Crítica: Dynamics Between Mankind and Nature in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and John Feffer’s Splinterlands

Essay by Jéssica Iolanda Costa Bispo. Currently enrolled in a PhD program in Modern Literatures and Cultures at Nova University of Lisbon, and she is conducting research on the concept of transgression in video games, having been awarded a PhD Studentship by the Portuguese funding institution FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (2021.04811.BD). She collaborates with the Centre for English, Translation, and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (CETAPS) and is also a member of the Portuguese Association for Anglo-American Studies (APEAA). Fields of research include: Victorian Literature and Culture, Vampire Fiction, Dystopian Studies and Video Game Studies, areas on which she has published and presented papers both nationally and internationally. ORCID Record: <>.

Article’s abstract: This article takes into account the literary dystopias The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood and Splinterlands (2016) by John Feffer, in order to analyse not only how the environmental crisis is presented in them, but also the social, cultural, religious and political issues which arise in its wake. Both novels are similar in the way nature is represented, suffering from the destructive practices carried out by mankind; furthermore, it is personified so as to perform a kind of karmic revenge on humans for their eradication of biodiversity and natural landscapes. While the theocratic regime in Atwood’s novel uses complex religious symbols and connections to portray women as sinful beings whose attitudes seem to be the major cause for the natural disasters which prompted fertility rates to drop, the disillusioned narrator in Feffer’s work repeatedly blames humans for the catastrophes that befall the planet and their nefarious consequences in society. This considered, the article argues that nature is represented in both novels simultaneously as a passive and active agent; it stays hidden, struggling for a voice that is rarely heard but nevertheless finds ways to show itself to those around it: in Splinterlands, this voice is given a proper personafication through the character Rachel; as for The Handmaid’s Tale, a childbirth is how nature proclaims its resistance, albeit a frail one. Despite being smothered by destruction, nature personified is able to express that there is always a possibility for revenge and that mankind may often be blind to that weakened but still powerful force. Keywords: nature, mankind, dystopia, climate change

Nature as a victim of mankind’s harmful practices and environmental crisis have recently been a focus of academic and global debate; it is of paramount importance to no longer ignore the climate changes taking place around us and the impact they have on everyday life. Our lack of self-awareness is a dangerous one, which is why dystopias are important in bringing to light a critical commentary on a myriad of issues. This literary genre is substantial when considering the environmental threats that we have been and are facing in our contemporary age, since it “…uniquely offers the opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in a hypothetical simulation of a possible future, whilst simultaneously engaging them in mutual creation of that future scenario with the writer through the act of reading…” (Clode and Stasiak 20). Creating some leverage on the present moment, dystopias possess the power to warn the reader in particular – and mankind in general – about impending dangers and help developing a critical and informed approach to multiple questions of a sociocultural and/or ecological nature. This literary genre is metaphorically able to denounce these matters in different contexts, in a time when many organizations are trying to raise awareness concerning major changes that may threaten life on Earth. Andrew Milner draws attention to the fact that not only literature such as science fiction, be it eutopian or dystopian, is important to analyse environmental issues, but also other media such as films and television, providing “…as good a place as any for thought experiments about the social effects of climate change.” (834); the author then proceeds to point out prominent literary works which deal with these thematics, namely Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961), Arthur Herzog’s Heat (1977), Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica (1997) and Science in the Capital trilogy (2004-2007) and Karen Traviss’s Wess’har Wars series (2004-2008) (Ibidem), which are presently mentioned in order to provide examples of the contemporary tendency in literature towards the portrayal of environmental disasters.

Both The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood and Splinterlands (2016) by John Feffer address the issue of climate change, albeit in a very different fashion. Nevertheless, through complex societies and character interactions, it is possible to recognize that nature is injured by humans in both novels and although Atwood’s work is much more a story where anti-feminism and totalitarianism reign as Splinterlands is about social and political chaos, ecological collapse and its consequences lie at the heart of these dystopias.

