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Dystopian realities

The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake

Clare Mellor explores the connections between two of Atwood’s dystopias and how we read them in today’s Covid world

Dystopian realities

The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake

Clare Mellor explores the connections between two of Atwood’s dystopias and how we read them in today’s Covid world

Exam links

AQA (A): Paper 2 Modern times

AQA (B): Paper 2 Texts in genres:
Elements of political and social protest writing

OCR: Paper 2 Comparative and contextual study for dystopia

The control of reproductive rights in The Handmaid’s Tale has tuned in with contemporary concerns about women’s rights and gender equality


Dystopian fiction explores an alternative version of our own reality. It is close to what we know, but the boundaries have ever so slightly shifted, and shifted for the worse.

Literary critic Coral Ann Howells highlights Atwood’s own description of her dystopias as ‘“speculative fictions” — not science fiction — that rehearse possible futures on the basis of historical and contemporary evidence’ (Howells 2021, p. 172). Certainly, looking back through history, we can find examples of the sort of female oppression and totalitarian rule that drive the plot of The Handmaid’s Tale.


The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985, is set in a near-future American society. There is a clear link between fundamentalist Gilead and the rise of the American New Right in the 1980s; the Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president and religious right-wing fundamentalist groups expressed anti-homosexuality, anti-feminism and anti-abortion views. There are also hints at Nazi Germany and echoes of the late-seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, among other events.

The publication of Oryx and Crake in 2003 coincided with the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA and the completion of the Human Genome Project (Howells 2021, p. 174). For a novel that explores the complex relationship between science and humanity, these contextual events gave contemporary readers a sense of the potential dangers that they were reading about, dangers that still concern some readers today.

Reading today

Despite being published more than 35 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale has undergone a surge in popularity of late. Critic Pilar Somacerrera notes:

The control of reproductive rights presented in the novel […] has tuned in with concerns about women’s rights following the inauguration of Donald Trump as president in January 2017. (Somacerrera 2021, p. 39)

Clearly, the reception of the text is very much rooted in our own experiences, and current concerns, such as the #MeToo movement, debates around abortion laws and gender equality, all influence our response.

In Oryx and Crake, Jimmy watches humanity die out on a television screen. Howells notes, ‘…Atwood wrote this section directly after 9/11, her fictional scenario resonates against that real-life catastrophe’ (Howells 2021, p. 175). Atwood’s real-life experience of witnessing death on a large scale yet not being able to step in, renders Jimmy’s actions both horrifying and relatable.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published one year before the Chernobyl disaster

Speculative to reality

Many people have compared the Covid-19 pandemic to the sorts of dystopian worlds presented in Atwood’s fiction; however, there remains a distinct difference. In a 2020 interview with BBC journalist Emma Barnett, Atwood says:

A dystopia, technically, is an arranged unpleasant society that you don’t want to be living in.

So, by her definition, our experience of Covid-19, although unpleasant, is not dystopian as it was not ‘arranged’. It is, however, unnerving when Atwood’s ‘speculative fictions’ seem to come to life in the present day.

In Oryx and Crake, a killer virus wipes out most of the human population. Descriptions of the virus taking hold display alarming similarities with scenes from the 2020 pandemic. The ‘[p]undits in suits [who] appeared on the screen; medical experts, graphs showing infection rates, maps tracing the extent of the epidemic’ could be a description of the UK prime minister’s daily briefings. Atwood’s depictions of food shortages, ‘don’ttravel advisories’, the discouragement of ‘handshaking’ and ‘nose-cone filters’ (Ch. 13, ‘Scribble’) are close to elements of our lives during the height of the pandemic.

But a look back through history shows us that we have lived through such pandemics in the past: the plague, Spanish flu and, more recently, SARS and swine flu. As Atwood says, she draws on things that have happened to create her fiction. The difference in Oryx and Crake, however, is that the virus is created by humans and unleashed on society.

