It is partly an extrapolation of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, attempting to imagine what kind of values might evolve if environmental pollution rendered most of the human race sterile. It is also the product of debates within the feminist movement in the 70s and early 80s. Atwood has been very much a part of that movement, but she has never been a mere mouthpiece for any group, always insisting on her individual perspectives. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the religious right, the election of Ronald Reagan, and many sorts of backlash (mostly hugely misinformed) against the women's movement led writers like Atwood to fear that the antifeminist tide could not only prevent further gains for women, but turn back the clock. Dystopias are a kind of thought experiment which isolates certain soiacl trends and exaggerates them to make clear their most negative qualities. They are rarely intended as realistic predictions of a probable future, and it is pointless to criticize them on the grounds of implausibility. Atwood here examines some of the traditional attitudes that are embedded in the thinking of the religious right and which she finds particularly threatening.
But another social controversy also underlies this novel about feminist attitudes toward sexuality and pornography in particular. Outspoken feminists have taken all kinds of positions: that all erotica depicting women as sexual objects is demeaning, that pornography was bad though erotica can be good, that although most pornography is demeaning the protection of civil liberties is a greater good which requires the toleration of freedom for pornographers, however distasteful, even that such a thing as feminist pornography can and should be created.
The sub-theme of this tangled debate which seems to have particularly interested and alarmed Atwood is the tendency of some feminist anti-porn groups to ally themselves with religious anti-porn zealots who oppose the feminists on almost every other issue. The language of "protection of women" could slip from a demand for more freedom into a retreat from freedom, to a kind of neo-Victorianism. After all, it was the need to protect "good" women from sex that justified all manner of repression in the 19th century, including confining them to the home, barring them from participating in the arts, and voting. Contemporary Islamic women sometimes argue that assuming the veil and traditional all-enveloping clothing is aimed at dealing with sexual harassment and sexual objectification. The language is feminist, but the result can be deeply patriarchal, as in this novel.
Women who participated in the feminist movement from the late sixties and early seventies responded to this novel strongly, often finding it extremely alarming. Younger women lacking the same background often found it baffling. Ask yourself as you read not whether events such as it depict s are likely to take place, but whether the attitudes and values it conveys are present in today's society.
Atwood's strong point is satire, often hilarious, often very pointed. Humor is in short supply in this novel, but it is a satire nonetheless. Atwood's love for language play (apparent in the anagram of her name she uses for her private business "O. W. Toad") is a major feature of the protagonist of this novel. Her jokes are dark and bitter, but they are pervasive.
The real end of the story, of course, is told as a parody of a scholarly symposium. Note the date, two centuries from now. The title which Offred's narrative has been given resembles those of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "The Knight's Tale," "The Wife of Bath's Tale." Most SF dystopias end with a heroic conspiracy or uprising leading to the destruction of the evil government which has oppressed everyone. The jarring shift to pretentious scholarly jargon, while amusing to scholars, may be off-putting for most readers; but Atwood is trying to avoid fatalism and sensationalism at the same time. She is also parodying the ponderous, self-conscious attempts of scholars to be humorous. There is a long tradition of "nowhere" names in utopian fiction. "Utopia" means "nowhere" and Samuel Butler called his utopia "Erewhon." The Chair comes from the University of "deny" which is in the country of "none of it."
It is difficult to see how