Attention will now be drawn to how climate change and related matters are represented in The Handmaid’s Tale. Firstly, it is important to note that a dystopian novel in which lack of personal freedom and extreme repression are the main concerns is deeply connected to environmental change as well: i.e., it seems that the author is preoccupied in establishing a connection between changes in the natural world and changes in society, so that without nature and the sustainable management of resources, it is impossible for people to be free and experience well-being. In the Republic of Gilead, Atwood’s imagined society, it can immediately be observed that the main consequence of environmental deterioration is infertility. Aunt Lydia, one of the agents of authority responsible for repressing women’s individual freedom and prepare them for the sole purpose of childbearing, attempts to raise alarm amongst them:

There was no cause, says Aunt Lydia. She stands at the front of the room, in her khaki dress, a pointer in her hand. Pulled down in front of the blackboard, where once there would have been a map, is a graph, showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.
Of course, some women believed there would be no future… (Atwood Handmaid’s Tale 123)

Although Aunt Lydia states that there is no apparent biological cause for the decrease in the number of births, it is noted throughout the novel that her speech constantly attempts to blame women for this social change. Infertility is, then, presented as a curse from God bestowed upon women, a well-deserved punishment for lavish and lustful feminine behaviour. Interestingly, during a conversation between the Handmaid who narrates the tale and Serena, the Wife that she is serving, the reader becomes aware that the problem concerning fertility may lie in men instead of women. Noticing that her Handmaid repeatedly fails to get pregnant, Serena reacts: “‘Too bad…’ (Ibidem 214), adding: “‘Maybe he can’t.’” (Ibidem 215). This reaction surprises the Handmaid, who reflects: “I don’t know who she means. Does she mean the Commander, or God? If it’s God, she should say won’t. Either way it’s heresy. It’s only women who can’t, who remain stubbornly closed, damaged, defective.” (Ibidem). In another instance, during her visit to the doctor, the Handmaid hears him stating: “‘Most of the old guys can’t make it any more,’ he says. ‘Or they’re sterile.’” (Ibidem 70), which makes her gasp and think: “…he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” (Ibidem 70/71).

However, it is important to note that religion may very well be used as an analogy for nature, since the institutions which hold power in Gilead constantly try to purify individuals by banning chemicals, medicine during pregnancy and birth or make up. Thus, this prohibition might mean that people are aware that nature is somehow exerting her revenge on humans, although the name of God is invoked to induce a fear response, evoking divine and indisputable authority.

Despite the lack of concise knowledge made public by Aunt Lydia, the Handmaid alludes directly to the environmental threats which society had to face before Gilead was instated. She cannot help but picture herself as a “…cradle of life, made of bones; and within, hazards, warped proteins, bad crystals jagged as glass.” (Ibidem 122). She continues:

The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells… your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach….Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark…

Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants…and the mutant strain of syphilis no mould could touch. Some did it themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred with chemicals. (Ibidem)

In another instance, the Handmaid also reflects the damaged state of the oceans and the extinction of species, stating that because of it there is no food diversity (Ibidem 173). Margaret Atwood herself highlights these changes in an interview dating from 2015, urging for the warning signs regarding climate change to be taken into account:

The shift towards the warmer end of the thermometer that was once predicted to happen much later, when the generations now alive had had lots of fun and made lots of money and gobbled up lots of resources and burned lots of fossil fuels and then died, are happening much sooner than anticipated back then. In fact, they’re happening now. Here are three top warning signs. First, the transformation of the oceans.…A second top warning sign is the drought in California, said to be the worst for 1,200 years.…A third warning sign is the rise in ocean levels. (Atwood “It’s Not Climate Change” n/p)

The previous citations from The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrate precisely this, and, additionally, how the Handmaid is undoubtedly aware of what caused the fertility rates to drop; the way she articulates her speech confirms that lack of care for the environment and irresponsible behaviour were as much responsible for the fate that befell her as the enforcers of the dictatorship.

