Feminism/ The Handmaid's Tale: A Product Of Debates term paper 12088

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The Handmaid’s Tale : A Product Of Debates

Often times a reader finds that a character in a novel resembles the author’s friend or a distant relative. There is almost always some connection to the author, his surroundings, or events in his life. The Handmaid’s Tale reflects the life of Margaret Atwood on a much stronger level. It is a product of debates within the feminist movement of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Atwood has been much a part of that movement. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the religious right, the election of Ronald Regan and many other historical events led writers like Atwood to fear the antifeminist movements. With these fears came the ideas the antifeminist could not only provide more gains for women but turn back the clock on the rights that they had already fought to receive. Atwood uses her novel to examine some of the traditional attitudes in the religious right which she finds threatening. At the beginning of the novel we are given this bible reference:

Genesis 30: 1-3 “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

This is one of several passages that justifies a man to have sex and children by his servants. Atwood takes this idea and extrapolates from it outrageously. In her “Afterword” she tells the reader that the religious aspects, “go back to my study of the American Puritans.”(Atwood 316) The American Puritans founded a society different than democracy as we know it, a theocracy. Atwood said she found herself, “increasingly alarmed by statements made frequently by religious leaders in the United States; and then a variety of events from around the world could not be ignored, particularly the rising fanaticism of the Iranian monotheocracy.” (Atwood 316 ) During the 1980’s many people debated about the feminist attitudes toward sexuality and their attitudes toward pornography. Many different views were expressed. Some said that all erotica depicting women as sexual objects is demeaning. Others argued that pornography was bad but erotica could be good, that “although pornography is demeaning the protection of civil liberties is a greater good which requires the toleration of freedom for pornographers.” (Feuer 2) It was the need to protect “good women” from sex that justified the repression. Islamic women sometimes argue that “assuming the veil and traditional all-covering clothing is aimed at dealing with sexual harassment and sexual objectification.” (Britannica 1203) This kind of talk is feminist, but the results are very patriarchal, as in the novel.

It is highly unlikely that religious right would ever adopt the sexual practices depicted in the novel; but she is trying to argue that patriarchal traditions which value women only as sex objects can be as demeaning as modern day customs which place women as sex objects. It’s not very realistic, the events aren’t likely to take place in the near future but the attitudes and values it conveys are present in today’s society. When questioned as to what the reader is supposed to learn from the novel Atwood responded,

“ This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusion….Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens. As a writer, you can chose to create a mainstream novel in which the issues appear only as the characters discuss them…But I decided to take these positions and dramatize them, carry them to their furthest logical conclusions.”

(Atwood 318)

Atwood says the movement was a strong part of her life. She didn’t voice loudly with one particular group, but with many of them. She describes the society in the novel as a “throwback to the early Puritans whom [she] studied extensively at Harvard under Perry Miller, to whom the book is dedicated.” (Atwood 318) The early Puritans came to America to set up a society that would be a theocracy, like Iran, ruled by religious leaders. They came from England where they were being persecuted for being Puritans, to America where the persecuted anyone who wasn’t Puritan. The book ties in personal beliefs with carefully studied historical events to create a mysterious dystopia based on social changes. Atwood weaves many elements into the novel: hatred of feminism, religious bigotry, racism, contempt towards older women, environmental destruction, and religious patriarchal control of women's bodies are part of the background of the novel. So many things were going on in the tiome that she wrote this the height of the Reagan , Thatcher, western conservative years, the Moral Majority in ascendance; the general resurgence in American religious fundamentalism; and the U.S. Supreme Court just begining to turn rightward -- obviously impacted Atwood greatly.

Word Count: 847


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