The Handmaid’s Tale Critical Review

Thesis- Irony is used through different characters and works to address hypocrisy in the Gilead society.

Irony; the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. In this dystopian classic Atwood paints a picture of a powerful theocracy where freedom and possession are stripped from its inhabitants. Atwood cleverly explores the theme of irony through setting, characters and the theme of control to address hypocrisy in the Gilead society. With hints of clever satire we are able to clearly see the ironic qualities of Gilead which lead us to deeper connect with our main character Offred.

Irony is shown through a few characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, the first being the Commander, one of the men who set up the general regime. The first use of irony regarding the Commander is the name ‘Commander’ a name often associated with tough, harsh, military personal. The irony lies in the fact that despite this considerable name, the Commander is in fact kind, childish and even quite immature; ‘he is not an unkind man … under other circumstances, I even like him.’ All he wants is play games with Offred both figuratively and literally; such as inviting Offred to his office to play scrabble and then inviting her out to Jezebel’s later in the novel.  Gilead and all of its stringent rules and social constructs were created by a theocratic dictatorship called “The Sons of Jacob”, essentially a group of misogynistic Commanders who were powerful enough to twist a liberally democratic government into a full-blown totalitarian one. This process was evoked by the sudden rate of infertility caused by environmental pollution and was meant to benefit the Commanders and their high-class spouses by providing a highly controlled society with Handmaids to produce their children for them. However this tightly controlled society has its cracks, one of which being Jezebel’s, a brothel located in an old hotel.‘His motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him. ‘They had not yet reached the level of words,’ Ironically enough Jezebel’s is primarily set up for the Commanders as their wives are no longer willing to engage in sexual activities with them anymore. The irony in this situation is immense as the regime that was meant to benefit the Commanders has completely backfired, resulting in the Commanders only having sexual intercourse once a month in a strange ceremony with a Handmaid. It is Ironic how the most powerful Commanders who created this regime are the ones most negatively effected by it and the only ones with the biggest desire to rebel against it.

Atwood posed the headquarters or base of her award-winning novel at Harvard University. Harvard University is known nowadays for being a prestigious place of great knowledge and education, however in Gilead, the act of women reading and writing is forbidden. All books were burned in fires initiated by the commanders to ensure women could not attain knowledge and therefore stayed lesser than men; even shop signs were changed to motifs that represented the store content instead of using names. So the irony of using this as a setting for a place where women’s education is now forbidden illustrates the hypocrisy of the Government in Gilead. However this does seem to be the perfect place for the novel to be set due to the link in the mindsets of the puritans who lived there in the 17th century to the government and the construct of the Gilead society. ‘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.’  Atwood herself shows how frightening the idea of something ‘not happening here’ can be so easily proven wrong. In her novel she elaborates on the past history of the puritans and ‘proves that saying wrong’ by creating a worst case senario dystopia based on their history of intolerance. Atwood herself experienced the shortcoming of women’s rights more closely whilst studying at Harvard in 1962. “Women students, or Cliffies, were exiles at Harvard.” says Atwood, although the forces of the feminist movement were in full swing, women were treated as though they were somehow less than men. Harvard’s motto ‘Veritas’ which translates to ‘Truth’ in english is an almost laughable use of irony used by Atwood in regards to Gilead’s current situation. This place which once held the motto of ‘Truth’ is now a corrupt society where the truth is forbidden to its inhabitants. The government of Gilead in is fact falsifying all of the information that it shares with its people to maintain the regime and keep the order of Gilead imperforate.

“Women’s Salvagings are not frequent. There is less need for them. These days we are so well behaved”. Another obscene ritual mentioned in The Handmaid’s Tale are the women’s Salvagings. The women’s Salvagings are when women (wives, handmaids etc.) who have committed crimes such as adultery, assault, murder or attempted escape are hung in ceremony in front of the wives and handmaids of Gilead “Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.” The irony of the Salvagings lie in the name; The word sounds oddly similar to ‘Salvation’, a religious term used to describe “the state of being saved from sin or evil”, this has a similar meaning to the actual word ‘Salvaging’ which means “the act of saving something that is in danger of being destroyed.” It is ironic how these public executions are in fact the exact opposite of what their name suggests as the word means ‘saving’ however these women are really not being saved at all.

The Handmaid’s Tale is full of scenes cleverly illustrated by irony and satire. In conclusion the text shows that by using language that usually describes the opposite, the reader will understand with higher clarity the unjust society of Gilead. By Atwood’s use of this clever language feature the reader also gets taken to a deeper layer of the novel, a layer where the true hypocrisy of Gileads society is uncovered and true formative opinions of the characters can be made.

Ella Maluschnig

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. A great start, Ella.
    Can you look to quote weave further, as this will add further depth and sophistication to your argument 🙂

  2. – Your work tends to go straight into it – can you give some context of the text/ideas (not a lot) but so people who haven’t read the text could read this and understand what you’re presenting 🙂
    – rejig the sentences and their placement in paragraph 1 for greater effect
    – keep addressing whether someone who hadn’t read this, could pick it up and understand what you’re presenting.
    – continue to look at the use of irony


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