The primary genre of Margaret Atwood's novel, 'The Handmaid's Tale', is speculative fiction as it is based on a fantasy world that parallels reality but in the future. The novel follows the protagonist Offred, who is a handmaid under the rule of the Gilead regime, a theocratic and totalitarian state in America. It was formed due to the outbreak of a treacherous disease that caused 99 percent of the population to become infertile. The government responds by seizing control of the nation and essentially enslaving all the fertile women to 'act in the best interest of the people'. These women are known as handmaids, their sole function is to bear the children of a commander to whom which they are assigned. Offred is partnered with another handmaid named Ofglen and she reveals herself to be part of the resistance group within Gilead called Mayday. This organization helps to smuggle people out of Gilead into other countries in pursuit of a better life. However, associating oneself with this organization is high risk due to the ruthless consequences imposed on those who commit rebellious acts towards the government.
The multiple academy award-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg, ‘Schindler’s List’ of the historical fiction genre which follows the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler who is living in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. He founds a business which produces pots, pans and kitchen utensils for the war efforts. He goes about this by bribing Germans for military contracts which allows him to use the Jewish people as his workforce. He initially pays them a very small wage but as the film progresses, they work for free as they see Schindler's factory as a haven from the concentration camps. Schindler, who was only interested in the profitability of the Jews at the start of the film develops empathy towards them and begins to hire as many workers as he can for his new ammunition manufacturing business. This is the only thing saving the Jewish people from being slaughtered at concentration camps. In the end he is able to save 1100 Jews from the totalitarian Nazi regime as the war is ended and the Russians come into Poland to liberate the Jewish people, but this, in turn, ends in the death of the protagonist Oskar Schindler as he is a Nazi officer due to orders being issued by the allied nations to execute all Nazi government leaders.
In this essay, I am going to discuss how the two works illustrate similar universal ideas across different genres and contexts.
Although these two texts have different genres there is a substantial amount of parallels between them. They explore many similar ideas including the absolute control of a government and oppression of its citizens, the loss of identity within society and rebellious presence in a fascist society. Before I begin deconstructing the thesis, I first want to explore genre and context.
Exploration of Genre and Context of Works
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a speculative fiction with a dystopian subgenre to compliment. Speculative fiction characteristically involves elements of an imagined reality, and often acts as a foreshadowing or cautionary tale as to what may happen if human nature is continually manipulated. Hence, tampering with the natural order of the world itself. This is evident in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in which there exists a futuristic imagined universe - the Gilead regime, a theocratic and totalitarian government in America. Oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through a totalitarian governing body. A protagonist who realizes the immoral circumstances of the society in which they live is also an element central to this genre. This is seen through the character of Offred who aligns herself with Ofglen, another handmaid who is a part of the resistance group, Mayday. The context of the novel is taken from the period of second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, in which women fought for individual and collective independence, further reinforcing the genre as a depiction of a possible future outcome resulting from current trends if the scenario is not addressed in the correct manor.
Historical fiction is a genre in which a fictional plot is used as a medium to reconstruct and portray historical events from the past. The film 'Schindler's List' is significantly based on the events of the holocaust between 1941 and 1945. It is based on real-life events of a German businessman named Oskar Schindler, hence the reason it’s the name of the protagonist in Spielberg’s film. It highlights the immorality and religious prejudices that existed at that time and warn the viewer of the danger of such societal attitudes. In the film, these events are dramatized for entertainment purposes, however serve as a hyperbolic representation of the unjust nature of the oppression of minority groups.
These texts have very different genres but they both rely on the context to help adhere to their respective genre. I believe that both texts are equally as effective in showing the genre through the conformation towards their generic conventions.
Illustration of Similar Universal Ideas
Now let's turn to the ideological component of the question of how the two works illustrate similar universal ideas, transcending different genres and contexts. The three ideas I have chosen are: the absolute control of a government and oppression of its citizens, the loss of identity within society and rebellious presence in a fascist society.
