The Handmaid’s Tale’ is set in the near future in what was the United States but in Offred’s time is known as Gilead. Gilead is in the hands of a power – hungry elite who have used their own brand of ‘Bible – based’ religion as an excuse for the suppression of the majority of the population. Atwood takes aspects of our society today such as the decline of the Caucasian birth rate in North America, infertility and sexually transmitted diseases and makes a society within Gilead that combats these issues. Atwood states ‘there is nothing in the novel which has not been done already by somebody, somewhere.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is Atwood’s version of ‘what if? ‘ in the most powerful democracy in the world. Atwood takes a common setting which is the United States known to us as the most powerful democracy in the world and takes issues which affect the world today and uses these aspects of life to create a horrifying dystopian novel. Gilead is frightening because it presents a mirror image of what is happening in the world around us. The first sentence in Chapter one is “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
When people have to sleep in a communal place after a natural disaster they are often relocated to a gymnasium or other such place. In this case the reader wonders what natural disaster has hit Gilead and why is it necessary to sleep in a gymnasium. We later on learn that a natural disaster has not struck and this is in fact the work of human beings. This effectively conveys the dystopian world. The people in the gymnasium have had their choice removed. The wall is a significant object in Gilead. It is not a person but it is the most powerful resource in the Gilead regime because it creates fear.
It is for the people within the regime to go and look at. Dead bodies of war criminals hang off this wall and everyone in Gilead knows that if they do wrong they can also end up on this wall. The novel is set in Massachusetts which was home of the Salem Witch Trials and the site of Harvard University. The wall where the corpses are hung is a key location within the novel because it recalls both the wall round Harvard Yard and the Berlin Wall which was still in place the year Atwood began writing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.
The wall is also a reminder of the Nazi regime when people in concentration camps were shot standing against a wall. Once again Atwood uses events that have happened in the real world to create a sense of fear within the reader. The wall is a physical reminder of Gilead’s regime and is effective in conveying the dystopian world which Atwood has created. Atwood also uses the technique of switching between past and present which is clearly seen in Chapter six. When speaking about the past the narrator is happy and the reader is given positive descriptions.
There are bridges, trees and green banks and “young men with their naked arms. ” Offred talks of the old dormitories, “with their fairytale turrets, painted white and gold and blue. These things are reminders of the past. On the other hand, when speaking about the present the reader is given a negative image. Offred tells the reader “there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top. ” This contrast between past and present is also a contrast between beauty and ugly.
The present is ugly portraying a dystopian world. Offred says there are still the old gravestones in the churchyard but they are weathered and eroding. This symbolises how although the past seeps through into the world of Gilead it is fading. Aunt Lydia previously told Offred “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary. ” This is exactly what is shown in the descriptions given by Offred. This new dystopian world is in the process of becoming ordinary. In Chapter two Offred describes the room that she lives in within the Commander’s house.
She is careful not to say “my room” suggesting that she has no right to belongings. Even relationships are forbidden and so she does not belong to anyone else either. She is made to seem isolated and emotionless like a doll. Significantly, Offred describes the main street in Gilead as a museum or a model town suggesting the people within it are also models. This makes the reader realise that this is what humans have been reduced to; they have a body but no emotions. The description of the room like Offred is emotionless.
Short sentences with abrupt punctuation are used removing emotion from the description; “A chair, a table, a lamp. ” The room is simple and plain with very little in it. Offred states “They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to. ” In Chapter five the reader is told that Aunt Lydia said “There is more than one kind of freedom … Freedom to and freedom from. ” In this life the Handmaid’s do not have the freedom to take their lives. Their basic choice of whether to live or die has been removed from them. The human becomes a vessel for in this case producing babies.
The setting portrays a society with no emotion. Gilead is a factory with the sole aim to produce babies. In Chapter five the reader learns about the main street which leads to the shopping area. First Offred and Ofglen have to pass through a checkpoint reminding the reader that there is a war going on outside Gilead. Then they go down the street towards the market. There are different shops with biblical names such as Milk and Honey and Lilies of the Field. This gives the reader the impression that there is a strong religious influence within society in Gilead.
Often in our world religion is used as a justification for our actions. The biblical references within the novel suggest that the regime in Gilead is justifiable because this is what G-d wanted. In this chapter Offred also reminisces about the time when she was a free woman and had her life with her child and Luke, her husband. Although on the surface everything is now under the regime in Gilead Offred’s memories signify the past is not totally forgotten. In this chapter Offred’s memories resemble our world and the new street in Gilead is the dystopian world.
Atwood successfully contrasts these two images conveying the dystopian world in Gilead. In Chapter eleven Offred mentions the Colonies. She talks about the doctor and says “He could … have me shipped off to the Colonies, with the Unwomen. The Unwomen are the women that rebel against the regime in Gilead. In the Colonies you die of radiation sickness. Effectively, if you do anything wrong in Gilead you are sent out to die and rejected, labelled as an Unwoman by Gilead. The mention of the colonies and its purpose clearly conveys the dystopian world which Atwood has created.
Offred’s description of the suburban street in Chapter 5 page 33 suggests that it is artificial. It is empty and there is a lack of people and children. This lack of children has resulted in the very reason for the regime. It is the crisis at the centre of Gilead’s social and political life. This artificial description gives the illusion of peace but Offred comments on the Commander’s wife sitting in her garden on page 22 and states “From a distance it looks like peace. ” Gilead is a false image of domestic security where, as Offred says, “nothing moves. This statement is strengthened when Offred comments on the difference between centres and borders. This artificial setting gives the illusion of happiness but demonstrates that Gilead is in fact not a happy place and is full of disorder.
This disorder is another aspect of a dystopian world. Atwood has explained that the novel is set in the United States because “The states are more extreme in everything … Everyone watches the States to see what the country is doing and might be doing ten or fifteen years from now. The States are a superpower and often step in to help out in international affairs. Europe often looks to the states to see the future. This is reflected in our technology that has advanced significantly in the past century. Although the novel is a futuristic scenario the protagonist has grown up in the 1970s and 1980s which is close to our time. This novel demonstrates that this society could happen. At the time Atwood was writing her book the cold war was happening and there were problems with both technology and pollution in many countries.
In some countries there was also a declining birth rate just as in Gilead. The novel shows the reader what can happen when the government go to extremes in order to stop these problems and makes the society ever more real. Therefore, the presentation and significance of the settings in the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is crucial in conveying the dystopian world which Atwood has created. Although on the surface Gilead appears to be a pleasant place it is mainly artificial described as a ‘museum’ and is truly a totalitarian state. The setting demonstrates what has happened from a disaster made by human beings.
Offred is provided with a plain and bare room in a house which she cannot even call her own. Her job is to produce a baby for a commander and so she is merely treated as a vessel as are all the women within this regime. Gilead is in fact the United States, Massachusetts. Using a country that the reader is familiar with and writing about aspects such as pollution and feminism which are key issues in society in our time effectively creates a sense of fear within the reader. The lack of choice, freedom and isolation demonstrated by the setting is most effective in conveying the dystopian world which Atwood has created.