English Paper: The Handmaid’s Tale shot through two critical lenses

Today, another break (this one post-inaugural) from Pericles:

As many of you know, I’ve gone back to school (part-time) to get my Masters; I’m in the midst of my fifth course, now, “Shakespeare” (I figured I wanted something in my wheelhouse given rehearsals and the run of Much Ado coming up…), and a month ago, I posted my “20th Century American Fiction” paper where I linked Kevin Powers’ Iraqi War novel The Yellow Birds to Hamlet

Now, up until late last year, I had never read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but as it was one of the assigned readings for my second class, “Literary Criticism,” I finally got the chance. Man, what a great book. And it just felt (and still does feel) somehow even more vital and prescient than I assume it felt back in the Eighties when it was written. Again, for that course, I had to write a 15-20-page paper, this time examining the novel through the perspective of two of the literary criticism theories we studied (psychoanalytic, feminist, Marxist, and deconstructionist). I chose Marxist and Deconstructionist.

So if that sort of thing floats your boat, check it out…

“Diss”-­Topia: The Handmaid’s Tale and
False Future Nostalgia

Margaret Atwood begins her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale with a simple two­-letter word that creates an immediate bond between author, narrator, and reader: “We” (Atwood 3). How should a reader approach this text in order to arrive at the meanings intended by author and narrator? With the narrator’s stylistic use of repeated traces and doublings, the novel reads like a textbook case-­study for Deconstruction; however, in an obviously political novel, such a purely linguistic reading seems to miss the point. On the other hand, the Marxist critical prism seems ready-­made to take on both the totalitarian regime of the novel’s main section, as well as the obvious change in power hierarchy Atwood provides in the epilogue-­like “Historical Notes.” After nearly three hundred pages of depicting an oppressive Gilead, Atwood jumps ahead two centuries to a seemingly safer society where academics are revered. However, by looking at both the reconstruction of the Handmaid’s narrative through a Deconstructionist lens and a comparison of Gilead and post­-Gilead society in a Marxist reading, the enlightenment of the 2195 society found in the “Historical Notes” section should be heavily discounted. Incorporating existing criticism of the novel by such scholars as Stillman and Johnson, Bakhtin, Bergmann, and Grace, it becomes apparent that the future society depicted is not one to be respected, but one that is disrespectfully mocked. Furthermore, by sarcastically creating not a Utopia but rather a “diss”­Utopia in this next society, Atwood debunks Marxist political theory by way of an almost nihilistic Deconstructionist reading.

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[if you’re wondering why I’m posting this at all or why today, clues can be found in opening sentence of this blog entry, and the fact that in an early draft, my conclusion contained the phrase “Make America Gilead Now”… sorry for the intrusion of politics today… I’ve been trying to steer clear of it, and I’ll try to steer clear in the future, but today, as I watch the social media postings of so many friends, family, and former students marching–well, it just felt needed.]

One thought on “English Paper: The Handmaid’s Tale shot through two critical lenses”

  1. Thanks for sharing this! It’s fascinating–and chilling–to revisit THE HANDMAID’S TALE right now, especially given your reminder that the society that follows the nightmare of Gilead is also deeply flawed.