The Absolute Control of a Government and Oppression of Its Citizens
Throughout the film ‘Schindler’s List’, the absolute power of the Nazi regime is prominent, from the pointless executions to omnipotent presence of a strong military force. In the film there is a scene portraying the leading Nazi officer of the concentration camp, he sitting on his balcony that overlooks the camp and worksite of all the Jewish people. Immediately the audience is able to distinguish a power imbalance between this German commander and the Jewish workers. This is made obvious by the different heights of their dwellings, he is situated in a lavish house with a vantage point over the disgustingly dirty muddy wooden housing areas, indicating his superior power over the workers. He then prepares his rifle and shoots a Jewish worker who is tying her shoelaces, this depicts the absolute control the Germans in a graphic and confronting way. The Jewish people were heavily oppressed and treated merely like animals, not respected and had no rights in this fascist society.
In 'The Handmaid's Tale', this type of control is demonstrated through 'the eyes' who are the secret police within the Gilead regime. In a part of the novel, Offred sees the black van with a white-winged eye on the side of it, she observes the van pull over to the side of the street and, “Two eyes, in grey suits, leap from the opening double doors at the back. They grab a man who is walking along, a man with a briefcase, an ordinary-looking man, slam him against the black side of the van … then one of the eyes moves in on him, does something sharp and brutal that doubles him over, into a limp cloth bundle. They pick him up and heave him into the back of the van like a sack of mail”. This gives the reader insight into the oppression of their citizens as the government uses a wall to instill fear within the people. The wall is a symbol of power over ordinary people that insides within the government as dead bodies are hung from it showcasing what happens to people who defy the government. Offred says, “We stop… and stare at the bodies… we are allowed to look…that’s what they are there for”. So, it is evident that Offred as well as everyone else is aware of the constant exercise of power that the government continues to show.
The of Loss of Identity Within Society
In ‘Schindler’s List’, the Jews living in Germany at the time were stripped of all their possessions and taken to concentration camps where they were given one set of clothes and which had a number on the front, their new identification. In one of the scenes of the film the camera pans around a warehouse as enslaved Jewish workers categorize all the belongings within peoples’ suitcases, that had been taken from these new death camp workers. Upon arrival, hair was cut as it was viewed as redundant for slave purposes, further stripping them of their identity. All of these actions taken towards the Jewish citizens dehumanizes them completely.
Similarly, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the women, especially the handmaids, are also stripped of their identity. The government enforces law that handmaids’ names are no longer to be spoken but instead the patronym ‘of’ followed by the name of the commander they were assigned to was their identification. For example, Offred is, of, Fred. Taking away someone's name and referring to them as property of another individual completely dehumanizes them. The handmaids also receive a tattoo on their ankle, Offred describes it this way: “Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse”. The handmaids are also identified by their number on their ankle as well as the eye which symbolizes that the republic of Gilead owns them. The passport in reverse refers to the truth that if you possess this tattoo, you will never be able to leave the country, the opposite function of a real passport. Also, a passport is an instrument of identity but the handmaids are thoroughly stripped of any individuality they possess, even what they wear is decided for them and they are required to wear their red dress without fail.
Rebellious Presence in a Fascist Society
In both texts, there exists a group who acts to defy the government. In 'The Handmaid's Tale' this organization is Mayday. Throughout the novel, the word 'Mayday' is used to indicate allegiance to the resistance group against the Gilead regime. This organization attempts to smuggle people out of the country just as Oskar Schindler does towards the end of the film. At the end of the novel Offred torn from the commander's house by ‘the eyes’ in the black van. However, as they make their way through the house, Nick informs Offred that these members of Gilead’s secret police are actually in cahoots with mayday, Offred is being liberated from the regime. Nick says, “It's alright. It's Mayday. Go with them”. The reader has a firm reason to believe this is true rather than the idea that Offred is being set up. Furthermore, the fact that this story had been documented on cassette tapes indicating Offred must have escaped, as elaborated in the historical notes.
In contrast, in the film, Schindler uses the excuse of taking advantage of the free labor of the Jewish people, but as the film progresses, her becomes concerned about the safety of these people, despite it costing him his entire fortune because of the bribing of German officials. Both texts express the idea of a resistance group that aids the victims of the severe government in order to lead a better life.
Both works, Spielberg’s film, ‘Schindler’s List’ and Atwood’s novel, 'The Handmaid's Tale' both express similar ideas through different ways such as written techniques to visual analysis as well as through different mediums. Despite the fact that these texts are from different genres and contexts all together they are still able to demonstrate the ideas of the oppression of people under the rule of a totalitarian government, the loss of identity and presence of a rebellion in a society.