Margaret Atwood’s Warning to the Modern World

It is an understatement to say The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood, left an impacting mark on me after I finished reading it. The novel is embedded with parallels, symbolism, and a dire underlying message to the readers. 

Margaret Atwood on thrillers, classics, and free speech - The Boston Globe
Margaret Atwood

When I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I connected symbolism and parallels to racism. First, the execution of defiant ones in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Wall is a parallel to the lynching that African Americans had to endure during times of inequality. In the novel, it is legal to execute anyone who rebels. Afterwards, the lifeless bodies are hung and put on display at The Wall, to serve as a reminder to the citizens of the repercussions of disobedience.

“…that we should remember to do what we are told and not get in trouble, because if we do, we will be rightfully punished.”

(Atwood, 284)

This is parallel to times when African Americans were lynched for fighting for their rights and/or freedom. Similar to the novel’s The Wall, the murdered bodies of African Americans were often left exposed to the public. Mainly because white supremacists had no respect for African Americans and wanted to instill fear into anyone who desired freedom and justice.  

 In addition to this parallel, racism was a large factor that led the theocratic Republic of Gilead to succeed. Before Gilead was overthrown, the rate of Caucasian births was rapidly decreasing whereas other races’ birthrates increased. The cause for the decrease of births was because of the escalating rates of pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, which I may add is another parallel to the modern world. Caucasian’s fear of becoming extinct leads many to follow and believe the policies of Gilead.

“Its racist policies, for instance, were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.”

(Atwood, 305)

This proves that racism and prejudice are apparent in the Republic of Gilead, however, the parallels do not end there. 

 Women in The Handmaid’s Tale have no rights and are being forced to do activities against their will. In this society, rebellion is bound to transpire, and so came about Mayday. Mayday is the code name given the underground resistance network. Offred, the narrator, mentions Mayday frequently in the story as an escape route. Mayday is a parallel to the infamous underground railroad. The underground railroad was a network of protected routes and safe houses that slaves used to achieve freedom. The Underground Railroad was assistance by abolitionists and those who disagreed with slavery. Likewise, to The Handmaid’s tale, people disagree with the Republic of Gilead’s laws, and they help function Mayday. For instance, Nick is a part of Mayday and helps Offred escape.

“…I open my mouth to say it, but he [Nick] comes over, close to me, whispers. ‘It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them.’’

(Atwood, 293) 
Virtual Tuesday Night Book Club: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale |  Monmouth University

 After I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale and the historical notes, I figured all my questions would have been answered. On the contrary, I was left curious and filled with queries more than ever before. I ponder on what happened to the narrator Offred? Was she sent to the Colonies, or did Nick rescue her? Did Offred and her family ever reunite? Finally, the question that haunted me the most: what was Margaret Atwood’s purpose for writing this novel? How did she want the readers to feel after they finished reading it? What was her message to the American society? However, I came upon the realization that my state of uncertainty was Margaret Atwood’s purpose when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood wants the reader to be left with uncertainty because she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale to serve as a warning. A warning to the American society about how history repeats itself if change does not take place. All the laws and policies that the Republic Gilead had were all once created and enforced by a real country.

In the historical notes the speaker, Professor Peixoto, says, “As I have said elsewhere, there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead; its genius was synthesis.”

(Atwood, 307)

The Republic of Gilead’s government is simply a combination of past, nevertheless, real policies from governments around the world. This supports my claim that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale to serve as a warning because in the novel history repeats itself. The evidence is shown with symbolism and parallels in The Handmaid’s Tale. For instance, the apparent symbolism to racism and the parallels to the Underground Railroad and increasing levels of pollution. 

It is translucent that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale with an embedded underlying message. However, as a reader and a citizen of twenty-first-century America, I hope that we take her warning effectively by making a change in the world.  

Author: Stephyne Weathersby

Lowkey trying my best.