The Canary in the Coal Mine: Utilizing The Handmaid’s Tale for Critical Thinking

    Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is a precisely constructed work of speculative fiction, enjoyable both for the critical perspectives it leaves open to the reader and the aesthetic value inherent in its poetry. The issues of power, feminism, control, and totalitarianism that the text highlights and explicates are of the utmost importance for a fair and just society. With this in mind, The Handmaid’s Tale is a highly effective vehicle for facilitating the critical thinking a populace requires to avoid the horrors and injustices of past, present and future oppressive regimes and power structures. The use of historical methods of oppression integrated and projected into a dystopian future roots the critical reader in reality while allowing the reader to make connections between societal oppression in the novel and in our current world. Most importantly, this not only allows the critical reader to reflect on how they are situated in society but also facilitates active speculation on future laws, policies and regimes, and the fairness and justness of them.

The novel is set in the unspecified future theocracy of Gilead, but without any of the technological advances seen in other prominent works of dystopian literature. Canonical texts such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 create a world where current technologies and social tendencies are taken to logical and frightening conclusions. For example, in Huxley’s Brave New World, recreational drugs are taken to the extreme through the state medicating the general population. This is made possible with the invention of soma, a drug available to everyone that produces euphoria and complacent acceptance of the world around them. By contrast, in Orwell’s 1984, the oppressive regime’s social control mechanism, called Big Brother, is literally watching everyone constantly and people’s freedom of thought is jeopardized. The eyes and angels of The Handmaid’s Tale mirror Big Brother’s social control. In relation to the aforementioned dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale forces the reader to look critically at how current governments/power structures affect them and others. Rather than focusing on what could happen if society does not change course, The Handmaid’s Tale roots itself in horrific events that have already happened in history and that could happen again in nefarious ways if we do not keep our governments accountable to the more significant objectives of ending world poverty and freeing people from discrimination and oppression.

Other academic works like Michel Foucault’s text Discipline and Punish make similar observations on the many techniques of societal internalization of correct behavior and related power relations that discipline, normalize and promote the self-control of populations, but these works are not as accessible and therefore cannot facilitate critical thinking in as great a number of people as The Handmaids Tale. Specifically, Foucault’s recognition of Panopticism as a mechanism “that assures the automatic functioning of power” (201) resonates within the novel, as the interactions between Offred and other people are ruled by the fear of being denounced by one another just as much as being caught by an Angel or an Eye. This can figuratively be extended towards the issues of constant societal surveillance that are more pertinent to our digitally dependent societies in the Western world. Unfortunately, Discipline and Punish is quite complex and requires a higher level of literacy skills that many people are not afforded. Luckily, that work’s influence on other texts and ideas is great enough to be seen through the proliferation of oppressive regimes using Panopticism to effectively control their domains.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of Panopticism and its nefarious outcomes are represented through ‘the eyes’, the governments all-seeing and all-hearing agents, their methods of intimidation and the insidious environment of fear and suspicion it breeds. Secret agents are ubiquitous, and Offred regularly fears that conversations are being listened to through microphones. Even outside of a closed religious store, being heard is the greatest fear:

“Is it safe here?” I whisper. “I figure it’s the safest place,” she says. “We look like we’re praying, is all.” “What about them?” “Them?” she says, still whispering. “You’re always safest out of doors, no mike, and why would they put one here? They’d think nobody would dare. But we’ve stayed long enough. (Atwood 210-211).

Miniature-sized microphones are ubiquitous across the world with the proliferation of cellular telephones and tablet computers. There are literally microphones everywhere that could be listening to you. Even social media shaming could be compared to being denounced by either the ‘eyes’ of the novel or any of the other characters. These connections to disconcerting aspects of power and control in current societies is both obvious and alarming when reading the novel. The reader is not encouraged to think of science fiction fantasy but rather the technology that sits in their pocket while they read the book, or possibly the computer or tablet that they are reading the book on. It is much harder to ignore the Panopticism of the novel when reading about hidden microphones while staring into the miniscule microphone hole of your tablet or cellphone, as compared to some fantastic technology yet to be practically realized.

Atwood does not leave us without any hope for resistance against the kinds of oppression and social control previously mentioned. Rather, the acts of reading and writing (which are forbidden for handmaidens) are presented as important methods of resistance. The infamous and structurally incorrect Latin inscription, “nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, (Atwood 65) that Offred finds in the bedroom, is symbolic of the previous handmaid’s opposition to the rigid system in place. The inscription also offers emotional and psychological support for the new handmaid’s that would take the previous handmaid’s place, to combat the power structures that led to her taking her own life. The fact that Offred still knows how to read and write is a bit of agency that the government and society had been unable to take away, and which she uses to the benefit of herself and the larger resistance movement by recording her story for others to disseminate, as we see in the Historical Notes section of the novel.

