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Handmaid S Tale Essay Prompts For Animal Farm


Last weekend, as hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington to protest the inauguration of President Trump, the novelist Margaret Atwood began getting a string of notifications on Twitter and Facebook. People were sending her images of protesters with signs that referenced her dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again!” one sign read. “The Handmaid’s Tale is NOT an Instruction Manual!” read another.

“There were a honking huge number of them,” Ms. Atwood said.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” which takes place in near-future New England as a totalitarian regime has taken power and stripped women of their civil rights, was published 32 years ago. But in recent months, Ms. Atwood has been hearing from anxious readers who see eerie parallels between the novel’s oppressive society and the current Republican administration’s policy goals of curtailing reproductive rights.

In 2016, sales of the book, which is in its 52nd printing, were up 30 percent over the previous year. Ms. Atwood’s publisher has reprinted 100,000 copies in the last three months to meet a spike in demand after the election.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is among several classic dystopian novels that seem to be resonating with readers at a moment of heightened anxiety about the state of American democracy. Sales have also risen drastically for George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” which shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list this week.

Other novels that today’s readers may not have picked up since high school but have landed on the list this week are Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, “Brave New World,” a futuristic dystopian story set in England in 2540; and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” a satire about a bellicose presidential candidate who runs on a populist platform in the United States but turns out to be a fascist demagogue. On Friday, “It Can’t Happen Here” was No. 9 on Amazon; “Brave New World” was No. 15.

The sudden boom in popularity for classic dystopian novels, which began to pick up just after the election, seems to reflect an organic response from readers who are wary of the authoritarian overtones of some of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Interest in “1984” surged this week, set off by a series of comments from Mr. Trump, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, and his adviser Kellyanne Conway, in which they disputed the news media’s portrayal of the crowd size at his inauguration and of his fractious relationship with American intelligence agencies. Their insistence that facts like photographs of the crowd and his public statements were up for interpretation culminated in a stunning exchange that Ms. Conway had on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when she said that Mr. Spicer had not lied about the crowd size but was offering “alternative facts.”

To many observers, her comment evoked Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian society in which language becomes a political weapon and reality itself is defined by those in power. The remarks prompted a cascade of Twitter messages referencing Orwell and “1984.” According to a Twitter spokesman, the novel was referenced more than 290,000 times on the social network this week. The book began climbing Amazon’s best-seller list, which in turn drove more readers to it, in a sort of algorithm-driven feedback loop. It amounted to a blizzard of free advertising for a 68-year-old novel.

On Wednesday, the CNN host Van Jones read a famous passage from the novel about efforts to force citizens to “reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” and urged his viewers not to become complacent when faced with a barrage of falsehoods. “Let’s not go down the Orwellian road, and I hope that’s not where Trump is trying to lead us,” he said.

Of course, it is not the first time that readers and pundits have invoked the novel to criticize the actions and statements of a government. It is such a standard trope that Orwell’s name has become an adjective. And because so many American readers are exposed to the novel in high school or college, most people have a passing familiarity with its basic themes about the dangers of authoritarianism, and use phrases like “big brother” as a shorthand to describe a multitude of things, from Google to homeland security.

“It’s a frame of reference that people can reach for in response to government deception, propaganda, the misuse of language, and those are things that occur all the time,” said Alex Woloch, an English professor at Stanford University who has written about the roots of Orwell’s political language. “There are certain things this administration is doing that has set off these alarm bells, and people are hungry for frames of reference to understand this new reality.”

The sudden prominence of such novels reflects a renewed public interest in decades-old works of speculative fiction as guides for understanding our current political moment. Readers who are grappling with a jolting shift in American politics, when easily verifiable facts are subject to debate and civil liberties and democratic norms feel fragile, are turning to dystopian novels for guidance and insight.

“Many of these books are becoming more important to the average American reader because they want to know what’s next, because we’ve never been through this before,” said the novelist Gary Shteyngart, author of the dystopian novel “Super Sad True Love Story. “Language is being used to destabilize people’s perception of reality, and that’s very new to this country.”

