An essential element of dystopian literature is the theme of control. The objective of this theme is to show contrasts and similarities of control using prejudice, to past history and present day. This makes the novel more believable, as it can make the reader think about how society has abused the use of control in the past and if the scenario described in the story could be a reality. This theme was used regularly in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, as this story is based in a strict totalitarian society that had possessed control over every aspect of women’s lives. This theme was used through Offred’s flashbacks, the setting of the story and use of allusions to show the theme of control.
An example of the theme of control in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale is in Offred’s flashbacks. From Offred’s flashbacks, we can see that she is highly isolated and able to be lost in her own thoughts often, meaning that a large proportion of the story is set in the past tense: “The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet.” In Offred’s flashbacks, we also see how the totalitarian society of Gilead came to be. In one particular flashback, we see how quickly religious extremists assumed control of office and of women. The first sign of their control of women was when Offred tried to pay with her Compucard and her Compucard number did not register. “Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do was push a couple of buttons. We’re cut off.” This shows how the Republic of Gilead achieved eradicating women’s ownership, as per traditional values and how easily they were able to enforce the law upon assuming power. Margaret Atwood being a self-proclaimed feminist and writing this novel in the early eighties, she has crafted this component of the story to be topical to feminist movements of the time, showing the irrationality of degrading women and the consequences to women. Atwood appears to be telling me the peril’s of traditional values and the profits of feminism.
The setting of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale also relates to theme of control. The story takes place in the country of which used to be the United States of America, a country that currently values freedom and knowledge over oppression and blind-faith. Offred describes the city of Gilead as being in a state of forced and mandatory perfection (or at least what the Republic of Gilead conceives as “perfection”): “The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live. As in those pictures, those museums, those model towns, there are no children.” This shows how corrupt systems of governing often obsess over not only spiritual, but geometric perfection also, doing everything in their power (so in this case, anything) to have people, buildings, streets and monuments exactly how they wish. In Offred’s notation of the fact that there are no children in the streets symbolizes how Gilead had controlled excitement and unpredictability: children, especially children left unattended in the street tend to have more energy than commonsense, making them eccentric and unpredictable, giving a neighborhood character and showing prosperity. But of course, Gilead highly frowns upon unpredictability, as they demand order and discipline, insisting every individual human being live their life according to Gilead’s means and no less. To me, Atwood seems to be trying to explain to the reader how a system of governing that craves perfection and puts it into practice will create more imperfection as a result, as their country will no longer possess character and individuality.
Control in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale can be seen in the allusions shown. An allusion is an expression intended to make something come to mind without directly mentioning it. The Handmaid’s Tale contains many allusions relating to Jesus based religion and the Bible. For example, the Republic of Gilead was named after a land called Gilead which was mentioned in the Bible. Another example was in the hotel turned sex club named Jezebel’s. Jezebel was a queen in the Book of Kings who committed several crimes throughout and was known as vain and manipulative. She kept to her persona to salvage her dignity by wearing her famously excessive quantities of makeup before being thrown from a window in execution. This lead to the association of the name “Jezebel” with cosmetics and prostitution and rebellion of women. This fits the profile of the Jezebel’s club described in the story, as women working in the club were forced to mingle with significant, powerful men in preference to the colonies or being a handmaid, and were undermined in intellect, hence the Commander’s patronising tone towards Offred: “We thought we could do better. . . . Better never means better for everyone. . . . It always means worse, for some.” This to me shows that Atwood was able to delve deep into the Bible and integrate many aspects of the book into her story. She may have done so to show that we often read religious texts for righteous inspiration, but forget that a large part of the Bible was created to undermine women.
In summary, we can see one of the most essential elements of dystopian literature is the theme of control. The use of this theme is designed to show the reader a comparison between famous historical oppression and the events in the story in an attempt to make the reader understand how this story could happen in the near or distant future. This theme was used regularly in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, as this story is based in a strict totalitarian society that had possessed control over every aspect of women’s lives. This theme was used through Offred’s flashbacks, the setting of the story and use of allusions to show the theme of control.