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Literature written in our times is the most effective when they are able to give readers a message that can directly correspond to the real world they are living in today. Through contemporary literature, readers can be made aware of conditions in society the time it was written. This is more thought-provoking and leaves a lasting impact than simply if it was written for informative or entertainment purposes. Contemporary literature is at its best when readers can identify these problems in society, as the author can talk to the readers and convey a strong message by making them alert, or even being able to provide a solution to these social problems. This is clearly shown in the novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, written by Margaret Atwood. Written in 1985, this piece of contemporary literature is a dystopian novel full of cautions for the development of society and our environment. Through the development of ideas and settings, we realise nothing in the novel is original, but in fact, have already taken place in our real world. This is due to the fact that history repeats itself and shows us that the same, or even worse issues may arise or already be present in our modern society as in the past.
The extreme power and control of the government in “The Handmaid’s Tale” stimulates readers to see and imagine how such a government could arise. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian theocratic regime set in the near future, where the men hold all the power and authority. The regime strictly limits the amount of freedom and individuality available to its citizens through removing, manipulating, and censoring any unwanted information and also language itself, in order to suit the leaders’ wants and beliefs. As Michel Foucault said, “knowledge is power and power has control over knowledge”. All people in society are victims of this oppressive government, and are always under constant surveillance and fear of being killed or sent outside to the “colonies”. “The Wall” is a key method the government uses to gain power through establishing fear amongst its people. Citizens who have rebelled or broken and gone against the rules are publicly hanged on a brick wall for all to see with only their faces covered with a paper bag, making them unrecognisable. Offred says, “We’re supposed to look; this is what they are there for”. The regime uses The Wall as a warning and threat, and even though Offred and others know this purpose, they do not do anything against it due to fear. This is a reminder of the difference between being ignorant and ignoring, and how they let fear overcome their ability to do what is right. “We lived, as usual by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it”. Through Offred’s narrative, Atwood successfully conveys the idea that it is so easy to let power take control. She shows us that it is only until when people take notice and protest or take action, that change is able to take place. Complacency is dangerous, and as people, it is our duty and responsibility to form the society we are living in. If we continue to look past and ignore the problems and faults of our society today, we may end up with a society just as bad as Gilead. This dystopian, future time setting in the novel alerts us to the vulnerability and potential power of our society and community, and makes us become more aware of our own country’s political state and development.
A prominent social problem displayed throughout the text is the idea of feminism and gender equality. This can be seen through the setting of the Commander’s house and the Rachel and Leah Centre (Red Centre). Women are assigned jobs purely based on their sexuality, and we see them, through Offred, struggle to survive in their male-dominated world. In the society where infertility rates are high, the goal of every woman is to be able to reproduce, or perform domestic roles within the household. She says they are, “two-legged wombs, that’s all; sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices”, highlighting the fact that they are not considered human and instead, objects for reproduction. The setting includes the public sphere and the private sphere of society. The public sphere is where citizens have the chance to voice and express their opinions and needs to the regime. In Gilead, it is limited only to the men, who are able to be employed and work. All women including Offred are part of the private sphere; where they are hidden from society, only allowed into the public sphere for domestic reasons. Through this, Atwood portrays America during the 1980s, where Reaganism was most influential at the time. Reaganism, termed based on American President Ronald Reagan, brought back “traditional” family values, and many changes took place which Atwood viewed with disquiet and disapproval. At the Red Centre, an institution for training girls to become handmaids, the young women are taught to be silent, that “modesty is invisibility”, and are brainwashed by the Aunts. Aunt Lydia tells them, “There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from…Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” These references act as a reminder for us to not take for granted the respect and freedom women before us fought so hard to attain. While there has been a noticeable movement towards gender equality since the 80s, especially in contemporary Western society, “The Handmaid’s Tale” warns us that inequality is still present in the world today, and is a problem we are continuously solving. This can be seen in the recent Women’s Marches throughout America after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Women dressed as handmaids from the novel appeared at these demonstrations and forced people, including myself, to contrast the events and ideals of America under the presidency of Trump, to Gilead and view the similarities between the two worlds in the matter of this societal issue.
Another social problem the contemporary literature alerts readers to is the environment. The environment outside of Gilead is one that is soaked with chemicals and pollution, and it is this environment that caused infertility rates to rise significantly. Offred sees glimpses of the state of the environment through the television; “Now we can see a city, again from the air. This used to be Detroit”, “…a clump of trees explodes”, and “From the skyline columns of smoke ascend”. Through these descriptions, we become aware that the state of the environment is not clean, but is bleak and post-apocalyptic, with wars occurring and people dying not long after being exposed to the toxic atmosphere. It furthermore adds to the dystopian setting of the novel. The environment is an important part of society, as it provides resources and space for our survival and ways of living as a community, such as for food production, water, and air for breathing. This environment, like the other social issues, is not taken out of context, but is also a reference to events that happened during the time the novel was written. Global issues such as oil spills, climate change, nuclear testing, air pollution, and the overuse of pesticides led to growing concerns about the environment and the high risk it was at. As a member of the Canadian Green Party, Atwood portrays her concern through the novel by showing us the consequences and damage that will occur if irresponsible actions towards the environment continue through setting it in an extremely destructive environment. It is mentioned in the historical notes, that the “incidents of sabotage characterized the period”, and “their effects were noticeable”. This reminds us to be conscious of our actions and take care of the environment as damage to the environment does not only affect the environment itself, but also us humans, who depend on it.
The best form of contemporary literature is one that raises awareness of the problems we face as a society. “The Handmaid’s Tale” written by Margaret Atwood is a cruel, but realistic depiction of the future of our world, and emphasises its potential to become a place like Gilead if social issues are not properly addressed. Atwood says, “There’s not a single detail in the book that does not have a corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact”, and as readers, we are clearly shown the contrast and influences of our real world through the novel and settings. Because of this, the novel leaves a lasting impact, and is one we will not forget.
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