“From a Distance it Looks Like Peace”: Reading Beneath the Fascist Style of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Angela Laflen

Abstract


Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale reveals the danger of using visual culture to create what Rey Chow calls a “glossy surface image” that oversimplifies complex ideologies and social relationships. Atwood suggests that individuals can resist visual manipulation by learning to “read beneath” images. Commentators on fascism and its use of the visual image, such as Walter Benjamin and Chow, note that people’s receptivity to visual culture makes it the perfect vehicle for propaganda, a view substantiated by Nazi Germany and Atwood’s fictional community, Gilead. In the novel, “fascist style” is associated with the eliding and/or reshaping of history, accomplished through the editing of visual scenes. The Commanders of Gilead orchestrate visual tableaux, such as a display of corpses on the Wall, in order to regulate the eyes and minds of lower social orders. More generally, Atwood uses notional ekphrasis to interrogate Gilead’s treatment of women, an exploration focalized through her protagonist, Offred.

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