In the words of Nelson Mandela, Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Whether or not the use of education is to change the world positively or negatively it is certain that it is the most powerful weapon to change the world. In a totalitarian state it is seen that the deprivation of education is used to control the citizens and prevent rebellion. Dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Fidel Castro used the school system to teach the children to love them and follow their commands. What if these dictators regime had succeeded? How would the structure of contemporary society appear controlled by a totalitarian government? Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an effective representation of a dystopia where authority controlled and regulated society. The setting of the novel resides in the Republic of Gilead, a late 20th century futuristic, male-dominated, theocratic totalitarian society, set in former Cambridge Massachusetts (litspatmedialoperations.com). Several unstated natural disasters cause the infertility of many women; those who were fertile, were forced to be handmaid’s. The novel is told through the eyes of a handmaid by the name of Offred. Atwood’s influential 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale uses the location of Harvard University as a headquarters for the new regime to symbolize the relationship between the control of knowledge and the ability to stabilize totalitarian control in a theocratic society. This will be proven through the analysis of the use of propaganda, the restriction of literature, and theocracy.
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Atwood uses the totalitarian tool of propaganda, and exercises this to such an extreme to help shape her dystopia of the republic of Gilead. The Gileadean government uses propaganda to manipulate the population to follow their ideologies and support the government. When the tourists from Japan visit the republic of Gilead Ofglen and Offred cannot help but stare and judge them. This depicts the extent and speed with which government implemented their views and ideologies into society. The government uses propaganda as a tool to educate the Gileadean society and confine their knowledge to a minimum. The propaganda in the novel is mainly focused towards women, as they are the members of society that have lost the most due to the establishment of the new government and they must therefore be controlled and convinced the most (customessaymeister.com). The only thing that women were allowed to read were large banners proclaiming “God is a natural resource”(Atwood, 146) and “Women’s pravaganza today”(Atwood, 146). Something that was very popularly advertised in the Gileadean government was the burning of books. “there were women burning books and magazines, and that’s what she was really there for” (Atwood, 25). However this is ironic, as the setting of the novel takes place in prestigious, Harvard University – a place of previous esteemed education, and knowledge, but is portrayed in the novel as a setting for oppression, and enforced ignorance. Atwood deliberately creates this setting to express the extent, and possibility of this totalitarian state becoming a reality in today’s culture. Again we see more propaganda when Offred is watching the news and a scene of a victory in the war is being played. “First, the front lines. They are not lines, really: the war seems to be going on in many places at once[ââ‚¬¦]They only show us victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news?” (Atwood, 55) The idea of an omnipresent war in Gilead is comparable to George Orwell’s novel 1984. Just like 1984, the war is not meant to be won, but to be continuous.
ââ‚¬Å“It does not matter if the war is not real, or when it is, that victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous. The essential act of modern warfare, is the destruction of all human laborââ‚¬¦in principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. And its subject is not victory over Eurasia or Eastasia, but to keep the very structure of society intactââ‚¬.(Orwell, 117)
The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the submission of all power to the idea of a greater good seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival. (george-orwell.org) Knowledge in this instance is not used to limit it, but to control what society knows. To control the thoughts of a society, is true control.
The restriction of literature is used by the republic of Gilead to implement their own ideologies and theocracy into the minds of society. The handmaids had one purpose, and one purpose only; to reproduce, and bear children for the Commander’s. “They didn’t care what they
did to your feet or your hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.” (Atwood, 62). They were not needed for anything else, so it was best to keep them ignorant, and restrict their access to literature. By restricting the citizens’ minds from literature, it is also restricting them from knowledge. “Knowing was a temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you”. (Atwood, 133). The fact that the regime maintains ignorance in the population by removing literature, is also ironic to the setting of Harvard University because it has the oldest library in the U.S., and the largest university library in the world (news.harvard.edu). It has approximately 17 million items in its library that are used for educational purposes (asklib.hcl.harvard.edu). According to the novel, these items in the library were most likely burned, or confiscated from the general public, for the government’s own use. The GPA to gain admission to Harvard University was a 4.0, and a score of 2400 on one’s SAT’s. (collegeapps.about.com). A utopia of learning is crushed and burned down in the novel to restrict the access to literature as a means of control of the populations knowledge. The regime does this to ensure rebellion does not occur. A rebellion is what the Republic tries to prevent, and with the control of knowledge, they keep society blissfully ignorant.