Readers may also be returning to the comfort (if you can call it that) of familiar dystopian novels because these stories offer moral clarity at a time when it can be difficult to keep up with the convulsions of the daily news cycle, and the fire hose of information and disinformation on social media.

“Maybe it’s a feeling that nonfiction has failed us, that journalism has not been able to keep up with things,” Mr. Shteyngart said.

While many of these novels are perennial best sellers and staples on high school reading lists, publishers were still unprepared for the recent rise in demand. Shortly after the election, “It Can’t Happen Here,” an 82-year-old satirical novel that was popular in its time but was never really enshrined as a classic, was sold out on Amazon and on Books-a-Million’s website. The book has sold about 45,000 copies since Nov. 9. Sales for the mass-market edition in 2016 were up 1,100 percent over 2015, according to its publisher.

“The book has certainly been known and alluded to since its publication, but now it’s really caught on because there are so many astonishing parallels to the present,” said Michael Meyer, an emeritus English professor at the University of Connecticut, who wrote an introduction to the novel. “It’s a satire about the politics of someone like Trump.”

The trajectory for “1984” has been even more dramatic. Since the inauguration, sales of the novel have risen 9,500 percent, according to Craig Burke, the publicity director for Signet Classics, a paperback imprint at Penguin. The book became the top seller on Barnes & Noble’s website this week, and appeared in the top 10 on the Indie Bestseller list, which tracks sales at hundreds of independent bookstores across the country.

The novel “1984” is a reliable best seller — it was an instant hit when it was first published in 1949, and it continues to sell some 400,000 paperback copies in the United States annually. Still, the recent demand caught the publisher and some booksellers off guard. Signet, which publishes the mass-market paperback edition of “1984,” is reprinting 200,000 more copies of the book, and another 100,000 copies of “Animal Farm.” (Its edition of “1984” is currently out of stock on Amazon.)

“We’re getting significant reorders from all our accounts,” Mr. Burke said. “We’ve printed, just this week, about half of what we normally sell in a year.”

Publishers and book retailers have been quick to seize the momentum and take advantage of renewed interest in decades-old titles. The Amazon page for “It Can’t Happen Here” now features a bold print quote from Salon, calling the book “the novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.” This week, Penguin started an online advertising and social media campaign to promote “1984,” which included posts with quotes from the novel on Facebook and Instagram.

Dozens of new reviews of the novel appeared on Amazon, and some readers drew parallels between recent political events and Orwell’s chilling vision.

“Sadly, this book is more than relevant in America right now,” one reviewer posted. “Today Kellyanne Conway announced that we were given alternate facts,” another wrote, adding, “Get ready to party like it’s 1984.”

There’s perhaps another reason that readers are returning to “1984” and other dystopian classics during unsettling times. Sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded that things could be worse.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Fears for the Future Prompt a Boon for Dystopian Classics. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

1In answer to questions, such as “How come you’re such a pessimist ?” and “Why don’t you have happier endings ?” Atwood answers indirectly, “Because I’m writing in the ironic mode” (1982 :406). Irony is what characterizes the tone and texture of The Handmaid’s Tale. As a dystopia, it is, by definition, ironic in nature, for, like all dystopias, it is “an ironic social vision” (Frye 1990 :309) whose opposite is an already mentioned social norm.

On the lower level is a vision of fulfilled secondary concerns, the sense of a political ideology that has some connection with the processes actually going on in society… On the higher level is a vision of fulfilled primary concerns, freedom, health, equality, happiness, love. If this vision disappears or is replaced by the ideological one, then… it is subject to strong pressures to become obsessive, and so start on the downward path (ibid., 309-310).

2In The Handmaid’s Tale, the ironic structure of the dystopia is reinforced by the irony that pervades this text : in the situational irony that materializes through the visions of three worlds caroming off one another, i.e., contemporary USA, Gilead and the late 22nd century, in the ironic features of the main characters and in verbal irony, particularly in the double-voiced speech of the narrator. Ironies may or not be marked by dissonance in the narrative voice. Marked ironies are clearly created by the narrator’s own ironic perceptions as she muses over the ironies of the Gileadean revolution and of its effect on those around her. More open to question are unmarked ironies, which the narrator may or may not be aware of. Such irony invites the implied reader to participate in the text, to listen to the whispers of an implied author underscoring the weaknesses of late 20th century USA society and a predicted loss of (women’s) freedom should the religious right get their way.


