The Plausibility of the Setting of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is another interesting Post Apocalyptic/Dystopian novel. In this book by Margaret Atwood, the setting is a combination of geographical and societal elements. In this Post America society, Gilead, as the main character Offred refers to it, Atwood hints that the society is set up in a town called Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Now, this geographical region could easily be discarded as just another place, where this society was chosen to set up. However, this New England area was where the Puritans first began their new life in the new world, where they were free form religious persecution. The Puritans were a very religiously devout Christians, who followed the bible to the letter (of their choosing that is), and held grave superstitions against anyone who did not believe in their ways.


Similarly, Gilead is set up as a religious society where the only religion is Christianity, and serves to solve the problem of infertility. The group that leads the society are called The Eyes, who are led by a older Christian men, most of which who hold the title of Commander. These men were the ones that tore down American society as it was in place during the 1980s. During the 1980s, the topic of abortion was being debated across the country, as people began to question whether there was a true separation between church and state in the American government, and whether a woman was truly responsible for her own body. Atwood takes the religious extremist idea form this time period, and puts it in place as the laws of Gilead, where each woman has their own role that is assigned to them. They are either: a wife, a Martha (a servant), or a Handmaid. The Handmaids are the true representation of these extreme religious ideas, as they are the women that birth the children. They are covered from head to toe, and are required to birth babies, to keep the society going. Abortion is illegal in this society, and so is the concept of men being barren. Outside this area however, Offred discusses how there is a war raging on between rival factions of Christianity. This is another interesting idea, as religious wars have been going on since the beginning of religion.


So, when studying this society, many people question whether this is actually a possible outcome for a Post American society. Looking back at when this novel was published in the 1980s, it is slightly possible that extremist ideas of religion, and women could take root within a new society. It’s also even possible for a religious extremist group of people to take over a nation, and completely convert it into a radically secular society. There have been examples of this throughout history, more recently, the take over of the Taliban in Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan. However, I think Atwood for got to take in America’s standing within the world. She solely focuses on the internal aspects of American society, and not the international view of it. Today, and in the 1980s, there are a lot of countries, and organizations (legal and illegal), that depend upon American society remaining the way it is and was. IF America were to have a religious apocalypse, more likely than not, many organizations, and other countries would get involved to stabilize America, or even try and take over it.


It’s not exactly probable that a religiously extremist group, be it part of the government or an independent organization, would simply murder every single member of the government and simply assume power. First off, that’s a lot of people to kill, and in a society that’s already depleting in numbers due to infertility, the motive for killing that many people doesn’t quite seem rational. Second, what country in the world during the late 1900s, wouldn’t try and involve themselves in America’s problems. After WWII, American had become a world power, an international police. The entire world had something invested in America policing other countries, or staying out of other countries.


Looking at the setting for this novel, it’s pretty clear that Atwood had interesting and partly plausible ideas of religious extremism taking root within American society, and influencing governmental decisions and laws. However, Atwood fails to discuss the influences of other countries and organizations that depend upon American society remaining the way it was during the 1980s. It’s just not entirely plausible that every country in the world would simply sit back and watch as America becomes a war zone for rival factions Christianity, and holds a society where the only objective is procreation, and controlling of women. There are too many economic, and political factors that are just not considered.


Conflict ~ The Essence of Plot (in The Road)

The essence of plot is conflict, and a story always has a central conflict, it can be apparent, or it can be hidden under layers of metaphors, and themes. Cormac McCarthy makes the conflict blatant yet with layers of debt to it in the novel, “The Road”. Before I begin describing the conflict and how it develops the plot, let’s take a step back to understand the basic premise of the novel. The storyline takes place in post apocalyptic America, where all living things have died off. It isn’t clear how everything died, but McCarthy hints that there was fire and ash involved in the crumble of American society. When reading this novel, the reader can immediately tell that the main characters, “The Man”, and “The Boy”, are fighting for survival, but it’s what they’re fighting against that is not quite stated. McCarthy presents the four major types of conflict: man vs. nature, man vs. man, and man vs. himself, man vs. (in this case, lack of) society.