Atwood clearly satirizes the theocratic Republic of Gilead to express the societal problems that can occur if religious ideologies are used to lead contemporary society. ‘Veritas, Christo, et ecclesaiae’ is the Harvard University slogan which means Truth, for Christ and the Church (hcs.harvard.edu). This reflects the religious based ideologies already placed on society today, such as criminalizing abortion, and removing gay rights.
“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death – Leviticus 20:13”.
The bible addresses gay rights as being an abomination, and that those who are gay should surely be put to death. The novel states that gay people were hung on the wall. The restriction of the bible allows the regime to take parts of it and express them in an extreme manner. The specific targets of the novel are fundamentalist Protestants in America, sometimes known as right-wing Christians because of their conservative views on social issues such as abortion, women’s rights and gay rights. (novelguide.com). The novel expresses the conservative religious views of society and exaggerates them to their limits (IBID). Atwood intentionally uses the setting of Harvard University, as it is located in Cambridge near Boston, and the Boston Tea Party was a major factor in the American Revolution. (hillcresthighenglish.wikispaces.com) The irony of it all is that the state of Massachusetts that ensued independence from the English, has now been deliberately transformed into the headquarters for this totalitarian regime. The very walls of Gilead represent total authoritarian control, and symbolizes the loss of freedom. The theocratic Republic of Gilead is also comparable to middle-eastern countries of governments that use religious text as merit for their totalitarian regime, such as the Saudi Kings of Saudi Arabia who rely on Sharia Law to apply justice. The handmaids in the novel are forced to wear dresses which hide the face, and body from view. In middle-eastern countries led by Sharia Law, the woman is forced to wear a Burqa which is identical to the description of the veil in The Handmaid’s Tale. The significance of having Harvard University as a headquarters is that its own ideologies were based on Christian views. In fact, the two other Ivy League schools of the U.S., Yale, and Princeton are deeply rooted as Christian based University’s. Princeton’s crest still dictates the statement “Dei sub numine viget”, which means “Under God she flourishes”. (answersingenisis.org) The first year class of Princeton was taught by Reverend Jonathan Dickson (IBID). Atwood uses Harvard to symbolize that the Christian ideologies that are being rooted into the students system becomes the students ideals and morals. Atwood illustrates in her dystopia, that the relationship between Church and State must remain separate, or otherwise risk the utter downfall of humanity.
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Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale uses the location of Harvard University to ironically symbolize the relationship between the limitation and control of knowledge and the ability to stabilize totalitarian control in a theocratic society as proven by illustrating the tactics of propaganda, the restriction of literature and the theocratic society. The government of Gilead uses propaganda to manipulate the minds of the populous and stir fear by creating the threat of an omnipresent war, and implementing their own ideologies into society. The use and advertisement of book burnings are ironic, as Atwood deliberately places these events at Harvard University, the location of the largest U.S. library, and largest University library in the world. The Gileadean purpose of the restriction of literature, is to keep society ignorant. By removing and restricting knowledge, it also restricts outside thoughts of rebellion and uprisings. Atwood using irony, places the university as a location of diminishing knowledge for the government to seize societal control. Atwood illustrates in the novel, the exaggerated extent at which religious ideologies are used for solving societal problems, and depicts that the joining of church and state, will be the sheer downfall of humanity. It is clear that Atwood purposefully uses the location of Harvard University as sheer irony to symbolize the direct relationship between knowledge and control The realization, is that to have knowledge, is to have control of your own life. In the words of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”. Atwood may pose the problems of female oppression, religious fanaticism, and a manipulating media, but the antidote to all these problems is a fruitful education.
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