3“Irony is a matter of the conflict of meanings” (Wright 1983 : 392) ; it is an ancient rhetorical device of double import. Already, the “Roman grammarian Donatus in the fourth century AD” defined irony as “a trope that shows the opposite of what one perceives” (Rowland 1985 : xvi). Irony is a “double voiced discourse” (Bakhtin 1981 (1975) : 324), a “double-layered phenomenon” (Muecke 1970 : 32), as, by definition, a single utterance or situation splits to present opposing significations, on at least two levels. At the lower level an utterance or a situation is to be taken at face value as it appears to a naive observer or participant in the ironic situation. At the upper level the utterance or situation takes on another appearance and a metadiscursive voice invalidates the literal signification. Irony, thus, “expresses simultaneously two different intentions” (Bakhtin, ibid.). The “opposition between the two levels… may take the form of contradiction, incongruity or incompatibility” (Muecke 1970 : 35).

4Irony is a subversive language form, for when speakers do not mean what they say, they cannot be held responsible for what they meant, as that is not what they said. It offers “the pleasure of having been able to say something without actually having said it” (Muecke 1983 : 404). For that reason, irony has long been used as a means of contention and is inherent in dystopian satire.

5The effect of irony is the tension created when a single source splits and divides against itself. For the ironic effect to occur, irony must be intentional on the part of the author and it must be detected by a reader. There are at least two, sometimes three, participants in an ironic event : 1) the “ironist” who perceives irony in a situation or who may create an ironic utterance, 2) the “victim” (Muecke’s terminology) of the ironic perception or discourse, and, 3) in the case of verbal irony, the audience to whom the ironic discourse or situation is presented. A narrator and/or character may or may not be aware of their own or others’ ironic speech or of the irony of a situation. Narrators and/or characters who are aware of the irony in their narration are understood to assume responsibility for the two voices. If the narrator or character is naive, it is then the implied author who takes responsibility for the upper level, metadiscursive voice.

6As has been shown elsewhere (Dolitsky 1998), Offred’s narration is addressed to an alter-ego, in an attempt to make sense of a life lived in the context of somewhat contradictory ideologies. Irony naturally grows out of the perception of these contradictions with the possibility of Offred’s occupying all three roles of irony when she is considered to be aware of her irony and it is her voice that assumes responsibility for it. Double irony may occur as the implied author’s voice comments ironically on Offred’s ironic voice. In this case, Offred becomes its victim.

7As a fundamentally ironic text, Offred’s telling of her tale constantly crosses two of the three worlds of The Handmaid’s Tale1, as well as the political phenomena of revolution and totalitarianism presenting situational, dramatic and verbal irony, along with the ironic voice of the narrator. Applying a two-dimensional concept to a many-faceted universe, ironic events in the novel will be found to reverberate from one locus to another.

Offred’s ironies

8Offred reflects that “there are few mirrors” (17) in the Commander’s house. Yet, she herself is the source of ironic refraction, as she reflects on customs and objects, along with their significations, across the two political regimes within which her life evolves. Interpreting the oppositions of the two societies, her voice takes on the double perspective, creating an “illusion of depth” (153). Her ironic stereoscopic vision permeates her voice and sets the tone of her narration.

9Offred views the world with an ironic eye. She sees Serena’s fingernail “like an ironic smile” (24), and is aware of much of the irony of her situation, as she states, “I laugh, from time to time and with irony, at myself” (172). Offred recognizes her illicit relationship with her Commander as ironic, and with the shock of her discoveries her tone reflects these ironies : “Getting fed up with him” (249) she expresses her disgust at Gilead’s disesteem of women, whereby changing women is as insignificant as changing clothes :

“‘So now that we don’t have different clothes,’ I say, ’you merely have different women.’ This is irony” (249).

