Texts which represent imagined societies vary considerable, depending on their contexts and the values underlying them. Compare the representations of Utopia and The Handmaidens Tale, exploring how different contexts and different values create different meanings. Thomas More’s acclaimed satirical novel, Utopia exhibits a fictional society, ‘Utopia’ on which social and philosophical concepts of 16th century England are criticized. In The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood comments on the outcome of extremist fundamentalist views in the forms of abhorrence to feminism.
Published in 1985, the novel is heavily influenced by Atwood’s social critiques. Her totalitarian state of the Republic of Gilead demonstrates her frustration against movements that deny feminism and also criticises religious movements, especially fanatical Christianity in the United States. In both texts, underlying values such as the controversy and reliance...
upon religion as an authoritarian tool and the issue of women’s rights and equality form a contradictory stance, highlighting that different context and different values can create different meanings within literature.
In Utopia and The Handmaiden’s Tale, religion serves as doctrine on which fervent and contentious beliefs are built upon. Through the distortion and pious elucidation of religious values, both imagined societies utilize holy beliefs as an assessment of the righteousness of their actions and the calculation of legitimacy. Thomas More acted as a methodical persecutor of the Protestant religion in 16th century England. At this time, religious supremacy echoed that of the dominant church, with violence commanding over different interpretation of the bible.
More decided to remain a lay Christian, but died a martyr for his faith. The society he generates in Utopia, endorses religious toleration, a community without
discrimination for faith. Numerous beliefs dwell in Utopia however, all have to meet the following standard, “... there is one Supreme being, who is responsible for the creation and management of the universe. ” This accommodating creed granted the Utopians the luxury of freedom of choice.
This luxury however did not include atheism , the belief that no God or holy being existed within an individual’s world, “... orbade his people to believe anything so incompatible with human dignity as the doctrine that the soul dies with the body, and the universe functions aimlessly, without any controlling providence. ” So immoral that the act of distrust or not believing in a ulterior being that the individual was classified, “... forfeited his right to be classes as a human being... less do they regard his as a Utopian citizen. ” This formidable, but amicable pressure placed on the need to have religious beliefs demonstrates the accepting nature of numerous religions, but almost contradicts itself in not allowing atheism, a considered religion within itself.
The religious toleration in Utopia conflicts with More’s individual actions and stance on religion in 16th century England. The challenging visions demonstrate that More himself found fault with the harsh, pitiless opinions society in England formed, however he himself was not influenced to change his personal action towards this discrimination. More’s view of Utopia demonstrates that although his own personal society had contradicting views, this is how the world could of functioned had it been liberated of the prejudices and inequality held within the church of the time.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale, the chauvinistic and intolerant leaders use
religious principles as a tool to justify and clarify their discriminatory actions. This religious authoritarianism is demonstrated in their destruction and deportment of individual carrying other beliefs. Another example of their zealous conduct is the exploitation of biblical references to licence their horrifying misogyny. A main motif carried throughout the novel is the scriptural romance of Jacob and Rachel.
This is first introduced to the reader in an epigraph at the introduction of the novel. It cites Genesis 30: 1-3, an account of Jacob who is tricked into marrying Leah, not his beloved Rachel. Lead bears him two sons, and in her all-consuming jealousy, the barren Rachel insists that he bed her handmaiden, Bilhah, who also bears him sons. “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. ” This biblical anecdote is the validation of the creation of the Handmaiden.
Through the manipulation of religious values, a society is capable of forming a hierarchical totalitarian state, with women, (Handmaiden’s) existing as equipment used to solve the declining reproduction rates. By utilizing individual’s stout convictions, Gilead is adept to categorize and victimize women with faith as their witness. Atwood also employs the use of biblical allusions in order to apply language as an authoritarian tool.
This emphasizes how Gilead has not only corrupted the book but also the language on which they base their beliefs. This is evident n the vocabulary warps, “Blessed be the fruit”, an allusion to the womb of Mary, sustaining Jesus. In applying prescribed scripts, Atwood demonstrates the influence language can hold with religious
trappings. In both Utopia and The Handmaiden’s Tale, it is evident that religion has been exercised as tool to justify and clarify the beliefs of the imagined society. However, these beliefs have been influenced by the context of the authors, in that they are both using their writing as a device to make a controversial statement about their current society’s values.
In their social critiques of their own personal societies, the novels values have created different meanings, both of which severely contradict the other. Atwood’s Republic of Gilead employs a rigid political hierarchy and religious trappings in order to control reproduction. Through the control of women they seek to deprive them of their independence in order to generate them into the docile and almost senile carriers of the next generation, thus achieving their aim. This engineered reproduction provides a heavy price; the iniquitous and immoral treatment of women and the importance placed upon their verve.
This is understood in the political subjugation and destruction of all civil rights women hold. No longer are they permitted to hold money, read books and compete in intellectual activities. This complete annihilation of civil liberties demonstrates the importance, or serve lacking of placed on the academic and tangible rights of women within Gilead. The dominance of men over women serves as a severe and harsh reminder from Atwood of the issues with the backlash about feminism. In her context, she reminds the reader of the raw quandary that many shy away from, or underestimate.
More implies a dominant view of women being the weaker sex in his novel. This displays that More was influenced by the
stance that in the 16th century, women were considered subservient. However, the reader does understand that his efforts in trying to create a parallel and equal society need to be swollen, as his views are considered quite extraordinary for the era. By using ordinary conversation, More establishes a level of comprehension between the text and the reader.
“Wives kneel down before their husbands, to confess all their sins of omission and commission, and ask to be forgiven. This prostration by women to confess their wrongdoings is unequal as men are not encouraged to echo this movement. It therefore creates a disparency between the two genders, making women the inferior race. “When a girl grows up and gets married, she joins her husband’s household. ” This patriarchal view also supports the inferiority of men to women. However, More attempts to solve this issue through other areas of society. This is understood in that Utopian women are allowed to fight side by side with men in battle, an unheard of a controversial belief.
The reader can understand that although More makes effort to draw the inequalities to a balanced level, he is still blinded by his social atmosphere. In conclusion, Atwood and More are influenced by their individual communities in their creation of utopian and dystopian societies. Through their own underlying values and beliefs, different meanings are established in their novels, creating a difference of opinions. This difference is clearly understood in areas such as religion and equality of women. Through a representation of different societies, individual can gain an understanding of different meanings on important social issues.
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