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Handmaid's Tale | Context

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Tricia Ebarvia

on 4 June 2013

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Transcript of Handmaid's Tale | Context

[Atwood's] interest in the Puritan prose of the pre-American revolutionary period comes from her family. Some of her ancestors "were puritan New Englanders", and she puts The Handmaid's Tale firmly in this context: Dear Reader,

Every book is a sort of mushroom cloud thrown up by a large substance of material that has been accumulating for a lifetime. I had long been interested in the histories of totalitarian regimes and the different forms they have taken in various societies; while the initial idea for The Handmaid's Tale came to me in 1981, I avoided writing it for several years because I was apprehensive about the results--whether I would be able to carry it off as a literary form.

In form, the book is a dystopia (negative utopia). A cognate of A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is the story of one woman's altered circumstances, presented as a first-person narrative novel.

The roots of the book go back to my study of the American Puritans. The society they founded in America was not a democracy as we know it, but a theocracy. In addition, I found myself 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. The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about have--as noted in the "Historical Notes" at the end--been done before, more than once.

It is an imagined account of what happens when not uncommon pronouncements about women are taken to their logical conclusions. History proves that what we have been in the past we could be again. The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about have . . been done before, more than once.

It is an imagined account of what happens when not uncommon pronouncements about women are taken to their logical conclusions. History proves that what we have been in the past we could be again. born 1939
Ottawa, Canada 1960s 1970s 1980s Lyndon B. Johnson "I Have a Dream" (1963) Civil Rights Act (1964) Women's Rights Movement Title IX (1972) (1963) ROE V. WADE Newton's
Law For every action there exists the opposite and equal reaction. Harvard University Where did
The Handmaid's Tale
come from? Context | Culture & History Civil Rights Movement "I Have a Dream" (1963) 1st Marital rape ban (NE)
Pregnancy Discrimination Act Other legislation throughout 1970s Amidst increasing social change and anxieties... ... and a weakening economy a backlash political backlash... ... social backlash Marked social and political change "end poverty and
racial injustice" (late 1960s) The Great Society Conservative Revival Equal Rights Amendment Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Phyllis Schlafley ERA passed Congress in 1972
Failed state ratification in 1982 Outspoken critic of
the Feminist Movement On the ERA... it is “a direct threat to the protection that mothers and working women enjoyed in American society”. On women in the workforce... “[No measure] of career success can compare with the thrill, satisfaction, and fun of having and caring for babies and watching them respond and grow under a mother’s loving care”. On equal pay... “we want a society in which the average man earns more than the average woman so that his earnings can fulfill his provider role in providing a home and support for his wife who is nurturing and mothering their children”. On the appropriate role of women... “A Positive Woman cannot defeat a man in a wrestling or boxing match, but she can motivate him, inspire him, encourage him, teach him, restrain him, and reward him, and have power over him that he can never achieve over her with all his muscle”. and... "Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women, except in the rarest of cases." The Moral Majority Censorship of media outlets that promote an "anti-family" agenda
Enforcement of a traditional vision of family life
Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
Opposition to state recognition and acceptance of homosexual acts
Outlawing abortion in all cases, even to save a woman's life
Targeting Jews and other non-Christians for conversion to conservative Christianity Civil Rights Movement Gloria Steinem
Dorothy Pittman Hughes (1973) including...
First law recognizing and banning marital rape
Pregnancy Discrimination Act Rise of Televangelism Tammy
Bakker Serena Joy The Conservative resurgence was global... What historical/cultural events informed the creation of Atwood's novel? Additional "pro-woman" legislation passed... In Atwood's native Canada, Conservative Brian Mulroney was elected Prime Minister in 1984. (first conservative government in 26 years) In the United States...
Ronald Reagan was elected to a second term in 1984, cementing the "Reagan Revolution" by overturning many of the social reforms passed in previous decades. Cold War with Soviet Union led to increased military spending, while social programs eliminated or cut The extreme shift toward conservatism in the United States at that time is significant to the social change that created the Republic of Gilead in Atwood's imagination.

After the novel was published, she told an American interviewer that she had tried originally to set the novel in Canada, but that it just would not fit the Canadian culture.

"It's not a Canadian sort of thing to do," Atwood told Bonnie Lyons in 1987. "Canadians might do it after the United States did it, in some sort of watered-down version. Our television evangelists are more paltry than yours. The States are more extreme in everything." Why Cambridge, MA? setting as symbol published in 1979 In Great Britain,
Margaret Thatcher elected in 1979,
enacting her own brand of Conservative policies,
later known as Thatcherism. In Iran...
the 1979 Islamic Revolution resulted in oppression of women's rights and the return to fundamentalist theocracy. Atwood began writing the novel in the spring of 1984 while living in West Berlin, "still encircled at the time by the Berlin Wall," a place divided between democracy and communism. Supplementary materials:

Book review by Mary McCarthy (NY Times)
Margaret Atwood Interview (Anchor/Doubleday)
"Haunted by The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood (The Guardian) Mass demonstrations We can also look at the social and cultural changes of this time period through the lens of pop culture... In the literary world... from Chapter 1 of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis The society in The Handmaid's Tale is a throwback to the early Puritans whom I studied extensively at Harvard under Perry Miller, to whom the book is dedicated. "Nothing comes from nothing." Long before the revolution, she goes on, "the Salem witch trials provide a template that continues to recur in America. That's why I set The Handmaid's Tale in Cambridge, Massachusetts" and borrowed several recognisable features of the university landscape.

"Harvard was sniffy about it at first." Another thin smile of caustic satisfaction. "But they've come round." speaking of the Puritans... They were being persecuted in England for being Puritans, but then they went to the United States and promptly began persecuting anyone who wasn't a Puritan. The early Puritans came to America not for religious freedom, as we were taught in grade school, but to set up a society that would be a

theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders, and

monolithic, a society that would not tolerate dissent within itself. scenes from The Crucible Poor John Proctor. Published continuously since 1985. TEXT CON Mary Webster, the other dedication, was a distant relative of Atwood who was hanged for being a witch After playing Scrabble, what kind of activity would you say it is? Intellectual? Social? Intimate?

What significance does this have? Why do you think Atwood chose Scrabble as the activity between the Commander and Offred? Explain. The (strong) association between the conservatism and religious interest groups begins during the Regan era. It is this specific conflation - between government and religion - that worried Atwood. How do you, personally, view a magazine like this today?
What do you make of the articles in a magazine like this?
What does a magazine like this show about the society we live in? “Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.” What do they mean to Offred?
What is Atwood saying? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/02/marsha-blackburn-equal-pay-laws_n_3375167.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular Marsha Blackburn: Women Don't Want Equal Pay
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