As for Splinterlands, the pessimism which pervades the narration is much more directly related to climate change than what is found in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the first paragraph of the novel, it is immediately perceived that the main character Julian blames mankind for the multiple catastrophes that occur, claiming that nature is “…exacting its revenge upon its most arrogant inhabitants.” (Feffer Splinterlands 1). Amongst the water level rising, the general increase in the temperature of the planet, massive hurricanes and the lack of vegetation and food diversity,[1] Julian highlights the chaotic political panorama of the world and, during a conversation with his son Gordon, he surprisingly discovers that climate change can even be used to make profit. Gordon refers: “I was the first to come up with a financial model of climate change. Then I applied that model to nationalist uprisings.’” (Ibidem 67).

Astonished by the suffering of the poor implied in Gordon’s theory, Julian continues his even more pessimistic reflection about society, which includes considerations about the dangers of technological evolution: virtual reality substitutes face-to-face human interaction and, while Julian critizes this so-called avatar economy, he himself uses it. Regarding technology, Stephanie Dror argues that capitalism along with technological inovations explain why the contemporary age is one in which the criticism is mainly dystopian, also coinciding with the bloom of the ecocritical works and the budding of the ecocritical lens (41/42). Splinterlands undoubtedly fits into this category, since it precisely relates climate change with the impending dangers of unethical technological development, revealing its impact on the marketplace and social security:

Technology certainly played a role in this transformation, as computers and cell phones untethered individuals from fixed workplaces and then biochips turned each individual into his or her own work station. With the growth of VR came the rise of the avatar economy, in which the enterprising few could participate in a half-dozen jobs simultaneously without moving from their living-room couches. Everything became precarious, everything short-term, as each job’s obsolescence was keyed to the technology that supported it. As one popular tweet put it “Goodbye #socialsecurity, hello individual security :(”. (Feffer Splinterlands 70)

Despite Julian’s opinions and reflections, unlike his ex-wife Rachel, he did not take any action. It might have been expected that, considering this, he would humble himself and accept his fate as a specimen of an endangered species in a dying world. However, Julian reveals that while he was narrating his story – it is his point of view the reader has access to –, he was actually taking part in a regeneration treatment that would make him immortal. Having this in mind, I argue that this character ultimately symbolizes the individual who fails to understand nature and his own human and mortal condition, since he is obsessively challenging the natural course of life by attempting to extend his lifespan. Subsequently, nature exerts its karmic revenge, an idea shared by Gletkin, one of Julian’s assistants during his treatment: “‘The Earth is doing what comes naturally.…It’s shedding excess weight. It’s on a diet so that it can be a smaller planet. Even I can see that this is a good thing.’” (Ibidem 143).

Having mentioned some environmental issues which are focused in both novels, and briefly analysed how humans are regarded as those responsible for the Earth’s decline, the article will now shift its focus to demonstrate how, despite being smothered by mankind’s carelessness and destructive behaviour, nature still manages to find a voice of its own.

Regarding The Handmaid’s Tale, it was previously mentioned how infertility constitutes a major concern in Gilead, jeopardizing the continuation of mankind. The dynamics remain: nature is responding to the damage that was being exerted upon it; however, there is still a hopeful undertone in Atwood’s dystopia, mainly through the occurrence of a successful childbirth. Gilead’s population uses the term “Unbabies” to refer to physically deformed or stillborn babies (Gonçalves 49), an ocurrence which is referred to as being rather common. During one of the few childbirths that actually take place in Gilead, the Handmaid narrator makes the following remarks regarding Handmaid Janine’s baby:

We hold our breath as Aunt Elizabeth inspects it: a girl, poor thing, but so far so good, at least there’s nothing wrong with it, that can be seen, hands, feet, eyes, we silently count, everything is in place. Aunt Elizabeth, holding the baby, looks up at us and smiles. We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy. (Atwood Handmaid’s Tale 136)

The way all women gather to inspect Janine’s baby in an almost cult-like euphoria reflects not only the rarity of giving birth to a healthy child but also the immense joy that derives from this extraordinary event, so that all Handmaids unite and act as one; it also points out to the great number of ill babies that were born as a consequence of environmental change.[2] But I suggest that this childbirth, and this baby in particular, represent and personify the voice of nature in the novel: this could be a crooked voice, much like the Unbabies and also mirroring the rotten society and the decaying natural world; however, Janine’s newborn is a child in perfect health conditions. Amidst chaos and destruction, nature allows these women to experience beauty and hope for a better future where child delivery would not be such rare event with so many risks involved.