The Handmaid’s Tale also includes descriptions that feel prophetic to a modern reader. The shocking revelation of the environmental disasters that led to the declining birth rate in the novel offer some alarming parallels with our own lives. How do we respond to Atwood’s depiction of a polluted atmosphere, in a world where plastic is littering our beaches and choking our oceans? The ‘toxic molecules’ (Ch. 19) could easily be the microplastics that have entered the food chain; the ‘radiation’ reminds us of the horrors of the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred just one year after The Handmaid’s Tale was first published. Lisa Allardice, writing in the Guardian in 2019, comments that ‘the catalyst for Gilead was environmental catastrophe’. Reading the novel at a time of climate crisis, this is a frightening observation.


This ‘catastrophe’ affects not just the environment, but women too. Offred describes how the ‘toxic molecules’ ‘creep into your body’, and, in some cases, result in the birth of an ‘Unbaby’ (Ch. 19). Atwood’s personification of these molecules implies that the destruction of nature goes hand in hand with the violation of the female body. The environmental disaster becomes another way in which women are subjugated in Gileadean society.

Yasmin Farooq’s ecofeminist reading (2015) draws parallels between the confinement of nature and the treatment of women. She cites Offred’s description of Serena Joy’s garden: ‘There is something subversive about this garden […] a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light’ (Ch. 25). Just as the handmaids are imprisoned, so too is nature, restricted by the rules and regulations imposed by authority. But nature is fighting back, and like nature’s, Offred’s escape must also be silent.

Stories and storytelling

As a narrator, Offred is fascinated with alternative realities as she tells and then retells her story — ‘I made that up. It didn’t happen that way. Here is what happened’ (Ch. 40). The ease with which she switches between so many different versions of reality reminds us of the links between our world and the dystopian world of the novel; with just a few tweaks, life could be different.

Offred feels compelled to continue telling her story despite the pain it causes her. Through her narrative, Offred maintains a connection with her lost daughter — ‘Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence’ (Ch. 41). Her voice addresses her daughter directly, with the personal pronoun ‘you’, bringing her to life.

Atwood’s personification of ‘toxic molecules’ implies that the destruction of nature goes hand in hand with the violation of the female body

Jimmy too, feels compelled to tell stories. He responds to the Crakers’ questions, creating stories to explain the world they inhabit. At the same time, however, the reader is getting Jimmy’s story: ‘Once upon a time, Snowman wasn’t Snowman. Instead he was Jimmy’ (Ch. 2, ‘Bonfire’). The juxtaposition between this fairy-tale language and the shocking descriptions of the events that took place in the run up to the disaster heightens the horror of the dystopia.

In both novels, Atwood highlights the power that stories can have in affirming our existence and giving us a sense of place in the world. Indeed, this is made even more explicit in The Handmaid’s Tale, whose very title draws on the literary heritage of storytelling, linking the text to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.


Along with stories, names also play a key role in both novels. The absence of real names in The Handmaid’s Tale is indicative of a loss of identity. The handmaids are ‘shorn’ (Ch. 20) of their former names and instead given a ‘patronymic’, a name ‘composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman [their Commander] in question’ (‘Historical Notes’). Not only does this linguistic construction signify their position as a commodity, but the fact that their name changes with their ownership means it is even easier for individual women to be lost to their birthing role.

Offred recognises this and keeps her name ‘hidden’, like ‘treasure’ (Ch. 14). Only Nick is told her real name. Perhaps this is what allows the reader to trust that Nick has indeed rescued her at the end of the novel, what allows us to hope.

In Oryx and Crake, Atwood also explores the idea of replacing names. With the exception of Snowman, the characters take the names of extinct creatures, a cruel reminder of the losses of the natural world. Snowman’s name, taken from myth rather than history, is an expression of his defiance against Crake, the creator of the dystopian world.


Language holds a significant power in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. For Atwood, the loss of language is part of the horror of the dystopia; it is about losing part of what it means to be human.

Both Offred and Jimmy spend time working in libraries. Their roles are similar: to destroy the printed word. Offred describes her role digitising texts: ‘After the books were transferred they were supposed to go to the shredder, but sometimes I took them home with me’ (Ch. 28). In Oryx and Crake, Jimmy also has a job deciding which books ‘should remain on earth in digital form, but he lost his post halfway through its term because he couldn’t bear to throw anything out’ (Ch. 10, ‘Vulturizing’). In both novels, books represent life before the dystopia — afreedom of language that is at risk of being destroyed. And both protagonists act to preserve what they can.

