The Role Of Setting In The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood

In “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margret Atwood Atwood used setting to create a somber, dark and disturbing atmosphere which is consistent with the story. The story took place in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic state which replaced the United States. Because of the critical reproduction rates, attributed to the lifestyle and sinful ways of people in the old country, Handmaids were assigned to elite couples who have problems conceiving, to bear children through a ceremony participated in by the handmaid, the husband and wife. Offred tells the story of her daily life and flashbacks were used to set a comparison between her life in the past and the present.

The setting used was the homes of the commanders, particularly the home of the Waterfords, where Offred was assigned. Their home was drab and dark, it reminds one of the old homes, with muted lights and staircases. It reinforces the mood of the story and the pain and despair that Offred experienced being helpless and forced to submit to the system that robs her of her family and her dignity. The Handmaids take a daily walk to shop and they usually pass through the wall which used to be a university. In the wall were bodies of people who violated the rules were hanged and displayed for all to see. This setting was created to instill fear among the people so that they will remain obedient to the rules. In the supermarket, you would not see a typical display of items that we are used to. There is no junk food, or excessive food on display. Just the basic food that a simple household needs, which is consistent with the system's aim to encourage its citizen to live a healthy and simple life. On the streets, there are armed guards everywhere monitoring the people. Their presence instill fear and one can notice the lack of children walking on streets, this setting helped create an atmosphere that is somber, dull and lacking in life and joy.

The setting is in 1986 in what used to be Cambridge Massachusetts but is now part of Republic of Gilead. Atwood used setting to create a somber, dark and disturbing atmosphere which is consistent with the story. The republic of Gilead implies theocratic and totaliarn regime which was ruled by religious leaders and the government controls every aspect of the lives of their people.

Cambridge is chosen for two reasons including an illuision to the pilgrams. Massachusetts was the firspt place the pilgrims landed and many were purtitans; the puritans were religious and intolerant people who settled in Massachusetts in the seventh century. “The society in The Handmaid’s Take is a throwback to the early Puritans…The early Purittans ame to America not for religious freedom, as were taught in grade school, but to set up a society that would be theocracy (like Iran) ruled by regious leaders, and monolithic, that is a scoeity that would not tolerate dissent within itself….My book reflets the form and stly of the early Puritan society and addresses the dynamics that bring about such a situation”, as stated by the author the puritan society is paralleled throughout the novel. Another reason as to why Cambridge is chosen as the setting place includes it being the center of liberalism in the states. People from this area are often more tolerant and their values and ideals are often far ahead of other American states. Atwood notes “You often hear in North America, “It can’t happen here,” but it happened quite early on. The Puritans banished people who didn’t agree with them, so we would be rather smug to assume that the seeds are not there. That’s why I set the book in Cambridge”, supported by the fact that Cambridge is the location of Harvard University, it is present but closed, used for other purposes in the novel.

The setting is realved to the reader through the excerpts “Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore and the univerisy is closed.”, “I can remember where the building are, inside the Wall, we used to be able to walk freely there, when it was a univeris.”, and “The curch is a small one, one of the first erected here, hundreds of years ago. It isn’t used any more, except as a museum. Inside it you can see paintings of women in long somber dresses, their hair tightly covered by white caps, and upright men, darkly clothed and unsmiling”.

The setting thoughout “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the same except the meaning or purpose of the setting changes. On page 73, “The same as before, except that now it’s obligatory” supports the fact the setting is still the same but meaning has changed, the doctor’s office which was a choice to go or not becomes an obligartory affair. This shows how the doctor’s office and the purpose (ex. Urine tests, hormone tests, and blood tests) have remained the same but instead people don’t go because they choose to go for their own health, but because they are forced to go, this shows the control that the government has. Another example of how the meaning has changed are the stores, they are still where you get food items, but the freedom is not there. On page 38, it is mentioned that “On the way to the river are the old dormitories, used for something else now, with their fairy-tale turrets, painted white and gold and blue”, in this case the building has stayed the same, but the purpose of the building has changed.

The setting also allowed Offred to remember moments from her past. Simple details of the setting such as the streets, helped Offred remember things of her past as mentioned in page 28, “Luke and I used to walk together sometimes, along these streets”. The sidewalk in the excerpt, “The sidewalks here are cement. Like a child, I avoid stepping on cracks. I’m remembering my feet on these sidewalks, in the time before, and what I sued to wear on them”, allowed Offred to think of past events and compare them to how things are in her present days as a Handmaid.

Last but not least, characters in the novel were limited by the setting. Women had no rights, their only significant ole was bearing children while men had some rights and were also limited by the government. As stated on page 136, women were “two-legged wombs, that’s all; sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” stripped of their rights and weren’t allowed to work either. The commanders were not as powerful as they seemed having to follow the laws imposed by the government in which some would push the commanders to take part in forbidden activities like going to Jezebel’s and buying things off the black market. 

09 March 2021
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