The Handmaid's Tale … the lead character, Offred, is punished for insubordination. Picture: Hulu
The Handmaid's Tale … the lead character, Offred, is punished for insubordination. Picture: Hulu

Handmaid’s Tale ‘an instruction manual’

THE confronting story presents a totalitarian state, built from the wreckage of the United States. It's a world where fertility and economic collapse is exploited by religious fundamentalists to seize power.

Its Canadian author Margaret Atwood was speaking to fans at a British Hay Festival yesterday when she was asked by a member of the audience if her book could be used as an instruction manual for oppression.

"Yes," Atwood said.

"There is that problem … if (US Vice President) Mike Pence gets his hands on the controls, just you wait."

Women have lost social status in The Handmaid's Tale and must conform to fundamentalist Christian dogma.
Women have lost social status in The Handmaid's Tale and must conform to fundamentalist Christian dogma.

FUNDAMENTALIST FUTURE

The speculative fiction book, written in the 1980s, has proven remarkably prescient. It foresaw falling fertility rates in the West. It forecast the rise of populist Christian fundamentalism in the US.

It projects both into a picture of a disturbingly possible dystopian world.

In The Handmaid's Tale, women deemed not to be of suitable Christian or social status are enslaved as child-bearing handmaids for the ruling elite.

It's a world where a fundamentalist Christian equivalent of sharia law is enforced on the US population. African-Americans have been 'resettled'. Women's rights are all but eliminated, and dissenters are deported to murderous labour camps.

Handmaids must wear distinctive red clothes and a Puritan-style white bonnet. They must act as personal servants to the wives of the nobility. And, once a month, at the peak times of their fertility, they must ritualistically make themselves available to the husbands.

Economic turmoil and collapsing birthrates set the scene for revolution in the United States in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Economic turmoil and collapsing birthrates set the scene for revolution in the United States in The Handmaid’s Tale.

BYPASSING DYSTOPIA

Atwood wrote in 2012 that the foundations of social collapse are deeply ingrained within US culture.

"Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren't there already … The deep foundation of the US was not the comparatively recent 18th-Century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-Century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself."

But Atwood said there was hope any such dystopian future could be avoided.

"The election of Trump has galvanised young people who might not have had voting on their to-do list, or candidature or any interest in politics in particular," the BBC reports Atwood as saying.

"Had those people voted in the last election, the current incumbent would not have won."



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