10Her awareness is rarely expressed so blatantly, and the reader must be sensitive to discord, contradiction or discrepancy from what is ostensibly said. At the same time, the implied author’s ironic commentary is always covert, its interpretation dependent on novel perceptions of the world she shares with the implied reader. “Context is all” (154, 202).

11The hotel is a locus of complex irony. The description of the hotel as a lieu of stolen love/sex for Offred, at one and the some time offers a vision of hotels in general for the implied reader to contemplate with their rooms “ready for spoilage” with “careless junk” and “dreadful paintings” (61). Offred returns to “a hotel room” with its “(r)ented license” and “freedom from being seen” (60), which she had longed for, but no longer wants. The setting of love has been turned into a brothel. “All is the same” (263), “‘It’s like walking into the past’… but somehow the mix is different. A movie about the past is not the same as the past” (247). She does “not want to be alone with” (266) the Commander there on a bed. She realizes that the hotel cum brothel no longer has the same significance as it did with Luke when she returns there with her Commander, who thinks she “might enjoy [her fertilization (170)] for a change.” In fact, being alone is worse ; she’d “rather have Serena there too” or play Scrabble.

12Furthermore, both Commander and Wife have chosen the same night for Offred to be fertilized. Her displacement from Cinderella’s coach to herself, “I must be back at the house before midnight, otherwise I’ll turn into a pumpkin” (266), actualizes the greeting, “Blessed be the fruit” (29), for she will be overloaded with seeds. On this same night, the story of illicit love/sex with Luke in a hotel room decomposed into undesired sex with the Commander in the same hotel, will become a story of sex imposed on Offred with Nick in his room above the garage, to finally be recomposed as a love affair, or perhaps, “just an affair” (110).

13Not only is the hotel ironic in relation to Offred’s prior representation of it, but its existence ironically belies the basic tenets on which Gilead is built. At the geographic heart of Gilead is situated Jezebel’s, the puritanical state’s brothel, reserved for its “officers… and senior officials. And trade delegations, of course” (249). Further underscoring this irony, the naive Commander’s “of course”, emphasizes the impossibility of universal acceptance of these tenets, although they are the supposed basis of a holy war to convert others to them. Here, can be found the women whose “very existence” is denied by “The official creed” (247). Illegal clothing which “was supposed to have been destroyed” (242), are of “Government issue” (254) for the women living at Jezebel’s. The women who are there to cater to men’s pleasure, “are not too fond of men” (262) ; in “Butch paradise” (261), which is more of a Hell, “they encourage” sexual relations among women, for “women on women turns [the men] on” (262).

14The whole mistress-to-employer relationship Offred has with her Commander, is ironic in its similarities and differences from pre-Gileadean times. Going to her Commander’s office is, for Offred, “like being on a date”, but they live in the same house. “He asks… if (she) will be all right, as if the stairway is a dark street” (149). And at the same time, in spite of all the changes, there is, in fact, no change at all in this kind of relation :

[It was] the same old thing. It was too banal to be true… his wife didn’t understand him (166).
Men at the top have always had mistresses, why should things be any different now ? (172).
The Commander and I have an arrangement. It’s not the first such arrangement in history… The difficulty is the Wife, as always (162).

15If it is true that language is “ideologically saturated” (Bakhtin 1986 :271), then recombining its elements can set off an ironic reaction, desaturating words and reactualizing their use.

16Offred plays with the polysemy of words set in conventional form with established meanings, thus simultaneously subverting both form and meaning to imbue them with new signification. For example, she notes that for Ofglen “every act… is acting rather than a real act” (41). By making use of the ironic polysemy contained in the word “act” : 1) as a real action taken in the world, 2) as pretending, Offred both uses and defines irony as the opposition of reality and appearance.

17When looking at corpses hanging on the Wall, Offred notes how human bodies hanging with bags over their heads lose their humanity to become “like dolls… like scarecrows which in a way they are since they are meant to scare” (42). Ironically, a man without life or a visible face loses his humanity to resemble the scarecrow which was originally created to resemble a man in order to scare.

