The Handmaid’s Tale as Dystopian Gothic

Posted by Timothy Jones on October 03, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , , ,

By Egon Cools


As an effort towards new criticism of Gothic works, this blog series addresses Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel published in 1986, but holding more relevance and significance today than ever before. This first part contextualises The Handmaid’s Tale through an introduction to dystopian fiction and the genre’s links to the Gothic, and also relates the novel to female oppression as presented in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. The second entry in this series will address the resurgence in popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in recent years, and the third entry will be dedicated to contrasting narrative elements between the original novel and the 2017 television adaptation. In addressing this Gothic novel’s past and present, I hope to also simultaneously address the movements for women’s rights in the past and present, and provide a commentary on Gothic literature’s influential role in the yet ongoing struggle for equality.

Before looking at Atwood’s text, it is important to first contextualise what exactly ‘dystopian’ fiction is, and how it might fall under the Gothic umbrella. The term ‘dystopia’ derives as an antonym to ‘utopia’, and can thus be defined as a narrative setting which warns against idealistic utopian thought[1]. Dystopian stories comment on existing social power dynamics by presenting them in a more extreme, final form. In other words, they present a world which is entirely possible if certain attitudes remain unchanged. George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the foundational texts in the genre, presenting a totalitarian government shielded by infinite surveillance, and presiding over a calculatedly brainwashed population. Though Orwell was preceded by futuristic novels such as those of H.G. Wells, those previous texts had mostly focused on technologically advanced futures, rather than a dystopia shaped out of socio-political attitudes and legislation. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World might be seen as the earliest bridge between sci-fi and political dystopia, foregrounded by the development of a sedating drug named ‘soma’, but more concerned with the individual human response and rebellion against a pacifying government. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a definitive text for American dystopia, highlighting, like Orwell, the dangerous ability of a government to regulate information and education.

In a thesis on the overlap of the Gothic and dystopian novels, Amy Cartwright draws several important links between certain dystopian fictions and Gothic conventions. Both genres very often refuse a straightforward structure, instead presenting stories through fragments, unreliable accounts, and ambiguous endings[2]. Both genres also play with the idea of ‘safe havens’ for persecuted protagonists, “where characters believe they have found a place to escape the horrors of the world only to discover that they are in just as much, if not more, danger”[3]. Beyond such structural elements, dystopian narratives are just as concerned with the monstrous – in other words, both genres use their characters delineate the complex boundaries of humanity and morality. What Cartwright identifies as The Handmaid’s Tale’s principal Gothic element, and its unique dystopian anxiety, it that of grotesque bodies. It is a novel which constantly alludes to grotesque birth through its references to terms such as ‘unbaby’ or ‘unwoman’, which linguistically render the things Other to human. Against this background of grotesque anxiety, the bodies of the Handmaids, Wives, and Commanders are all, as Cartwright writes, “subject to the higher laws decreed by state power”[4].

The Handmaid’s Tale is also a unique Gothic dystopia, compared to other well-known texts which might be categorised as such, because of its female protagonist. In many ways, Atwood is responding to the feminist concerns raised in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a foundational text in terms of male control over female minds and bodies.

Gilman’s female narrator is controlled by her husband and doctor, who constantly advocates that she remain inactive, quiet, and passive in a bedroom with a “particularly irritating” yellow wallpaper pattern. Notably, the story is set in “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house”[5], as is The Handmaid’s Tale, because it is a setting representing a conservative return to America’s (Puritan) past. For both women within these mansions, an initial hatred for domestic captivity turns into an analytical obsession towards small details. The room in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is haunted like Offred’s room, where the previous handmaid hung herself from a chandelier. The traces of the previous handmaid are constantly reflected on. The discovery of a small carving at the bottom of a closet wall becomes Offred’s closest and only ally when she is cut off from communication. For both stories, the politics of writing is key – a fact which might bring us to recognise Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as an early feminist declaration.

One critic recognises a recurring imagery of breaking circles in The Handmaid’s Tale , as well as Atwood’s other works, which symbolises “an attempt to break the boundaries represented by the suffocating circle of [Offred’s] dystopian society, and, together with it, the circle of imprisonment represented by patriarchal politics, which she obviously and radically opposes.”[6] This circle or cycle of horror is also present in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, where the protagonist at first fears the forms of “creeping” women[7] she sees in the wallpaper, but eventually becomes a creeping woman herself. Along these lines, neither story presents women as blameless. The narrator’s sister-in-law in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ echoes the doctor’s sentiments, and does not promote the narrator’s freedom: “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!”[8] Similarly, the household’s Wife is a constant threat to Offred, ultimately more so than the male Commander himself; “She wanted me to feel that I could not come into the house unless she said so. There is push and shove, these days, over such toeholds.”[9]



[1] Amy Cartwright. The Future is Gothic: elements of Gothic in dystopian novels. PhD thesis, Department of English Literature, University of Glasgow, 2005. [web] p.3.

[2] Cartwright. p.17.

[3] Ibid. p.18.

[4] Ibid. p.46.

[5] Charlotte Perkins Gilman. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. In Woman Who Did: Stories by Men and Women 1890-1914, ed. Richardson, Angelique. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. p.31.

[6] Adelina Cataldo. ‘Breaking the Circle of Dystopia: Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’. In Women’s Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ed. Wilson, Sharon R. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2013. p.156.

[7] Gilman. p.44.

[8] Ibid. p.36.

[9] Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale. London: Vintage, 1996. p.23.

Tiny URL for this post: