The Handmaids Tale
The Depiction of Equal Rights as Illustrated in Margaret Atwood’s Book, the Handmaid’s Tale
In Margret Atwood’s 1985 book, The Handmaid’s Tale, she uses flashbacks, appeals to pathos, and references to religion to show how important feminism is to America and how we shouldn’t let our future progeny grow complacent and forget the struggles their ancestors went through.
Throughout Atwood’s book, she uses a myriad of flashbacks to show how the world has changed over the last 4-ish years since the Republic of Gilead was founded and how Offred went from being a woman who transferred library books to computer discs, to a glorified womb with legs. Over the course of the book we find out that her mother was a very active feminist throughout her life and went to many rallies in the 70’s, most notably in the book a “Take Back the Night” rally- “I’ve forgotten my mother was once as pretty and as earnest as that…The camera pans up and we see the writing, in paint, on what must have been a bedsheet: TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.” This is particularly notable since one of the main arguments of the movement, besides keeping parks safe for women after dark, was for women to have autonomy over their bodies and to have the freedom to choose whether or not to have children, also seen on page 122 and again referenced by her mother when she talks to Offred as an adolescent saying,” You were a wanted child.”
These flashbacks send a very strong message since Offred only thinks about her mother in reference to her rights as a woman being almost non-existent. In fact, she often laments her past self for being so hard on her mother and wishes she had listened to her more when she was younger and sometimes talks to her mother in her head to show her the irony of some situations. On her way back to the Commander’s house after one of her fellow Handmaid’s Janine gives birth, she talks about how her mother always dreamed of a women’s culture, and now as they all ride in the back of a van lamenting that they haven’t given Gilead a child yet, they do.
Through all of this, Atwood shows that Offred finds powerful women to be awe inspiring now that she is a Handmaid, not in the sense of powerful as in status since we see how little she cares for Serena-Joy, the Commander’s wife, but for women such as Moira and the first Ofglen who are actively trying to leave or destroy Gilead. Both women grow close to her, Moira being her friend from the pre-Gileadean era, and Ofglen being the first member of the Mayday movement; a movement of people trying to overthrow the theocracy that is Gilead. Offred having friends during the novel is one of the few peeks of female solidarity we see other than the Martha’s and the Commander’s wives.
Solidarity is the backbone to any movement, and the Gileadean government created an ingenious way to shut it down before it starts with their secret police: The Eye. The citizens of Gilead are trained to be suspicious of one another, which makes it easy to stop rebellions since they rarely ever start. The fear of torture and death stopped many women in the Gileadean society from creating groups and movements to leave their lives as extreme second-class citizens, which makes her idolization of these women makes a lot of sense. Attwood has many appeals to pathos when showing the solidarity of women helping women and women supporting women.
One of the biggest displays of female solidarity in The Handmaid’s Tale is the friendship between Moira and Offred, during the pre-Gileadean era and during it. When Offred loses her job, and her bank account during the few weeks before Gilead had fully taken over, Moira was her only true friend at that time. Even Offred’s husband Luke didn’t seem as invested in her fears over the loss of her autonomy, so much so that Offred states,” He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.”
This shows how during this time in her life, Offred felt that she couldn’t even trust her husband. A man she married and speaks rather highly of throughout the book, and the only person she feels can understand her at this point is Moira. Her description of not being able to trust her husband is haunting. This appeal to pathos is gut wrenching to the readers and shows us that inequality of the sexes was ingrained into our human society even before the rise of Gilead, and that the subtle cues her husband gives her about not worrying proves to the audience how embedded it is.
Another major appeal to pathos that Margret Attwood gives us regarding the silencing of the female voice, is how the book is paced. We find out in the historical notes section that this book consists of various recordings found after the regime of Gilead falls. Offred’s story was found on “approximately thirty tape cassettes” and the historians had to piece them together into a single narrative. This causes the audience to pause, and suddenly feel a slight sense of outrage that Offred, the woman we’ve grown to care for who’s voice had been buried by a male centered theocracy, was edited and pieced together by a man who even questions the legitimacy of her story and laments that she didn’t talk more about the men in charge. Though we can infer that the scientist meant no harm, it still shows that even after Gilead has fallen, a woman who had risked her life to speak and tell her story isn’t enough of a gift.
Lastly, feminism is shown throughout this book as being oppressed by religion, rather than nurtured by it. One of the beginning quotes in The Handmaid’s Tale is from Genesis 30: 1-3,” 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.” This quote is all we need to know about Gilead in a nutshell. The leaders, finding that their women are becoming infertile, seek a way they can use women who are capable of bearing children to add to the regime, and they looked through the bible and found this golden line of text. Many countries, such as the United States, use religion to further their agenda such as gay people being seen as a sin, or abortion being illegal.
Margret Attwood gives us an astounding telling of the plight of women through a satirical lens that is looking far too legitimate within today’s political climate. Women’s rights have been taking many steps back with Planned Parenthood’s funding being slashed and birth control no longer being automatically covered by your company’s insurance, we’re slowly moving towards a bleak path. However, with the rise in popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, maybe a few women will take up arms and fight back.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Is It a Feminist Novel
In the world of literature, it is all about your reputation.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an Orwellian romp into the near future lead by a female protagonist, received both the kiss of death and the gift of notoriety when it was labeled a “feminist dystopia.” Similar to when a celebrity “tweets” a comment that is remotely debatable, the conversation among literary critics erupted following this instance of labeling. However, the situation surrounding Atwood’s novel was slightly different from celebrity Twitter fodder because the author never actually labeled her book a feminist dystopia; others did it for her. In fact, Atwood has tended to resist the label others have given her work. When pressed about her own beliefs, she admitted that she is a feminist if the definition of feminism is a “belief in the rights of women… [as] equal human beings” adding that if “practical, hardline, anti-male feminists took over and became the government” she would “resist them.”
Nevertheless, critics continue to debate over whether or not The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist text. Of course, it is difficult to debate this topic objectively because, like Atwood, individuals have their own definitions of feminism ranging from Atwood’s perspective to definitions that necessitate solely blaming men for the oppression of women.
Luckily, some literary critics consider variables other than a maliciousness supposedly inherent in men to explain the gender relations present in this text. The existing critical conversation surrounding this novel has done a fine job of recognizing the relevance of the enhanced capitalism of the 1980s to the text. Karen Magro affirms the relationship between “unbridled capitalism” and gender, claiming that Margaret Atwood herself found the “gains” women had made in the later half of the twentieth century “precarious,” presumably because of the disenfranchisement of women in the midst of increased materialism and commodification (Magro 118). Likewise, Shirley Neuman posits that Atwood’s speculations are derived from the “early 1980s reactions to the successes of the women’s movement as well as the intersections of these reactions with some of the…excesses of the period” (Neuman 859). Though both of these critics mention the role of capitalism in regards to female oppression both in and outside of the novel, it is Kristen M. Billy who focuses on the ways in which capitalism in the form of gendered commodification functions in The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly the commodification of procreation. Still, even Billy portrays this behavior as a biological imperative of the male sex. Other critics, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, take a different approach, viewing the novel as a backlash against radical feminism, exemplified through the the role that heteronormative romance plays as the “only truly subversive force” in Gileadean society (Ehrenreich 34).
While I do not think that this novel engages in an “anti-male” agenda like Billy, I am unable to ignore the presence of certain men at the center of Gileadean systems of oppression, particularly wealthy men who control the means of production. Moreover, I intend to combine the wisdom of these critics in order to demonstrate how capitalism and love are interconnected in this text. Initially, I plan to briefly establish the realistic origins of this text that stem from 1980s economic ideology and evince Atwood’s negativity toward these ideals through textual evidence. Then, my intention is to demonstrate the relationship between capitalism and gender. Finally, I will posit love as Atwood’s response to the gendered problems derived from capitalism. Ultimately, I aim to prove that this novel portrays Reagan era capitalism and materialism as the patriarchal force that transforms men into oppressors, leading to the eventual subjugation of the female sex. Nevertheless, Atwood champions men as individuals when she evinces heteronormative love as Gilead’s rarest and most important resource.
