The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1984, while Atwood was living in West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was still up and there was still the iron curtain dividing Europe. She lived close to a totalitarian regime and wanted to capture the feeling of wariness; of being spied on; of surveillance – particularly prevalent in Nazi Germany and the Soviet-controlled East Berlin.
We can also see echoes of the notion of ‘change as fast as lightning’ from WW2 in Gilead. As the novel progresses we see just how quickly the society shifts – and in some ways, this is meant as a warning; or at least, to have the reader question certain elements in contemporary society that echo the ‘extreme’ Gilead practices.
The women’s rights movement played a role in the novel too. By 1984, second-wave feminism had been present for many years, but there were right-wing conservative Christians who were pushing back on the 1973 Roe vs Wade decree (legalised abortion) and there were lots of concerns about whether women’s empowerment would stall. Atwood focuses on some of the consequences of removing reproductive rights and birth control in Gilead. As she puts it, nations never build radical governments on foundations that aren’t already there, and, in the novel, she explores the alarming implications of reversing the gains made by the feminist movement. One of the focal points in the novel is about the lack of control over their bodies, but Offred also comments on how she used to have this control before the coup. We can see the parallels in Atwood’s commentary on the pushbacks to the feminist movement potentially being reversed.
There are elements of 17th century New England Puritanism in the Handmaid’s Tale as well; especially as the women are there for function (reproduction) rather than decorative or for pleasure. This austerity (abstinence) is central to the Puritan ideology; having a simple life – a pure life of prayer, forsaking the temptations of life, in order to be rewarded in the afterlife.
Gilead is a theocracy and puritanical religion plays an important role. In some ways, Atwood draws attention to this 400-year old religious reformation ideology to highlight the traditional conservative extremism that we can see today in alt-right ideology, thus bridging elements from the past to the speculative future. In Gilead, there are purity ceremonies and public hangings of non-conformists – and we can see great similarities here (ie Salem Witch Trials).
There is a heritage of extremist thoughts in the United States, which is possibly why Atwood set the novel there – rather than in Canada. As she points out – nothing in the novel is made up or fictionalised: everything is taken from various ideologies or totalitarian regimes throughout history and then spliced together. It is, therefore, not a critical dystopia in the same way as Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (although this was published after).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead (from the Bible) is created after a coup and the religious views of the ruling group are imposed unto American society. Atwood noted that she believed some social chaos would allow these extremist ideologies to reassert themselves.
She stated: “The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights—all had precedents, and many of these were to be found, not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the “Christian” tradition itself.“
It is ‘speculative fiction’, (parallels to our world; drawn from our world) intended to make the reader question: what features in the text can I see in real life? Do these things not worry me? The idea that”it can’t happen here” is also something Atwood critiques, because anything could happen anywhere given the circumstances. It is set in New England in the near future – so technically, it is a dystopian world, but it extends beyond this.