Another obvious and pressing issue The Handmaid’s Tale represents is the rigid role of women in society and more specifically women’s lack of agency and freedom, which remain something that must be battled for in many parts of the world. In the novel, fertile women are completely removed from society to be trained and brainwashed into serviceable vehicles for child rearing, known as the ‘Handmaids’. Basic freedoms and agency are completely removed and handmaids are assigned to upper class men for the explicit purpose of childbearing. The names of handmaids reflect this position of being owned by men. They are given new names, ‘Offred’ and ‘Ofglen’, which are not so subtle renderings of ownership. Literally read as ‘of Fred’ and ‘of Glen’, the handmaid’s names are patronymic stamps of their owners and are symbolic of the lack of autonomy they have in Gilead. The implicit ownership of women, and their trafficking as commodities, in the novel both harkens to past laws and norms that made women objects owned by their husbands, and to current practices and ideologies (such as the dearth of women in positions of power in both the public and private sectors) which restrict women’s autonomy and reproductive right to choose.

All of the aforementioned oppression of women in the novel is conducted under the rule of a fundamentalist Christian theocracy, and rising infertility rates among the population (most likely due to ecological or nuclear disasters) are part of Gilead’s self-justification and ideological rationalization for the ordering of social roles. Sex is turned into a religious ‘ceremony’ deprived of all the emotions and feelings usually associated with the act of copulation. Offred describes the entire operation as such:

What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (Atwood 116).

Her assertion that there was in fact a modicum of choice, even in the face of a system completely lacking freedom, in choosing to be a handmaid over being banished to the colonies as an ‘unwoman’ is a powerful jolt for the reader to consider women’s agency and rights in contemporary societies. As an example, you might be reading this from a place where contraceptives are fully state funded, accessible and do not require a doctor’s permission to obtain. However having any access to contraceptives remains elusive for most of the world’s population. The last sentence from the passage above is a powerful tool to get the reader to not only think of women’s rights in societies, but also the rights of other marginalized and oppressed peoples.

Marginalization and outright murder of anyone who was not a white protestant Christian is mentioned throughout the novel in ways that appear casual, but further evoke the casual manner in which marginalized people are currently treated in areas of conflict. While explicitly evoking the holocaust and the treatment of Jewish people during the Nazi’s regime (Jews are hanged with yellow stars in Gilead), Offred describes actions the world almost universally decried as horrific and genocidal. The reader is prompted to think of other people being put into that position as well when she describes the situation of Jewish people thusly:

A lot of them emigrated, if you can believe the news. I saw a boatload of them, on the TV…other people got out that way, by pretending to be Jewish, but it wasn’t easy because of the tests they gave you and they’ve tightened up on that now. (Atwood 251).

The imagery of forced migration, specifically by the boatload, now evokes refugees currently fleeing poverty and war in parts of Africa and the Middle East. It is hard not to think specifically of Syrian refugees with the ubiquity of photos of overflowing boats of people trying to escape from the threat of Daesh in Syria and beyond. The ability of this passage to evoke such strong similarities between the fictional oppression of a group of people with the current oppression of a group of people, encourages critical thinking as opposed to complacency and obliviousness.

There exists explicit authorial intention in regards to The Handmaid’s Tale ability to foster critical thinking about power structures and oppressive regimes. In a January 2016 interview with Electric Literature, Margaret Atwood clarified what she saw as the text’s critical intent, suggesting that the horrors of the text could possibly be “just around the corner, you know. Just a couple of different decisions and we’d be there.” (Paulson). She wants readers to take current political issues seriously as there always remains the possibility for society to succumb to the ills presented in the novel. The aforementioned connections to real life contexts and situations that I identified reflects Atwood’s intention to make people look critically at what is happening in their own society. This forces the reader to reflect on whether or not the current actions of governments, organizations and other powerful interests could lead to a dystopian version of their countries and societies.

Although a text does not require any authorial intention in order for a reader to use the text as a critical lens to look at their own society, authorial intention certainly reinforces the text as a vehicle for critical thinking. The Handmaid’s Tale effectively realizes the horrors of the past, the present and possibly of what is to come. Explicit connections to the repression of women’s rights, the current connections to the treatment of Syrian Refugees, every evolving use of Panopticism in modern societies by governments to control their people, as well as many other examples that resonate with Atwood’s novel, leave the reader not much choice but to look at past, present and future societal issues critically.






Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Canada: Seal Books, 1986. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Web.

Paulson, Steve. “What Choice Would You Make?: Margaret Atwood & Steve Paulson Discuss Dystopias, Prostibots & Hope.” Electric Literature. 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.