Likewise, it should also be noted that nature speaks through the memories of the Handmaid narrator as well, to which she refers often in order to establish a contrast between past and present. She offers the reader, as Katharine Cornnell argues, a complex reflexion about “…the experience of the oppressive and violent dystopia she is trapped in, alongside the memory of her freedom before the creation of this society…” (115), making it feasible to imagine a (possibly idyllical) past without human intervention.

Although John Feffer refers to his novel as being mainly a politically engaged work meant to be a warning (Feffer “Welcome to a Dystopian Future” n/p), I have argued that Splinterlands deals, in its core, with the specific dynamics of Man and nature and that is why the voice of the latter is important so as to understand the message conveyed by this dystopia, which is, in fact, an extremely necessary warning. Attention is drawn to Arcadia, one of the places Julian visits while taking a VR (virtual reality) tour. He describes the place as a commune:

located in the rolling mountains of what used to be called the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, not far from the border with Quebec. It has been stitched together from two working dairy farms and several former vacation homes.…. One of its founding principles was equilibrium. (Feffer Splinterlands 115).

Rachel, Julian’s ex-wife, lives in this community. She takes him on a casual visit around Arcadia and a parallel between this place and the biblical Garden of Eden is almost evident, especially when comparing it to the chaotic society that the novel presents the reader firstly. Arcadia is beheld as a paradise: its citizens attempt to live peacefully with nature, cohabiting with fauna and flora while employing a sustainable and conscientious vegetable production without the use of fossil fuels; they abolish the unhealthy processed seaweed in their diet and promote self-sufficiency, while inhabiting houses with composting toilets. When Rachel shows Julian Arcadia’s vegetable production, he finds himself astonished by the diversity of vegetables available:

I counted ten different kinds of squash, seven different peppers, and a kaleidoscopic range of tomatoes. Rachel gave me a mini-lecture about seed-saving, heirlooms, and the dangers of genetic engineering. I was mesmerized by seeing so many real vegetables in one place. (Ibidem 116)

Rachel proceeds with her explanation of the several aspects which characterize Arcadia and her previous occupation acquires relevance: she had been a scholar researching climate change; therefore, she has been made aware of the consequences of mankind’s irresponsible behaviour and lack of action. As she noticed that people would continuously ignore what was happening, Rachel decided to abandon her academic position to pursue a life of peace near the remaining natural world. However, she is highly critized by Julian for making this decision; he is unable to understand that theories alone do not help in the fight against environmental changes. After he affirms that climate change is a generalization, Rachel argues:

‘Quite the contrary. Climate change was the ice that was slipping through my very fingers. Theories didn’t interest me. Theories that great technological advances would save us? Theories that artificial intelligence would doom us? What nonsense. We had a threat right before our eyes. And we needed to take action.’

‘But action has to proceed from a theory.’

Rachel groaned. ‘Must we?’

‘It’s just that, well –’

‘I did something. I came here.’ (Ibidem 124)

Abandoning the decaying civilization and help building a sustainable community is the solution that Rachel finds so she can live with herself and feel accomplished. Without expecting a positive turn of events, she nonetheless idealizes a return to a pristine state, where nature would be untouched and uncorrupted: “That’s why we’re seeing if turning back the clock will achieve something different.’” (Ibidem 123). In the midst of a society which is unable to revert the damage that was inflicted upon the Earth, Rachel emerges in Splinterlands as the voice of nature, a notion that is reinforced when she claims repeatedly: “‘You don’t get it, do you, Julian? I talked and I talked and I talked.…. No one was listening.” (Ibidem 124). It may be deduced that this voice is a peaceful one, just like life iselft in Arcadia; it is, however, revealed that the commune actually possesses weapons and a security perimeter, despite Julian being unable to see it at first, since he is being vetted virtually (let us remember that he is only visiting Arcadia using an avatar). This introduces yet another interesting aspect of this place: while its population preaches peace, balance and love, they are also aware that they can be attacked at any moment by the rest of society; they are outcasts and rebels, transgressing established order and convention. Their condition is shared by none other than nature, which also protects itself by finding means of defence against those who harm it. Emphasizing its vindictive side with both biblical and pagan overtones, Julian desperately affirms:

