it as a piece of, ‘speculative fiction’. The novel contains no references to any technologies that haven’t been invented, it’s almost as if you could go to bed tonight and wake up in Gilead tomorrow morning. Even today, there are massive debates discussing reproductive rights, with Commander President Trump trying to ban abortion in the united states, claiming that allowing abortion, “weakens the protection of human life”, which is the exact same reason that allowed the leaders of Gilead to justify their treatment of the Handmaid’s. The novels continual relevance gives it power that few other dystopian texts can claim to hold.
What many readers don’t realise is that the novel is inspired by real world events. In a 2012 article written for The Guardian Atwood admits that, ‘I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some place or time’. The more astounding thing is that a majority of these events took place in Atwood’s lifetime. This recent historical context adds an aura of hysteria and reality that enforces the dystopian qualities of the novel.
The Nuclear Gulag
The events of The Handmaids Tale take place after a large scale nuclear disaster. As a consequence, the people who are ‘unfit’ to live in Gilead, whether that be due to age, religious beliefs, or infertility, are forced to work in the colonies cleaning up toxic waste until the die of radiation poisoning. Surely something as sinister as this has never occurred in our recent history. If you give humans enough power and time, they’ll accomplish some truly disturbing things, and the Nuclear Gulags are quite possibly the quintessential example of human cruelty.
Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union, commonly known as the Gulag, were forced to mine uranium for the Soviet’s nuclear weapons, most prisoners died within two years of labour and if they refused then guards, “smashed their skulls in with hammers”. During that time they were secretly experimented on in an attempt to learn more about the effects of nuclear weapons. 7 prisoners committed suicide by blowing themselves up, countless others were shot trying to escape, and an estimated 5000 prisoners died of radiation poisoning.
Sound familiar at all?
Unlike the other examples, Atwood herself hasn’t confirmed this link, however, even if she didn’t know of it, it is one that we, as readers, can make ourselves. After all, a readers interpretation of a text is entirely based on their context. I believe Atwood draws from this event in her creation of the colonies, which makes the setting appear as more of an alternate reality than a fiction.
In the novel, people living in the colonies are made to clean the nuclear spills and toxic dumps resulting from the war. The colonies consist mostly of older, infertile women and people who refuse to conform to the new, ‘Gilead-ian’ ways. Even still, the overarching theme of patriarchy holds true, in which there are only, “a quarter men in the colonies”. This means that women are much more likely to be rejected by the new society, and instead of simply executing them (like the men who are hung on the wall), they are sent to work in the colonies to die a slow, painful death from radiation poisoning. Moira describes the cruelness when retelling a story of Offred’s mother working in the colonies, “she might as well be [dead]…you should wish it for her”, which again implies that a simple execution is better than anything the colonies have to offer.
Additionally, the suicide allusion occurs inside Gilead itself in the form of the oppressed Handmaid’s. The Handmaid’s are imperative to the survival of Gilead, yet they are placed in submissive, subservient position; so they must be kept around, but they cannot be allowed any power. Offred mentions that despite the Commander’s best attempts at preventing escapes and restricting power, there are always, “other escapes…ones you can open in yourself”, which is of course referring to suicide, which Waterford’s previous Handmaid used to escape a life misery.
The relationship between the Gulag miners and Atwood’s depiction of the colonies is more that just a coincidence. It’s that sense of reality, knowing that similar events have happened before, that give the colonies such a threatening quality, and makes the reader question the plausibility of a similar situation occurring today.
The People of Hope
Founded in New Jersey during 1975, the People of the House Of Prayer Experience (HOPE) are a religious sect that describe themselves as, “charismatic catholics”. It was founded by Robert Gallic with the purpose of actively, “fighting the empire of evil”.
All of that information was taken directly from their website. What they don’t tell you is that:
- The leaders, a group of 14 men, claim to be anointed by God and use religious passages to justify their heinous actions
- Women are subservient, they are not allowed to date and all marriages are arranged
- Large groups attend public prayer sessions in which they are, quote unquote, brainwashed
- Important women are known as Handmaidens, who are forced to control the less powerful women
So basically, it’s a theocratic cult that manipulates their lesser citizens to enforce the power of their leaders.
In her research for the novel, Atwood happened to come across and article about The People of Hope, in which the word Handmaiden is highlighted, this word, or to be more precise it’s modern counterpart Handmaid, originally meant nothing more than a female servant, but today carries connotations of women’s rights and totalitarian patriarchies.
All of that began here.