Atwood herself claimed that there is “nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened”and that “all the things described in the book, people have already done to one another” (Magro 118). Perhaps that is why this text seems so familiar to the reader, as if leaving echoes of a nightmare they may have already had. In order to understand Gilead we must first understand the societal parameters that made Gilead a reality. For the purposes of this novel and this essay, it is important to remember the socio-economic environment that existed while Atwood was writing, conditions that are then exaggerated in Offred’s descriptions of pre-Gileadean America. Atwood’s discourse often reveals an aversion to Reaganomics and the materialistic mentality of the 1980s. This perspective on the era is affirmed by economist and journalist Jim Collins who recalls the “Wall Street” culture of this decade, that celebrated “the twin propositions that ‘greed is good’ and that ‘more is better’” (Collins 1).
Initially, Gilead subjugates its citizens by class in addition to gender. The commanders, for example, are wealthy men who hold the highest rank in society. They also seem to flaunt their wealth and Atwood’s diction reveals that she does not approve of this practice. When Offred is describing the Commander’s “very expensive” car, she claims that it is “ much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth,” and elaborates on its black color when she likens it to “the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek” (Atwood 20). Though Offred’s description is sincere, Atwood’s intentions are slightly different. First, labeling the fancy car as “much better” than the practical option has a sarcastic connotation that connotes the author’s negativity toward materialism. In addition, comparing the car to a “hearse” equates this material luxury with death. Furthermore, Atwood uses economic language while describing facets of life that seemingly do not hold material value. For instance, Offred labels sanity as a “valuable possession” (Atwood 109). This quote further emphasises my claim that this novel is about commodification in its most extreme form because Offred’s tendency to view the intangible concept of sanity in economic terms shows how saturated the society is with capitalist ideology . Offred agrees, speculating that Gileadean society is not about “control” but about “who can own whom,” using the concept of ownership, which typically is applied to items instead of people, to affirm the connection between interpersonal relationships and economy (Atwood 135).
Still, how does this negative focus on capitalism relate to gender?
First, we would be remiss to assume that Atwood spontaneously generated a connection between gender and economy. In fact, keeping in mind her quote about the realistic genesis of this book, we can prove that this socioeconomic relationship is far from a fictional invention. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, “women made up an increasing percentage of those in the lowest-paid occupations, and they made no gains or lost ground in the better-paid trades and professions” (Neuman). This was likely the result of increased competition for jobs in an economy that was beginning to globalize. Incidentally, the general consensus is that capitalism also creates a feeling of entitlement among the elites who are, in Western society, historically wealthy, white, property owning men. It is not outlandish to understand how this sense of material entitlement could be extended toward people, possibly making these men feel as though they are just as entitled to do what they please to women as they are to their impractical and fancy cars.
Kristen Billy cites Azizah Al-Hibri who claims that “men need to dominate women in order to exclude them from production” explaining that “patriarchy results from men’s desire for immortality” and feelings of “inadequacy” that result from their inability to carry children (Billy 24). However, in the sociological article “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women”, Martha Gimenez argues against the idea that patriarchy is a biological imperative of men, insisting that gender inequality is a “structural characteristic of capitalist social formations” that is not sufficiently explained through “microfoundations” such as “men’s or women’s intentions” and biology because gender inequality is “the structural effect of a complex network of macro-level processes through which production and reproduction are inextricably connected” (Gimenez 24). This explanation coincides with the novel’s portrayal of capitalism as an agent of oppression. Furthermore, the article argues that since a capitalist system is unable to provide “full employment and pay to all workers…male and female workers are forced to compete with each other for scarce jobs” (Gimenez 30). This system, in turn, creates two spheres of occupation. Women are allocated to the “sphere of reproductive labor” because men are unable to reproduce in the same fashion while property owning men are given the scarce paid jobs. Essentially, Gimenez is suggesting that in a perfect world in which everyone could obtain employment, gender inequality would vanish.
It is impossible to discern from just one work of literature whether or not Atwood herself is anti-capitalist or anti-materialist however, she indisputably recognized some of the problems that these economic practices created for women. This understanding is exemplified in the novel, in which women’s bodies are commodified for procreative purposes. According to the text, this began, presumably, with the commodification of sexual pleasure in pre-Gileadean society, showcased by the presence of places like “Porno-Marts.” Moreover, in the scenario Atwood presents, fertility has become a scarce resource perhaps as a result of these commodified sexual practices or environmental degradation. Whatever the cause, infertility grew rampant, giving the Gileadean regime the impetus to seize power. Since men control the means of production, fertility becomes another resource that they have dominion over. However, although the conservative regime sought to end the less moral sexual excess of contemporary America, they still commodify sex, further subjugating women. Childbearing in Gilead is “rationalized, made vastly more efficient, and becomes more and more public—part of an integrated social network” (Billy 19). When procreation is industrialized, the sex/gender system of Gilead is reduced to one official function: reproduction.
