The novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Children of Men (which will be referred to as Handmaid’s and Children, respectively) deal with a different aspect of dystopia than the other novels focussed on in this dissertation. The focus here is on the social implications and natural changes within reproduction. Perhaps the most prominent and common theme between the two is the reduction in fertility and possible reactions to it. Both texts link quite strongly to the desperation for motherhood but in very different ways.
Atwood’s 1985 political satire replicates the threats of AIDS and right wing politics present in America during the eighties. Alternatively PD James mirrors what could be called a liberal façade in an early nineties Britain with an undercurrent of violence which can be seen as reflective of the problems in Northern Ireland. By exploring these texts and all the surrounding research this chapter aims to find a common ground which will correlate the previous research on reproductive technologies and how it will realistically affect population and society.
Desperation for motherhood is something prominent in our society, without this reproductive technologies would be superfluous. Due to this attitude some feminists have argued for a ban on reproductive innovations1, they feel that reproductive technologies exploit the view that ‘all women are meant to be and want to be mothers’2. One of the main problems with this ideal is that a woman who cannot bear her own child, or has no interest in doing so, may be deemed incapable by the public. This feeling can be summed up by Offred’s contribution of ‘each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure’3. One obvious side effect of this pressure to procreate will be negative attitudes towards such options as adoption. Sherwin argues this point by describing how elitism of culture has combined to form a set of cultural attitudes which judges the child as a commodity ‘whose value is derived from their possession of parental chromosomes’4.
Other feminist writers have depicted interesting ideas regarding reproduction; Gilman describes an all female society without marriage, family or motherhood. The women earn the privilege of parthenogenic conception after which trained specialists rear the children5. In The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin describes an androgynous society in which any of the beings can be a father or mother. An interesting comment about this society is;
No one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically… Therefore, nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.
- Le Guin6.
Handmaid’s shows an oppressive religious regime in which no one has faith. Society is ruled by fundamentalist Christians who turn anti-abortionism into a full scale revolution7. Atwood describes the society as being inspired by the ‘United States which is in the hands of a power hungry elite who have used their own brand of ‘Bible-based’ religion as an excuse for the suppression of the majority of the population’8. The women in the story have no freedom as they are denied ‘existence as individuals’9 and placed in specific roles due to their potential fertility. The role of the handmaid is to copulate with the lord of the manor once a month with the intention to provide him and his wife with a child. They have so little individuality that their name is associated to their master, for instance Offred being ‘of Fred’. The idea of a handmaid is taken from Genesis 30: 1-310 in which the opening of the novel is from;
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die…
… And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
The closest thing to the idea of the handmaid in reality is surrogacy. Although a fairly common practise now, surrogacy is not without controversy of ethics and exploitation. In her essay ‘Body Boundaries, Fiction and the Female Self’ Goslinga-Roy presents a case study of the entirety of one surrogacy. She comments on how in the eighties the beginning of surrogacy reversed all ideologies of ‘unified’ and ‘natural’ reproduction11. Through the study it becomes clear that between the two women involved there is a constant power struggle, perhaps unavoidable when both are so closely linked to what the one is bearing. Surrogates will be paid, sometimes just for the inconvenience of being off work and having no income, and other times as a profitable endeavour. Because of this surrogates are often seen as ‘commoditising their body’ either economically or through their ‘prevailing lower-to-middle class ideology of women as altruists’12.
Purdy supports surrogacy by describing the, often moral, reasons behind making the choice to use a surrogate, and that it is not always a circumstance of the rich using the poor. Surrogates are often used in the case of women who have infected genes or whose health would suffer through pregnancy. The surrogate also offers opportunities for homosexual couples, or mothers who do not want to give up work, favouring the house husband for child rearing13. Although some compare surrogacy to the selling of organs, Purdy argues that it is simply the use of the body in no different a way to someone blessed with excessive strength using their body to lift weights. She also addresses the idea of baby selling with the confused border between selling the capacity of fertility. Although it is considered morally wrong to sell a child it is accepted to sell semen and to ‘hire out your womb’ as in surrogacy must be somewhere between these two examples14. In her essay ‘Are Pregnant Women Foetal Containers?’ Purdy concentrates on the treatment of women through pregnancy. Purdy addresses another matter of confusion, in the scenario of pregnancy the woman is carrying a baby but at the same time the baby is part of her body. This argument has resulted in women being detained because of what courts decide to be inappropriate behaviour, usually drug taking, however, if the baby is considered as part of the female is this a fair action to take15? The most logical conclusion drawn is that the mother, as any human does, has a ‘moral duty’ to do her best for ‘those who are dependent’ on her16.