Atwood draws inspiration from this story to create the fundamental theocratic beliefs on which Gilead is based upon. Much like the people of Hope, Gilead supplies bibles which have been altered by the powerful to justify their status. Specifically, in Gilead, they quote from the story of Rachel and Jacob from Genesis, in which we are told that Rachel had upset God and in turn was not allowed to have children, which drove her so mad that she ended up dying.
That isn’t the true story however. In reality, Rachel and Jacob were madly in love, so much so that Jacob was told he could only marry her if he worked 14 years for her father. Unfortunately, Rachel seemed to be barren, only producing two children (in time when 12 were the norm). Upon her death, Jacob proclaims the importance of love and its ability to transcend death.
So how did Gilead get it so terribly wrong?
Gilead, like any other cult, uses propaganda to brainwash it’s citizens. In fact, before the story has even begun, Atwood acclimatises us to this way of thinking by quoting Rachel proclaiming, “give me children or else I die”. These quotes are used throughout the book to constantly remind the Handmaid’s of their place.
Also present are group weddings and prayer sessions, referred to as “Prayvaganza’s”. In these sessions, Commanders indoctrinate the women through bible verses to justify that they are better off in Gilead, without love or romance or desire. The speaker at the Prayvangza touches on the image of beauty and self belief, and how women go to extreme lengths to impress men. On the other hand, much like the adaptation of the bible stories, the Commanders have neglected the positive aspects and choose to focus on the extreme, negative examples. They use mechanical sounding terms to dehumanise the women’s actions and make the ideas sound as undesirable as possible. The use of this rhetoric describes women who, “pumped their breasts full of silicone”, and, “ had their noses cut off”, which are quite extreme ways of describing simple medical procedures, and is done to make these action seem unpleasant and unnecessary, and as such, justify their actions.
Furthermore, the most important thing about Prayvaganza’s are that they are group wedding ceremonies. Men returning from military service are allocated a woman, some as young as fourteen, which gives a whole new definition to the term ‘trophy wife’.
While all of these events appear to have been inspired by the People of Hope, I don’t necessarily think that the idea of cults strike much fear into the audience, since they’ve become more of a common idea thanks to popular culture and films. Although, I do think that Atwood draws likenesses from the cult in her creation of Gilead’s fundamental values and attitudes. The shear scale of Gilead’s power and the mass of people who are enslaved to it is what is truely scary as a reader. It opens the question of, how easily could a Government take over really be? Because they made it seem pretty damn easy in the book.
Romanian Decree 770 – 1966
In 1966, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist group came into power, he noticed that Romanian birth rates had been constantly decreasing. From a marxist perspective, this is really bad, because population growth is needed to fuel the developing economy. To counteract this issue, Ceaușescu made abortions practically impossible to a majority of people. To be specific, to qualify for an abortion you had to either:
- Be over 45
- Have already borne 4 children
- Have a serious medical complication
- Have been impregnated through rape
Over the next few years, birthrates doubled, but the rate of increase was slowing down. In response to this the Government made all childless people pay an extra monthly tax, and banned contraception entirely. Romania became much more strict over these years, the issue became priority number one for their secret police, the Securitate, who imprisoned doctors offering abortions and mother who didn’t take an examination every three months.
These events get a direct reference in the novel, Professor Pieixoto claims in his speech that Romania, “had anticipated Gilead…by banning all forms and birth control, imposing compulsory pregnancy tests on the female population, and linking promotion and wage increases to fertility”. This means that Atwood was well aware of these events while writing the novel, and has encourage the reader to consciously compare the events in Romania and Gilead.
“The Wall”, is a motif throughout the book, it’s a place where people in Gilead are hung if they don’t agree with their values. In it’s introduction, we see six men wearing white coats, with placards of human foetuses hung around their necks. Offred infers that these men are doctors who specialised in abortion. However, since it’s become illegal, it appears as if the anti-abortion laws are retroactive, which, in law is called ‘ex post facto’ and is illegal in most countries. What this says is that instead of merely outlawing abortions, they’ve gone to extreme lengths to kill anyone capable of performing them, or in marxist terms, they’ve limited the means of production.
Showing us this image doesn’t only establish Gilead’s laws on abortions, it shows the power that they have and the lengths that they’re willing to go to to keep their laws strictly adhered to.
Additionally, districts in Gilead hold birthdays, but these aren’t the birthdays you’re thinking of (they were abolished years ago of course), these are celebration for the wives and Handmaid’s who are about to give birth. It’s actually more a reward though, it’s one of the few times the Handmaid’s are able to talk to each other and do things they wouldn’t be allowed otherwise, as shown when they start wrongfully drinking alcohol, Offred remarks, “they’ll turn a blind eye. We too need our orgies”.
