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.


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