In the end, climate change had the last laugh. ‘So, you don’t believe we’re important?’ the weather gods boomed from behind the gathering clouds. ‘Let’s see what you think about this!’ And the heavens opened, and the rains poured down, and my world filled up with water. (Ibidem 126)

After visiting Arcadia, Julian simply continues his life without a change of attitude, remaining unaware, which is symbolically foreshadowed by his inability to grasp the reality of Arcadia, as well as tasting the fruit growing there (“Rachel plucked a low-hanging orange. She offered it to me. ‘You’ve probably forgotten what one of these really tastes like. Ah, I forgot. You’re not really here.’” (Ibidem 123)). He is dependent on VR technology and is therefore inevitably detached from the real world and its real problems.

In conclusion, it is possible to understand that both novels denounce not only social, political and religious matters but also climate change and its consequences: be it through the fatalistic perspective of Julian in Splinterlands or through the bizarre descriptions of the Handmaid narrator in The Handmaid’s Tale, it can be observed that both narratives emphasise how mankind is doomed, in spite of what can still be done regarding environmental issues, which is manifestly not enough; both societies have reached the point of no return. However, as it was also explored, nature is presented as a damaged entity who, amidst all chaos and human egotism, still finds a way to both rightfully exact its revenge on the species that augured its destruction and show the nostalgic and disillusioned population that its beauty has not yet vanished forever.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “It’s Not Climate Change, It’s Everything’s Change”. Medium, 27 July 2015, <>. Accessed: 23 April 2019.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Vintage Books, 2010.

Clode, Danielle and Monika Stasiak. “Fictional depictions of climate change.” International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Vol. 5, No. 4, 2014, pp. 19-29.

Cornnell, Katharine. (2017). “The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017) Review”. Review of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Hulu. Messengers from the Stars: On Science Fiction and Fantasy, No. 3, pp. 115-120. <>. Accessed: 23 April 2019.

Dror, Stephanie. The Ecology of Dystopia: An Ecocritical Analysis of Young Adult Dystopian Texts. 2014. Masters Dissertation. University of British Columbia. <>. Accessed: 20 April 2019.

Feffer, John. “Welcome to a Dystopian Future Ushered in by Global Warming and Climate Change”. New American Journal, 15 Nov. 2018, <>. Accessed: 3 May 2019.

Feffer, John. Splinterlands. Haymarket Books, 2016.

Gonçalves, Maria Adriana Cardoso de Azevedo. O feminino distópico: as vozes de Brave New World e de The Handmaid’s Tale. 2015. Masters Dissertation. Universidade de Coimbra. <>. Accessed: 6 May 2019.

Lazjuk, Gennady, et al. “Genetic Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident for Belarus Republic.” Gijutsu-to-Ningen, No. 283, 1998, pp. 26-32. <>. Accessed: 5 May 2019.

Milner, Andrew. “Changing the climate: The politics of dystopia.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 32, No. 6, 2009, pp. 827-838. <>. Accessed: 18 April 2019.

  1. As is observed in The Handmaid’s Tale, Splinterlands also denotes the lack of food diversity: the diet consists of processed seaweed but even this species faces extinction: “Scientists were predicting a seaweed shortage by the end of the decade and ‘greater food insecurity’ as a result, which meant yet more famine for the poorest of the poor.” (Feffer Splinterlands 99).

  2. This may remind us of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, which caused many physical and psychological mutations that affected the lives of people directly or indirectly exposed to the radiation. Amongst the more common malformations, Lazjuk et al. highligh: “Anencephaly, severe spina bifida cystica, cleft lips and/or palate, polydactyly, reduction limb defects leading to disability, esophageal atresia, anorectal atresias, Down’s syndrome and multiple malformations…” (175).