The reward for the Handmaid in birth is even greater. Normally, they are given three attempts to procreate before being declared an, “unwoman”, and getting sent to the colonies. Once you give birth you are no longer able to be declared barren and are at no risk of being sent away, you are ensured your life. Whether or not that’s a reward is debatable, but what isn’t is that it’s definitely power, and in a world where you’re constantly dehumanised and oppressed, you should, “be thankful for small mercies”.
Atwood makes it quite clear that the Handmaid’s are always being watched. Gilead employ their own special forces called, “eyes”, to prevent terrorist actions, unfortunately, what Gilead consider terrorist actions are reading, talking out of line, and the idea of thoughtcrimes from 1984, just to name a few. At the end of the book, Offred’s partner Ofglen is accused conspiracy, to which Offred is told, “she hanged herself…she saw the van coming for her. It was better”. Now, it’s never explained what the punishment for terrorist actions are, but there are very few things that are worse than hanging yourself.
Essentially, what Atwood has done is taken the Romanian rules to the extreme. Instead of merely a tax increase for not giving birth, it’s now death. Instead of contraception being banned, it’s been completely abolished. She basically employs a logical device called ‘reductio ad absurdum’, which means reduced to absurdity, to highlight the errors in the reproductive freedoms of both Gilead and Romania.
The interesting thing is that the declining population rates were actually found to be due to women entering the workforce, and forcing them to have children actually lowered the rate of economic growth from their projected levels. So maybe the leaders have to get off their high horses every once in a while and view things for what they are, in the words of Professor Malcolm, “life finds a way”.
Nazi Prostitution Rings – WWII
When I was researching and came across the Nazi’s, I knew I was in for some pretty heavy stuff, but I never expected this.
Over the course of the second world war, the German military commanders set up a series of 500 brothels in German-occupied Europe, containing over 34,000 women. Some of these women volunteered to escape the harsh conditions of the labour camps, but most of them were literally kidnapped from the street and forced into prostitution. It was suggested that all young soldiers should visit weekly to prevent, “sexual excesses”.
As much as I hate to say this, as far as Nazi Germany goes, the women in brothels were treated somewhat nicely. The prostitutes received more food and water than others, and they only had to work two hours at night. They were given frequent medical examinations and ensured that the soldier weren’t carrying STI’s beforehand.
This immediately makes me think of Jezebel’s, a secret brothel in Gilead for Commanders and Officers, named after a Queen of Israel from the bible, Jezebel, who has become an archetype of the ‘wicked woman’ figure. In there we are reunited with Moira, who is employed as a prostitute, and describes that, just like in WWII, “the foods not bad, and there’s drinks and drugs…and we only work nights”. Funnily enough, Jezebel’s is mostly populated by commanders, who are breaking the very laws that they enforce on everyone else. When Offred confronts her Commander about this he replies, “ everyone’s human after all…you can’t cheat nature”, a really vague, kind of nothing answer, which implies that he doesn’t have any reason other than he knows the rules are bad and is happy enforcing them on everyone else.
There was this one line from an article that really grabbed my attention though, it was a quote from one of the German prostitutes, who said, “sometimes the men just wanted to talk”. This was really interesting because the thought process of the soldiers is almost identical to that of the Offred’s Commander, who specially invites her up to his to, “play a game of scrabble”, which is an act punishable by death in Gilead.
In a dictatorship based on forced surrogacy and prostitution, any powerful man could really have as much sex as he wants, but it’s something more that. The commander wants compassion, he wants praise, he wants to feel loved. He asks Offred to, “kiss me…as if you mean it”, as kissing is a thing that no one is allowed to do anymore. What links these two dictatorships together is their negligence of human behaviour, they think that humans act like any other animal, that they’re driven by food and sex, but they’re not. Human are driven by understanding and by fitting in, which is exactly what both Jezebel’s and the German brothels allow, a place where all men fit in.
There you go, some truly terrifying events that inspired Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. You’re probably hoping for some uplifting ending to this, about how humanity braves adversity and how things are always get better, but researching this really just made me realise the terror that people are capable of.
Just like Offred, I’d like to be able to tell you a story of heroics, of good triumphing, and wrong-doers being punished, but the truth is that life isn’t kind of story. It’s a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation and deception, all those things that humans hold close to their hearts.
Atwood is currently in the process of finishing The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and she had some interesting things to say about it’s conception:
“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in”.