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Beschreibung des Verlags
"[R]ight now I'm halfway through Hard Times, by Charles Dickens," says Offred, the protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale, as she describes her illegal reading in the study of her Commander (184; ch. 29). Despite this clue, however, with the exception of a few passing allusions to dystopian or humorous affinities between these two novels, critics seem to have largely overlooked The Handmaid's Tale's significant connections with Hard Times. (1) A probable explanation for the paucity of critical examination of this relationship lies in the obvious differences between the two works. A frightening fictional vision, published by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale takes place in an imaginary society of the future, where the United States has become the theocratic Republic of Gilead, women have lost nearly all rights except a few narrowly defined domestic ones, and human fertility is so reduced that individuals like Offred, with "viable ovaries" (143; ch. 24) are in demand as "Handmaids" to bear children for high-ranking men of state. Published by Dickens 131 years earlier, "as a moral fable" (to use Leavis's famous phrase, 364) of a society saturated with fact, Hard Times occurs in what its original readers would have recognized as a contemporary British Victorian industrial setting, regardless of the imaginary name "Coketown" and Dickens's deliberate exaggeration to make his satiric point. In The Handmaid's Tale, there is no beneficent circus. In contrast to Gradgrind's change of heart at the end of Hard Times, there is also no repentant recognition of error by any of the policy-makers of Gilead in Atwood's book. Yet, despite these evident differences between the two novels, there are a number of parallels, including one that seems especially striking. Both works feature a woman--Louisa in Hard Times and Offred in The Handmaid's Tale--victimized by a totalitarian system that attempts to control her thoughts and deny her humanity. Furthermore, in developing this theme in The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood appears to echo a number of Dickens's details as well as his larger concern with imagination and love in Hard Times. A bit of background information is relevant. Atwood has called Dickens one of her "favorite authors" and stated that she "was trained as a Victorianist" ("A Conversation", 233). After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1961, she embarked on graduate work in English at Radcliffe College of Harvard University, where she studied with, among other professors, the Victorian scholar Jerome Buckley. She obtained her M.A. degree from Radcliffe in 1962 and then finished all the requirements for her doctorate at Harvard with the exception of the dissertation, although she began work on a Victorian dissertation project under the supervision of Professor Buckley (Cooke 87-88; Rosenberg 30; Stein 3). (2) Given her background in Victorian literature and specific reference to Hard Times in chapter 29 of The Handmaid's Tale, it seems likely that Atwood was familiar with this novel by Dickens in its entirety--whether or not her character Offred was ever permitted to finish reading Hard Times. Certainly, close comparison of Hard Times and The Handmaid's Tale reveals a surprising number of elements in common, although Atwood gives these common elements her own distinctive twist.