Book Review of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Handmaids are the vehicles of reproduction in the Republic of Gilead, where radiation from sabotaged nuclear power plants had reduced the birthrate and mutated three in four fetuses. The Angles root out threats to the theocracy—nuns, scientists, scholars, etc—by hanging them on the wall of Harvard Yard and displaying the hooded figures to the public. The bastion of freethinking has turned into an exhibit of tyranny. Instead of using Newspeak as in Orwell’s 1984, the leaders here deny the people education. But the idea is the same: without the ability to think and analyze and critique, the masses would only react to threats and occasionally rewards. Pavlovian conditioning.

Margaret Atwood (Photo by Vanwaffle)

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The means of control may be different, but the goal is the same. A subservient mass that would accept the social norm and cultural values, whether they be good or bad, without questioning their validity and without recognizing their assumptions and biases.

Margaret Atwood wrote the novel in the shadow of the religious fanaticism in Iran and Afghanistan, but she dedicated it to Mary Webster, an ancestor on her mother’s side who was tried for being a witch in Puritan Massachusetts, but survived the hanging. She understood that such a nightmare could happen anywhere in any century.

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