Man vs. Nature:

The setting of the novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic America, where the only living beings are humans. Now, rationally speaking, if there was absolutely nothing alive except for us humans, there’s probably a great chance that we’d eat ourselves out of house and home, quite literally. “The Road” definitely displays this idea, as the Man and The Boy scour the barren land for leftovers of preserved/processed food, which is the only thing that is left for consumption (except for other humans…). This depletion of resources has the man and the boy searching for ways to make it through to the next day, as they ration their food.

In addition to this, the boy and the man face the brutal weather, and conditions that are presented by nature. You’d think that if everything was dead, that Mother Nature would probably let up a bit, the only thing it is torturing are humans, and honestly, they have enough problems as it is in this book. Nevertheless, the man and the boy continuously have to move south (because if climate patterns haven’t changed then why should migration for warmth?) to make it through the harsh winter, with what resources they have, and can find.


Man vs. Lack of Society?

The fourth form of conflict is man vs. society, but I think in this case the fact that there is no society is a conflict in itself. The cause of the lack of society is obviously shown through the conflict of nature, but it is the fact that there is no society, no form of regrouping and no way to rebuild that causes this eternal chaos that is presented in the form of thievery and cannibalism. The lack of society promotes natural selection, and pushes this idea that without society man is left to fend for himself.

The lack of society also presents paternal issues between the man and the boy, the man continues to long for the way life was with society. The fact that the boy was born post apocalypse causes the two to have a major cultural barrier between them. Their relationship becomes strained as the novel progresses, as the man tries to show the boy bits and pieces of his old life through objects they find as they scavenge for resources. These cultural barriers puts both boy and man at an emotional distance, as they struggle to find ways to survive, without much comfort


Man vs. Man:

Now, there are probably a lot of people out there cringing and being disgusted by the idea of cannibalism, some may even believe that it’s only a theory and not an actual practice done since the beginning of humans. Is it horrible? Yes. Immoral? Possibly. But is it completely possible that when there is nothing left to eat, and there is no hope for man kind, would people actually turn to this practice? The answer is yes. There are many arguments as to why and why not people would and should not become cannibals, but the fact of the matter is that in the book McCarthy shows that people can sometimes be desperate to survive, even though death is an impending doom. As the Man and the boy move towards the south they encounter multiple bands of cannibals, and they are labeled as evil by the man and the boy. McCarthy presents Darwin’s law of natural selection, and it is completely applicable to this novel, as both the man and the boy struggle to not be hunted down by the cannibals, while finding ways to survive on their own without eating human flesh. It’s killed or be killed in this novel, and the man makes difficult decisions regarding his and the boy’s safety when they face these people.


Man vs. Self

This last form of conflict is shown in multiple ways through the characterization of the man. The man’s main goal is to make sure the boy survives, it’s the only thing that is driving him to keep going. However, there are moments in the novel where the man has to make some tough decisions, sometimes they go unapproved by the boy such as stealing from other people, and killing those out to kill them or harm them.

But though these actions may sometimes weigh on his or the boy’s conscious, McCarthy presents another form of internal conflict, that has the reader questioning whether surviving is living, and whether one can live where there is no hope and no motivation. A flash is shown back of the man and his wife, just after the apocalypse. The boy had been born, and the wife is telling the man how he should have just put them all out of their misery with the bullets in their lone pistol. This pivotal moment causes the audience to realize that the man has another decision other than to survive. We see the man wrestle with this idea, especially during moments when it looks like either the man or the boy are close to death. The man always wonders whether it is better for them to be dead than have their lives at the hands of others. It’s a battle for control over one’s life, in a setting where there is no more control. As the story progresses, McCarthy prompts the reader to question whether the man is simply surviving, and question whether there is anything left to live for in a barren world.


Tying in of Climax, and Resolution with Conflict

The conflict never really dies out in the novel, the climax can be argued takes place when the man dies, leaving the boy to fend for himself, no longer having someone to look after him, and guide him, but having the option to think for himself. However, this does not change the fact that the conflict of survival still remains, until the resolution where the boy meets a family who ask him to come with them, to somehow survive together. The ending is ambiguous, the song still remains the same, the essence of survival is still embedded within the open ending.