18Her voice carries the duplicitous echo that characterizes irony, undermining as it does its own statements, to express oppositions and negations of its own making :

A sitting room in which I never sit, but stand or kneel only. (18)… I wonder whether the Commander’s Wife is in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. (19)
Aunt Lydia said this is not a prison but a privilege.

19In the last example, the narrator’s creation of distance from the statement by noting it is said by another, is one indication the statement is to be understood as ironic. Further contrast from the usual implication of something not being a prison, i.e. that it is better than a prison, is created by Offred’s remarking on the good features of a prison sentence, i.e. that it has an end.

20The ideas she expresses may be refuted by a “subverting clause” (Holdcroft 1983 : 498), for example :

We still had our bodies. That was our fantasy. (14)

21By qualifying the first sentence as a “fantasy”, its truth value is contradicted.

“Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.” How are they transporting that many people at once ?… Lord knows what they’re supposed to do, once they get there. Farm, is the theory (94, my italics).

22Here, the irony is marked by the doubt inherent in a theory, and Offred’s attributing that unproved theory to an unknown Other.

23The incomprehensible “taboo message… te bastardes carborundorum” (62), as form without meaning from Offred’s predecessor, takes on, for Offred, the significance of a prayer (101, 102) and mantra, to implore God’s help in her times of weakness. The message-incantation is the first phrase she writes, only to be revealed as a “mere joke” of “schoolboys” (196) of the same type as “a moustache and a black brassiere and armpit hair drawn clumsily on” a picture of Venus de Milo. Roughly interpreted, it means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (197) and it is one of those “bastards” who has taught it to Offred’s dead predecessor and interpreted it for Offred.

24As Offred fuses the Gileadean regime’s positive attitude toward a definition of folk art, e.g., “made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use”, with “A return to traditional values” (17), the negative essence to be extracted is the traditional value attributed to women’s artistic works : that they are of no use, created as they are, out of useless things during unused time.

25Such covert irony shadows the overt irony of the tale, permeating the tone, forcing readers to lend an ear, never sure whether the meta-discursive voice belongs to the narrator, a character, or the implied author.


26The whole order of the handmaids is immanently ironic beginning with the fact that they do not use their hands. They neither touch objects in the house, food in the kitchen or the man whose open vessel they are.

27They are trained to be “chaste vessels” (255) in the image of celibate nuns. As with nuns, nothing takes place in the bed but sleep (17) ; they are vowed to (semi) silence and they wear habits. But while the nun’s apparel is sober black or pure white, the Handmaids’ is “the color of blood, which defines” (18) them, the symbol of sex and birth ; they are scarlet women (Howells 1998), the obverse of nuns. While the regime wants their role to be linked to that of nuns, the latter are not fooled. They pledged their lives to God ; the Handmaids are pledged to be the State’s sperm receptacles and baby-making machines. Pre-Gileadean nuns manifest their rejection of the Handmaid caste by hiding, and when they are “dredge[d] up from underground” and if they “recant”, their refusal still shows by “the welts on their feet” (232).

28By illegally accepting insemination from the doctor, Janine seemingly achieves the regime’s goal and carries her pregnancy to term. Janine in childbed is “inflated but reduced” (126) ; the great pride in her “triumphant” (36) belly leads to greater failure when its fruit “was a shredder, after all” (226). She is seemingly the proof that Handmaids are capable of creating progeny and being saved, but is undone by its outcome. “As the carrier of life, she is closer to death” (36). Janine is shown as “an example” (82) ; but this exemplary Handmaid is, in fact, a woman with no identity. In Pre-Gilead, she lost her identity to the waitress persona, a role she returns to when she slips “over the edge” (229) at the Red Centre. Doubly voicing irony, Offred imagines Aunt Lydia saying to Janine, “You are a reliable girl… not like some of the others” (139). While, on the one hand Aunt Lydia is duped, thinking Janine’s “snivelling and repentance meant something” (139), on the other hand, Offred knows she is among the least reliable of the Handmaids ; “she would testify against us… if she had the occasion… She was a danger to us” (143).