In the time before the fertility epidemic, similar to the 1980s, women were becoming a more integral part of the workforce and using reproductive technologies to reproduce without men, which potentially excluded men from both the productive and reproductive spheres. This problem is alluded to in one of Offred’s Scrabble conversations with the Commander:
“The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore.
“Nothing?” I say. But they had . . .
“There was nothing for them to do”, he says.
“They could make money”, I say, a little nastily…
“It’s not enough”, he says. “It’s too abstract. I mean there was nothing for them to do with women.” (Atwood 210)
Therefore, widespread infertility provided men with a way to relegate women to the reproductive sphere, giving the men “something to do” with them, and effectively eliminating their competition for success in the capitalist system.
Using this logic, it would seem as though Atwood is suggesting that, under capitalism, the only way to achieve equilibrium is to subjugate half of the population. In this fashion, the novel reveals sexism as a necessary component of capitalism, a radical and frightening notion, considering the fact that her audience is composed of people entrenched in similar- albeit far less extreme- capitalist societies.
Thankfully, Atwood provides her readers with some reassurance. Return for a moment, to the excerpted conversation between the Commander and Offred. The Commander wants “something to do” with women, not to them or against them. Buried beneath the more prominent elements of the novel, Atwood posits a possible solution to this problem; love. In The Handmaid’s Tale, love is the force able to connect men and women independently of production and reproduction. Moreover, love is the only force with the potential to subvert the system of capitalist subjugation because it is the only resource that cannot be controlled or purchased.
In chapter nineteen, Aunt Lydia says that “A thing is valued…only if it is rare and hard to get.” This astute observation is the principle that governs economic and interpersonal relations in the novel. In Gilead, love is the only resource rarer than fertility and therefore vehemently sought after. Offred herself ruminates on “falling in love”, observing that the more “difficult” love was the more powerful it seemed, and acknowledging love as a word so powerful that it “made flesh” (Atwood 225). Here, the protagonist is recognizing the power the concept of love has over the human psyche.
This theme is shown primarily through Offred’s relationship with both the Commander and her possibly deceased husband. The Commander is a man of the highest rank who enjoys the fruits of capitalism that Gilead has to offer, such as his previously described car and his access to rare items such as hand lotion and magazines. He even has access to non-procreative sex, as evinced during Offred’s trip to Jezebel’s. However, though the Commander has all that he could purchase, he still longs for love. This is revealed during his meetings with Offred which are ultimately about emotional companionship as opposed to the lewd alternatives that Offred imagines. Rather than asking Offred to perform sexual acts the Commander asks her to play Scrabble with him and to kiss him as if she “meant it” (Atwood 140). Though she finds it peculiar at first, Offred uses love as a subversive tool, exploiting the Commander’s desire in exchange for small conveniences like hand lotion and prohibited information about Gilead.
However, the Commander is not the only character suffering from the absence of love. Offred often longs for the love she experienced with her husband Luke. In one of her late night introspections she admits that she wants “to be held” and told her name. She wants to “be valued” in ways that she is not, to be “more than valuable” (Atwood 97). Technically, Offred is already the most valued commodity in Gileadean society because she is a fertile woman, but this quote implies that Offred wants more than to be valued as a rare commodity; she wants to be loved.
It may seem peculiar that Atwood spends a significant portion of her novel describing Offred’s relationship with Luke, a character that never actually appears. However, when juxtaposed with descriptions of Offred’s relationship with the Commander, it evinces the difference between real love and the type of love that can be bought. The Commander attempts to find love with Offred through an economic exchange, but the type of love he’s looking for, the type that Offred had with Luke, is invaluable. This is further emphasised in a particular description of Offred and Luke’s relationship:
Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the Children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays.
