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A Grave New World

Forget 1984. According to Margaret Atwood's 1985 cautionary tale, Harvard is the future's center of danger.

By Rosalind S. Helderman, Crimson Staff Writer

In 1936, as part of the celebration of Harvard's 300th year, then President James B. Conant '14 was asked to give a Sanders Theatre address on the shape of Harvard in the far distant future.

He declined.

Fearing any attempt to play prophet in front of a University "family gathering," Conant publicly changed his assignment. He chose to speak more generally about why private universities like Harvard were still important for the future in the midst of a devastating depression.

But if Conant refused to speculate on the Harvard of a far or drastically different future, at least one graduate has taken up the task.

In her 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, author Margaret E. Atwood envisions a frightening future for Harvard. A feminist poet and writer, Atwood received her master's degree from Radcliffe College in 1962 and spent two stints studying at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the early '60s.

The novel depicts a dystopian future in which the United States has been replaced by a theocratic regime called the Republic of Gilead. Envisioned as a Puritan totalitarian state, secret police enforce strict religious observance in Gilead.

The story focuses on a woman named Offred, a handmaid whose only role in life is to conceive children for a man and his wife to raise. No small task in a world in which nuclear waste and pesticides have ensured that many women can no longer bear children. The novel follows Offred as she remembers sorrowfully her pre-Gilead days and struggles with a decision to rebel against her society.

While the setting of the novel is never named, those who live and work in Cambridge will quickly recognize America's oldest university.

There's the river separating Offred's hometown from a larger city. Near the river sit "the old dormitories, used for something else now, with their fairy-tale turrets, painted white and gold and blue."

There's the looming red brick wall that encircles the Yard, dominating Offred's surroundings.

In Atwood's retelling, Harvard Yard is a center of political repression and violence.

The wall surrounds a secret police headquarters, and it regularly features the hanging bodies of political criminals.

"The Wall is hundreds of years old too; or over a hundred at least," Atwood writes. "Now the gates have sentries and there are ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top."

And then there's the novel's climatic moment, set inside an eerily familiar Harvard Yard. Offred and her fellow handmaids witness a public execution in what appears to be Tercentenary Theatre. It is the only time Offred enters the Yard, and she is ironically summoned there by the same bell that reminds today's students of the end of each class.

"There's a wooden stage erected on the lawn, something like the one they used every spring, for commencement, in the time before," Atwood writes.

In what some critics have considered a throwback to Atwood's own days in Cambridge when at least some libraries excluded women, in the world of Gilead, women are forbidden from reading.

Atwood has warned against reading too much into the setting of various parts of her novel. Once asked to identify a particular scene of the novel, she responded instead with a joke.

"Somebody who went to graduate school with me, at Harvard, said, 'Hasn't anybody figured out that this whole book is about the Harvard English Department?'" she quipped.

Yet in other interviews, Atwood has explained that she chose to set The Handmaid's Maid at Harvard because of its connection to early Puritan America. Harvard was originally founded to train Puritan ministers.

"We think often of the Puritans in Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Bay Colony as the sort of founding moment of Euro-American culture," says Rebecca B. Faery, lecturer on history and literature, who teaches the book in her Expository Writing class. "This is the cradle of the theocracy, of the Puritan incorporation of church and state."

In the 1960s, Atwood studied the Puritans under former Cabot Professor of American Literature Perry Miller--to whom she dedicated the novel.

"The roots of totalitarianism in America are found, I discovered, in the theocracy of the 17th Century," Atwood once told a reporter.

As a literary device, Faery says the Harvard setting works to Atwood's advantage, providing a secret symbolic treat for those readers who recognize it, but allowing the book to remain vital to those who don't.

But despite Cambridge's religious past, filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, who helped adapt the story for the screen in 1990, says the city's more recent decidedly left-of-center leanings also make it appropriate for the novel.

"[The] most daring part of Margaret's book is that, instead of a small town in the Bible Belt, she sets it in the most liberal area in the country, an Eastern campus," he said in an interview.

Released one year after 1984 had come and gone peacefully, despite George Orwell's frightening predictions, Atwood created a cautionary tale for the future.

And while Big Brother may not yet be watching us, as the millennium approaches experts say we should still fear Atwood's vision.

"Though a little too extreme to be realistic," advises one Australian critic, "The Handmaid's Tale still offers a dire warning to humankind, predicting the worst for society is yet to come."

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