In Gilead, people are denied the privilege of language. There are ‘forbidden’ words (Ch. 11) and it is only the Aunts who are ‘allowed to read and write’ (Ch. 22). When Offred discovers the Commander’s private library, she describes it as ‘an oasis of the forbidden’ (Ch. 23). Atwood’s choice of noun here shows how important literature is to human survival, likening it to water. Similarly, Offred reads the magazines the Commander gives her ‘quickly, voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into my head as possible before the next long starvation’ (Ch. 29). Literature is both water and sustenance; it is crucial to survival.

Many of the characters in Oryx and Crake take the name of extinct creatures

Jimmy clings on to language, even when he believes himself to be alone in the world: ‘“Hang on to the words,” he tells himself’ (Ch. 4, ‘Hammer’). Language is such an important part of being human, that Atwood’s characters seemingly cannot survive without it.

Language is also a means of communication and in The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as being denied the opportunity to read and write, the handmaids are also denied the right to speak freely. This aligns with the view expressed by Adrienne Rich in her 1976 feminist text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution:

Patriarchy would seem to require, then, not only that women shall assume the major burden of pain and self-denial for the furtherance of the species, but that a majority of that species — women — shall remain essentially unquestioning and unenlightened. (p. 43)

In Gilead, the role of the handmaids is to reproduce, and otherwise remain silent.

Ever resourceful, the handmaids use the Prayvaganza as an opportunity to exchange news and converse: ‘I can hear from Atwood’s onomatopoeic noun allows the reader to hear the sibilant sounds of so many whispering voices, the sounds of defiance, of knowledge and of hope.


Holding on to hope allows Atwood’s characters to survive, and in both novels the hope is connected to language. In Oryx and Crake, Jimmy clutches the words from his past, retelling his own narrative and maintaining something akin to a daily routine, despite believing he is the only human left on earth. Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred clings to the belief that her daughter is still alive. Offred’s discovery of the resistance causes hope to ‘ris[e] in [her], like sap in a tree’ (Ch. 27). Atwood’s simile presents hope as a life-giving, regenerating force, the image reminding us again of nature’s resilience in Serena Joy’s garden. For Offred, learning she is not alone gives her a sense of belonging and purpose.

Maybe this hope is what compels us to keep reading about these broken worlds. If we can hold on to the hope, then there might just be a way out of the dystopia.


‘Dystopian fiction shows that control of language is of paramount importance to oppressive regimes.’

By comparing The Handmaid’s Tale with at least one other set text, discuss how far you agree with this viewpoint. (30 marks, OCR-style)


Get guidance for your answer at


Ecofeminism A branch of literary criticism that explores the connections between women and nature in literature. It looks at the ways women and nature are treated by a patriarchal society. Ecofeminism has evolved from ecocriticism and feminism.


1 Create a timeline for The Handmaid’s Tale by plotting all the key literary and historical events that relate to The Handmaid’s Tale. Then consider how each event links to the novel. You could include (among other things): the publication of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; the trial of Mary Webster; the rise of Nazism in the 1930s; and feminist liberation in 1970s Western Europe.

2 ‘In a dystopian world, all hope is lost.’ Discuss how far you agree with this view in The Handmaid’s Tale. all around us a susurration […] a cloud of whispers’ (Ch. 33).


Allardice, L. (2019) ‘Interview: Margaret Atwood: “For a long time we were moving away from Gilead. Then we started going back towards it.”’, Guardian (20 September):

Barnett, E. (2020) ‘Emma Barnett Gets Answers: Dystopias, lockdowns and conspiracy theories with Margaret Atwood’, BBC Sounds (15 April):

Farooq, Y. (2015) ‘The Mastery over Nature: An Eco-feminist Study of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, in Scholar Critic, Vol. 2, No. 1 (April):

Howells, C. A. (2021) ‘Margaret Atwood’s Recent Dystopias’, in The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Cambridge University Press.

Rich, A. (1986) Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1976).

Somacarrera, P. (2021) ‘Margaret Atwood on Questions of Power’, in The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, Cambridge University Press.


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