Such freedom now seems almost weightless. (Atwood 120)
Gimenez insists that men and women need each other for purposes of procreation, and this potential is controlled by economic factors. Though it “wasn’t too likely” that Offred and Luke could afford the material markers of a family unit, ie: (a big house, “swings for the children”) their economic inabilities do not infringe on their happiness and do not lessen their bond. Moreover, it is important to give attention to the connotation of the word “weightless.” Perhaps Atwood uses this word to describe Offred’s freedom because her freedom is intangible, especially when compared with her discussion of the tangible items she and Luke could not afford. This connotes to the reader that it is not the material luxuries that Offred values even though they were the subject of her conversation with Luke. Instead, she values the freedom of discussion and the intimacy she shared with her husband. Furthermore, they do eventually have a child despite these economic difficulties, showing that the desire to procreate out of love supersedes economic boundaries.
Still, one could argue that even Offred’s relationship with Luke is affected by economic factors and that Offred intimates that her husband shares the traits of other repressive men. In this case, their relationship would not represent the pure, unsullied love that I have been describing. This alternative view of Offred’s relationship with Luke is best presented when Offred loses her job. Luke attempts to comfort Offred, saying that “it’s only a job” and that he will “always take care” of her. Initially, Offred thinks that he is patronizing her but then changes her mind, acknowledging that she is “starting to get paranoid” (Atwood 179). Nevertheless, this example does reveal a possible issue with argument this discourse has presented in favor of true love. Moreover, if Luke exhibits behavior that perpetuates the ideals of a “patriarchy”, this example dissembles claims that Atwood is not blaming men as a gender for creating and enabling this horrific society. However, when reading the above excerpt, it is prudent to keep in mind the novel’s mantra, “context is all.” Luke’s behavior seems patriarchal in the context of the sexist capitalist system that has rendered his wife jobless. Under different circumstances, his promise to “take care of” his wife would not have such a negative connotation and Offred herself realizes this when she recognizes her own paranoia.
In a hyper-capitalist society like Gilead, that which cannot be commodified retains the most value and in this case that is love, specifically the love shared between a man and a woman. Atwood portrays heterosexual love as humanity’s most benevolent and simultaneously subversive asset. For this reason, it is impossible to say that Atwood “blames” the biological imperatives of men for her dystopian vision because she includes them as a necessary part of the solution. This book is much more concerned with presenting a society in which capitalism has run amuck and human beings are commodified than it is with the “patriarchy.” Thus we return to the original question of critics and readers alike:
Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist text?
According to the author’s own definition the answer is affirmative. This text promotes a belief in the “rights of women”, particularly women disadvantaged by the sexism inherent in capitalism and it does so without “blaming” or excluding the male gender. It promotes the rights women have to think, to learn, to live, and especially to love both themselves and the male receivers of their affection. Perhaps this is the most feminist claim a person could make; to advocate for a future in which a woman does not need a man for survival or social utility but still retains the privilege to love be loved in return and to not feel entitled to anybody but each other.
- Billy, Kristen. ““I AM A NATURAL RESOURCE”: THE ECONOMY OF COMMODIFICATION IN ATWOOD’S THE HANDMAID’S TALE.” TCNJ Journal of Student Scholarship 13 (2011): 1-6. The College of New Jersey. Web. <http://joss.pages.tcnj.edu/files/2012/04/2011-Billy.pdf>.
- Ehrenreich, Barabara. “Feminism’s Phantoms.” The New Republic 194.11 (1986): 33. Print.
- Collins, Jim. “Built to Flip.” Jim Collins. 1 Mar. 2000. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/built-to-flip.html>.
- Magro, Karen. “Gender Matters: Revisiting Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad through the Lens of Social Justice.” Notes On American Literature 22 (2013): 20-28. Print.
- Neuman, S. C. (Shirley C.). “‘Just A Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism, And The Handmaid’s Tale.” University of Toronto Quarterly 75.3 (2006): 857-68. University of Toronto Press. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/university_of_toronto_quarterly/v075/75.3neuman.pdf>
- Gimenez, Martha E. “Capitalism And The Oppression Of Women: Marx Revisited.” Science & Society 69.1 (2005): 11-32. Guilford Publications. Web. 24 Apr. 2015. <http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/pesm/marx and feminism.pdf>.