29Offred notes the irony of the relations among Wives and Handmaids. Her tone is mocking as she imagines the Wives’ hypocritical conversation (125) about Janine the pregnant Handmaid, how they might speak of the Handmaid as “a daughter” in her presence, and a “little whore” after she has left. How they might speak of Janine as “well-behaved”, although she got the bun in her oven (172) from the doctor, which “the Wife knew, of course” (215). In the same way, Serena’s desire for a baby, leads her to convince Offred to let herself be “serviced” (266) by Nick. Pleased by Offred’s acceptance she offers to “get something for [her]… Because [she] has been good” (216). As a first installment of a reward, a cigarette is given to Offred. With only the slightest dissonance, Offred ironically bounces the opposites of good and bad off each other : a Handmaid’s being morally bad and illegal, is, then, considered to be good, by the Wives ; a reward for being good/bad is the good/bad cigarette.

30The birth is a constantly ironic scene, where an imaginary birth parallels a real one : Warren’s Wife “lies on the floor… as if she’s about to give birth”, but all she has to show for it “a tiny belly” (126), which the Wives massage. She has to be told when “it’s time” (135) to hurry in to give birth. When the baby is born, she is taken from the woman who has given birth to her. The Wife is helped “down from the birthing stool over to the bed” (136). The baby is put in the Wife’s arms and the other Wives “cluster around the bed, mother and child” (136), while the woman who gave birth remains on the birthing stool crying. And in spite of these wives’ cooing and congratulating, “Envy radiates from them” (136).

31Although the Handmaids create the children for there to be a future, Olfred assumes “from the point of view of future history” they will be “invisible” (240). Her prediction is both true and false at the same time : Through her tapes, her voice comes forward into the future, yet Pieixoto’s disinterest in Offred and greater interest in her Commander and male politics of her time, shadows the Handmaids’ importance.

Gilead’s inherent ironies

32Gilead is an extrapolation of a military takeover of the U. S. government by the religious right. It harks back to the founding Puritans who “had wanted their society to be a theocratic utopia, a city upon a hill, to be a model and a shining example to all nations. The split between the dream and the reality is an old one and it has not gone away” (Atwood 1982 :383). Through Offred’s voice is expressed the gap between Gilead’s professed dogma and the reality of individuals caught in its cracks.

33The primary concerns of Gilead are reproduction of the species, relief for women from their role as sex objects and protection from rape and other forms of sexual abuse and denigration. The demand to control sex, “It’s high time somebody did something” about the Pornomarts, “the Feels on Wheels vans and the Bun-Dle Buggies… said the woman behind the counter” (183), leads to a blinkered, overzealous concentration on the protection of a traditional, ideal ized feminine purity which inexorably strips women of all their rights.

34Gender ironies are contained in the law that “there is no such thing as a sterile man… There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren” (71). Yet, it is clearly shown that old Commanders cannot reproduce. The Handmaids are thus put into the paradoxical situation of having to bring forth the progeny of sterile Commanders on pain of being sent to the Colonies. Their only possibility of fulfilling this command, is to be inseminated by a young man, who, in most cases has no right to a woman as they are too young and “low status”. Should this be found out, the Handmaid will be sent to the Colonies. A Handmaid’s life is “on the line… one way or another” (216).

35Beyond the gender ironies of The Handmaid’s Tale is the core irony of any military putsch, the alleged reason for the a takeover : to improve life. But this can never be so for a totalitarian government ; thus, a revolt only brings about more of the same. The hard truth and the worst irony of such a revolution is that, “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some” (222).