In Handmaid’s the surrogacy is non consensual as is the intercourse, both of these being the signs of the female as a vessel or commodity and not as a being. This is a consistent theme in Handmaid’s as the women of differing jobs wear specific colours, similar to the caste system of Brave New World. When reading Handmaid’s it appears the novel is written in first person through the voice of Offred, however, the ending reveals it to be a recitation of her tape recordings by male academic, Pieixoto. Due to this Howells describes a narrative shift from ‘herstory’ to ‘history’17 perhaps commenting on the male domination even after the satire has ended.
Wolf considers the industry of reproductive technology as a male orientated field ‘developing means that allow affluent men to father genetically related children by applying risky technology to women’18. The extremes in this can be seen in a doctor’s ability to attempt to control everything in a woman’s body from ‘menstruation and contraception, through pregnancy and delivery, to lactation and menopause’19. Due to these ideas many feminists argue whether reproductive technologies are repressive to women and provide extra pressure upon them to reproduce through any means possible.
Like The Giver, Handmaid’s depicts traditional family units which function through practicality not love. Children differs to this in that the civilians are enduring to continue in the most natural way possible, though the lack of children affects this. Because couples have no chance of reproducing the act of intercourse is greatly reduced, when it does happen it is generally to provide comfort20. This is similar to the ‘nostalgia of desire’ in The Possibility of an Island21, as is the distancing between humans. In Children pornography centres are set up all over Britain to encourage sexual activity with the hope that males will once again become fertile if they endure, if this fails they will at least be provided with a distraction22. The society in Children is perhaps more realistic in comparison to the satirical Handmaid’s as the gradual fall of British society is something easily foreseeable.
The ideologies of the desire for motherhood prevail in Children through the use of dolls and kittens. The narrator, Theo, describes a time when the streets were filled with mothers pushing around the finest quality dolls in prams, the peak of this obsession being in the official ceremonies of christenings for kittens, in which they were adorned in clothes and bonnets. In essence although the mothers did not have the option of procreation they accepted the idea of surrogacy or adoption as a replacement, in the same way as in reality. Children expresses a fear of nature controlling society, this is represented when a deer walks into a church and the chaplain is hysterical in saying ‘Christ, can’t they wait? Bloody animals. They’ll have it all soon enough’23.
The central reason for the change in society in Children is the ‘universal male infertility’ which is referred to as the ‘ultimate failure’ not because of the infertility itself but the lack of human ability to cure it24. In ‘Male Infertility and World Population’ Seshandri explores the idea further in terms of scientific fact. Evidence shows that in the past fifty years there has been a dramatic reduction in the male sperm count, furthermore testicular cancer and other disorders of the male reproductive tract have increased25.
The Gaia theory states that life ‘by its very presence, has the capacity to influence and maintain the conditions of its survival’. By this theory one would understand that humanity will endure regardless, perhaps as in the way of Possibility or Brave New World in the utilisation of technology. However, the counter view which states that the ‘balance of nature is a myth’ argues that any small change in the environment can cause extreme fluctuations in population26. Both of these are theories which can be applied to differing incidents in nature’s history, though it is perhaps ineffectual to group humans with standard animal species as our intelligence allows for more awareness.
When elephant populations in Africa were becoming too large for the food supply the cows began to lengthen the rate of their oestrus cycle resulting in the time between giving birth and mating again trebling from its original time frame. Regarding this information it could be theorised that the same is happening through the reduction of male fertility as the human population has been growing at such enormous rates27.
Overpopulation has become a very real problem in modern day society and the once taboo subject is now being endorsed by people of standing in the community. Respected television naturalist David Attenborough has spoken out about his concerns for humans destroying what is left of nature28. The ‘stop at two’ scheme proposed by Optimum Population Trust encourages families to have no more than two children in order to stabilise population growth. Potentially this could be highly effective but western governments are unlikely to emphasise this point due to reasons of morality, political correctness and worries concerning human rights.
Fukuyama addresses the problems of population from the angle of age and the advancement in medical technology. Most humans have an intrinsic fear of death and because of this they celebrate advances in technology which aim to prolong life. It is important to consider that these advances may often provide life in the form of quantity not quality29. One example he provides is that at age sixty five only one per cent of the population will get Alzheimer’s, however by eighty five this percentage increases to seventeen. Not only will resources continue to be stretched but the average age will rise as technology improves and this will result in vast over population and the reduction of the quality of life due to factors such as a retirement age of seventy or above30.
In our current society there is still high importance put on the family unit and motherhood, although these ideologies are becoming more liberalised. Because the two key dystopian novels in this chapter are relatively recent the communities they portray are something which is still potentially possible in the future and it is perhaps too soon to evaluate their prophecies. The hauntingly desolate streets of Children feels like a warning to society not to exploit or take for granted the earths natural resources. The human helplessness in both these novels could be anticipating human excess as they both present the ideology of punishment from an omniscient presence.