The Archetypes Presented in the Handmaid’s Tale
Every piece of literature has already been written; the reason for this is the phenomenon of archetypes. Archetypes are symbols, images, characters, ideas, and themes that are occurring all throughout literature. Carl Joung believed that these archetypes are due to the human unconsciousness. He stated that humans all share a collective unconscious, this is where all history human experiences are stored, therefore all humans will pull the same ideas, the same stories from this collective source of memories. This is the reasoning for archetypes. Since humans all share an unconsciousness, any piece of work written will contain similar patterns and meanings. This collective unconsciousness also allows readers to recognize these patterns which will add new meaning and understanding to a piece of literature. No matter how original a piece will sound, the piece will always have a similar companion. This is the case with The Handmaid’s Tale. Although seemingly an original concept, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the archetypal journey of a denied hero attempting to regain his or her freedom, in addition to this, various symbols such as certain colors, flowers, gardens, and the bible bring depth and understanding into the work.
A clear, distinct archetype seen in The Handmaid’s Tale is the main character, Offred, as the denied hero. The denied hero is a protagonist whose status and otherness creates a sense of heroism; it can be compared to the story of the “underdog,” a hero that has been doubted and brought down by others but in the end, the underdog will achieve a victory. Offred, due to the creation of Gilead, is placed in a precarious position in society. She is made into a Handmaid, a low ranking position in Gilead. She is faced with the task of reproducing for higher ranking officials or else she will be outcasted and branded as an “unwoman” or killed. Offred becomes this denied hero stereotype when she begins to release her once suppressed rebellious thoughts. Due to this, Offred begins to regain small doses of her independence and gaining knowledge of the truth behind Gilead.
Every hero in every story will partake in an adventure. The denied hero archetype of The Handmaid’s Tale is coupled with the pattern of “the quest for freedom.” This is a quest the hero will partake in, in order to gain back his or her independence.
The journey always begins with departure, it is when the hero is called to an adventure whether the hero wants to or not. Offred, whose name was originally June before Gilead’s time, was taken away from her husband, Luke, and her child when she tried to escape the country, the developing Gilead. She was reluctant but was forced to be in this new developing society, forced to be on this adventure.
Then, the hero enters through a threshold into a new, dangerous world; this is called the initiation. After the attempted escape and capture, Offred is taken to the Red Center, a learning area to condition the few selected to be Handmaid’s (women used for the sole purpose of reproduction). She is then entered into the completed Gilead society and performs her duties without say.
The hero then faces various obstacles, enduring tests of strength, resourcefulness, and endurance. Offred encounters the central conflict of whether she should conform to the society she was unwillingly placed in or if she should find a way to escape once again. There were multiple occasions where she was tempted with freedom from isolation, freedom from her duties, and freedom from constrained intimacy. This was seen during various moments such as the time when the doctor hinted if Offred wanted an easy way to pregnancy since most commanders were “sterile. [But] there was no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law. [And she wanted] a baby.” (Arwood 61) and even Nick seemed to offer freedom from lack of intimacy when Nick “[looked at Offred], and sees [her] looking [at him]. He [began] to whistle. Then he [winked]” (Atwood 18). The continuously struggles between being herself, June, and being Offred.
The hero then enters the innermost cave, an underworld, that a great trial will occur. This trial will cause a change in the hero whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. In the case of Offred, after conquering many obstacles, she is taken to the innermost cave of Gilead, Jezebel. Jezebel was the underworld of this “holy” city, it was full of commanders and other high ranking officials having sex with typically outlawed women like lesbians and the educated. This is where Offred is reunited with her long, lost best friend, Moira. Moira has been a role model for Offred since she was rebellious, independent, and fought for what she believed in. Offred wanted to still believe this even after they were seperated due to Gilead’s upcoming. Yet, after meeting with her motivator in Jezebel, she realized that Moira is changed. She no longer has the fighting spirit that Offred remembers. Instead of taking this revelation negatively, Offred feels as if she’s more liberated and begins to stray from the confining rules of Gilead.