36Another basic irony of political power is that the rules and the structures for enforcing them, do not apply to those who create and impose them on the general population. The Commander is “breaking the rules, under their noses… getting away with it” (248). Like him, his wife and his Guardian have access to the black market for goods that are banned in Gilead, such as cigarettes and alcohol. The taboos of Gilead dissolve behind the door of the Commander’s office, “an oasis of the forbidden” (147). The Commander’s comment that, “What is dangerous in the hands of the multitudes,… is safe enough for those whose motives are… beyond reproach” (166), is received with such disbelief by Offred, realising how reprehensible the motives actually are, that she conjectures that this “may or may not have been [said] with irony” (166). Offred expects that a “Commander understands. He knows my situation, none better. He knows all the rules” (162). However, in spite of his position, the irony slowly dawns on her that he might be “truly ignorant of the real conditions under which [the Handmaids] lived” (167). The Commander embodies the ironies of Gilead, but does not recognize them as such. For if it is true that “Nature demands variety for men” (249), then Gilead is based on a fallacy, i.e. strictly controlled monogamous relations, with the exception of the extra Handmaid supplied to some men.

37The environment created by Gilead encompasses a multitude of ironies : In spite of Gilead’s being a theocracy, the church “isn’t used any more except as a museum” (41). The shop, “Loaves and Fishes” has neither loaves, as “most house-holds bake their own” nor fishes, as the “sea fisheries were defunct several years ago” (173). The Butcher shop is called “All Flesh”, which originally meant “’all of humanity’ (see Isaiah 40 : 5)” (Brians 1986 :4), might obliquely suggest a butchering of humanity. “Soul Scrolls” is the reincarnation of a lingerie shop selling “coloured pantyhose, brassieres with lace, silk scarves” (176), whereby objects of the chaste state religion are created over a “palimpsest” (17) of the objects of sexuality. The same is, of course, true for the “Red Center” ; there the Handmaids sleep where once adolescents displayed their sexuality. The Japanese tourists are dressed in a style “they used to call… Westernized” (38), a style which is no longer western, but has become eastern.

38In a land where reading and writing is forbidden to women, the “Library is like a temple” (175). Scrabble, “the game of old women, old men… or of adolescents” (148) has become “forbidden… dangerous… indecent” (149), “kinky in the extreme” (163). Magazines have a kaleidoscope of roles. After burning magazines for men, women burned, in their turn, magazines for women ; they became objects of “house-to-house searches, bonfires…” (166). The result was that these “infinitely discardable… trivial and absurd magazines” (165) had become rarities in Gilead, collectors’ items for men. The lack of children which was once an ideal of beauty as shown “in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration” (33) has become a sad reality.

Character irony

39The main characters in the tale are depicted each by their own ironies.


40Firstly, Serena Joy is neither serene, nor joyful. “She was a malicious, vengeful woman” (170), with her eyebrows plucked into “a permanent look of… outrage” ; “her eyes… were… hostile blue… her chin, clenched like a fist” (25). “Her lips were thin, held that way with… small vertical lines (24). She can be heard “pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet” (19). Before Gilead, Serena was among the most outspoken activists for women’s return to domesticity, making “speeches… about how women should stay at home” (55). This is doubly ironic, in that at the time, “Serena didn’t do this herself”. After the revolution that she so strongly supported, staying “in her home… doesn’t seem to agree with her” (56).

41Reactions to her were also ironic. Offred’s feminist mother “slept” (55) through Serena’s rise to power, unaware of the danger she posed. “Luke thought she was funny” (56). Between her militant mother and masculine husband, only Offred understood how “Really… frightening” Serena was, somehow realizing what turn Serena’s earnestness could bring about.

42Under the Gilead regime, she sits knitting into endless scarves the boys and girls (23) she cannot have, in the “family house” (18) that will never hold the children that turn a husband and wife into a family. “Withered” (91), old and beyond childbearing, she wears “Lily of the Valley… the scent of prepubescent girls… the smell of… the innocence of female flesh not yet given over to hairiness and blood” (90). She tends a garden of flowers, “the genital organs of plants” (91) when her own bloom and fertility are gone.

43Serena can perceive situational irony in families of others ; she gives a “coughing laugh” at Offred’s last Commander’s inability to procreate, telling her “Not so good for you either” (25). On the other hand, she is blind to the ironies of her own home life. Serena “does want that baby” (216) and enters in “collusion of a sort” with Offred, getting her to mate with Nick. In response to Offred’s verbal loyalty, the Wife of the Commander has no qualms ; Serena is ready to betray him, “We just won’t tell him, will we ?” (216). She is, of course, unaware of the Commander’s betrayal of her and what he does not tell her. She also does not realize that her contempt of her Husband’s impotency, is returned as he turns from her “clenched… purse snapp[ed] shut” in search of an open sexual poke.

The aunts

44The organization of Aunts, and Aunt Lydia in particular, is a typical revolutionary species riddled with irony ; they are a double-faced interface. While proclaiming a dream of a sisterhood where “women will live in harmony together… united for a common end” (171) they are the regime’s tool to divide and conquer. In spite of their hatred of men (as noted by Moira : “you know the way the way the Aunts look when they say the word man” (257)), they have turned men-like, defending a government of male supremacy. The Aunts’ pen-is envy has been rewarded and they are allowed to read and write (139), a difference they “obscenefly] flaunt” (287). But the respect that they receive from the powers that be is clearly shown in the weapon they are allotted : cattle prods, not guns like Guardians.

Offred’s mother

45The ironies of the mother concern her actions, both as concerns her life as a character and within the narrated text, but also as a feminist which links them to an extra-textual reality. She “wanted a women’s culture” (137), where men are only needed “for ten seconds’ worth of half babies. A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women” (131). And that is clearly how the relation between Offred and Fred is designed to be. That is how Janine was impregnated to give Angela to Warren’s Wife. Men remain on the outskirts of women’s lives, especially of Handmaids who do not even speak to them. This type of women’s culture “isn’t what (she) meant”, but Offred ironically admonishes her to “Be thankful for small miracles” (137).

46Her mother claimed, “History will absolve me” (131), although far from being absolved, her shouting militating for women’s rights was turned into examples of “Unwomen” where “they don’t play the soundtrack” (129).

47Among Offred’s earliest childhood memories is a day in the park with her mother. Here the religious right anti-abortionists have ironically joined in with the left-wing feminists to burn pornographic magazines in a bonfire.

48And the hardest ironic cut of them all, children are not a parent’s justification for existence (132) no matter how much one sacrifices for them, and “no mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be” (190).


49Little is known about Nick, just as little is known about the Eyes, a class he probably belongs to. Nick’s importance is, at first, minimized. He is perceived by Offred as having “Low status” (27). She notes that Guardians may exceptionally be “Eyes incognito” (30). Such Guardians are automatically ironic : they are not what they seem to be. However, it is only as she is to be taken away that she notes the irony of his role, “Nick, the private Eye” (305), reactualizing a fixed expression for detectives from pre-Gileadean times.

50Nick is rarely quoted, but to convince Offred to “Go with them”, he says “Trust me” (306). Offred notes the irony of the expression, and its infinite regress : the expression literally means to have confidence, but its use by deceivers has changed its signification to mean the opposite. The derived meaning, used ironically, then becomes the original denotation.


51The multiple layers of significance and reference immanent in a dystopia, by definition, make it inherently ironic. The Handmaid’s Tale is doubly ironic in that the irony of the dystopia is reflected in the narrator’s ironic voice.

52The ironic texture of “The handmaid’s tale” is made up of many threads weaving oppositions among many voices : the narrator’s, characters’ and a metanarrator’s. This last belongs to the implied author and is particularly satirical, relating, as it does, the ’Tale’ to the implied readers’ encyclopedia of the world, for “Novels about the future as Ursula Le Guin has said, are really about the present” (Atwood 1982 :365). The tension of such complex ironic discourse is born out of the constant, opposing cleavage-unification processes inherent in the knotting, breaking and retying of the fabric of the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale supports Hutcheon’s (1992 : 11 -12) concept of irony as a “positive mode of artistic expression with renewed power as an engaged critical force, that is to say, as a rhetorical and structural strategy of resistance and opposition.” Clearly, this dystopia is a “cautionary” (Atwood 1998) tale, warning readers not to sleep through and ignore the premonitory events heralding the additional restraints on freedom, and the deterioration of our world, that can be imposed by “more equal” (Orwell 1946) men on subjugated others.

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