Finally, after the trial faced at the innermost cave, the hero will return and reintegrate into society. The hero will then use this change in him or her to restore his or her independence. Before the incident at Jezebel, Offred acknowledged that her “name [wasn’t] Offred, [she had] another name, which nobody [used] now because [it was] forbidden.” (Atwood 84) but after she began to disregard this rule when she “[told Nick her] real name, and [felt] that therefore [she was] known. [She acted] like a dunce” (Atwood 270). This little incident marked a great change in Offred; it lead to Offred finally letting herself feel intimacy once more after being tempted by Nick by sneaking out of the house to see him and it lead to Offred being courageous enough to mention the rebellion group “Mayday” to the new replacement for her handmaid friend, Offglen. Instead of being conflicted with the rules of Gilead, she began to take risks and think more freely in her own thoughts. This will eventually lead to the end of the journey, when the archetypal hero finally regains his or her freedom. Nick aided Offred in escaping the commander’s household and finally gaining her independence. After all of the conflicts, problems, issues, events, trauma, Offred was finally be able to decide things on her own and not be confined by the rules of Gillead. The denied hero, who has been placed so low in society, will finally gain a vitory on the “quest for freedom.”
Color plays a crucial part in the telling of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the dystopian society described in the book, everything and everyone is color coordinated. The people of Gilead are broken up into different classes and each class has a set color.
Those with high ranking positions are associated with the color black, this refers to the commanders and anything the commanders owns like Offred’s commander owning “a very expensive [car], a Whirlwind, it’s black, the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek” (Atwood 17). In addition, government property is also described to be black like the vans that are used to transport any “criminals” are described as “a black-painted van, with the winged eye in white on the side. The windows [were] dark-tinted, and the men in the front seats [wore] dark glasses: a double obscurity” (Atwood 21-22). Commanders are also described as wearing a “black uniform” (Atwood 86). Such a dark color is used to create a mysterious, sinister, and controlling aura, showing the reader how unknown the lives and actions of the authoritative Gilead figures truly are. The color black is used as the color of villains, making it clear to the readers who the antagonists of The Handmaid’s Tales are.
Below any of the authoritative figures of Gilead, are the Wives. The Wives are described as typically wearing “a light blue veil thrown over [their heads]” (Atwood 12) and “dresses, sky blue with embroidery in white along the edges” (Atwood 81). This blue is used to symbolize conservatism, cleanliness, and a “spiritual purity,” referencing back to the image of the Virgin Mary dressed in her light blue garments. This ultimately illustrates how the Wives are seen as almost blessed and high up in Gilead’s society. The wives are no longer having children but have someone, the Handmaids, perform the task instead, but will ultimately receive the child in the end almost like how the Virgin Mary was given a blessed child by God but kept her holiness.
The aunts are below the wives in Gilead’s social hierarchy. The aunts are tasked with regulating any of the activities of the Handmaids. They are tasked with molding the minds of the of handmaids to fit Gilead’s standards and keeping these women on task with their one true duty: reproduce. The aunts are described as wearing “khaki [dresses]” (Atwood 113) and a predominantly “brown outfit” (Atwood 244). The color brown is used to represent conventional and orderly the aunts are and how they can easily blend into the background but still have a prominent figure in society. The aunts are reliable, stable, and solid. They are the only women in this society that is given power therefore they must use it wisely.
Next in line within Gilead’s hierarchy are the Handmaids. These are the only fertile women that are tasked with only one thing: to reproduce. They are sent from Commander’s house to Commander’s house in order to try and become impregnated since the wives are no longer fertile. The Handmaids wear “red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine [and] red gloves [and] everything except the wings [a headpiece] around [their faces was] red” (Atwood 8). The color red shows passion and lust. It is also the color of prostitution. Gilead’s society does not necessarily state that they are prostitutes but the idea resonates clearly. The Handmaids go from man to man, being provided shelter and food as a sort of payment. In addition, the red is also associated with their one duty of reproducing. The color is not only found on the Handmaids but Offred seems to be attracted to red objects such as “the tulips [in the garden were] red, a darker crimson towards the stem” (Atwood 12). This shows how fixated the handmaids have become with the idea of reproducing; they are thoroughly brainwashed into believing this is their one true task in life, an almost impossible task to accomplish.
Even below the Handmaids are the Marthas. The Marthas are practically the servants of Gilead, these women are tasked with performing household chores in a Commander’s household such as cooking, cleaning, etc. They wear the “usual Martha dress, which [was] dull green, like a surgeon’s gown. The dress was much like [the handmaids] in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the veil” (Atwood 9). The use of green is to symbolize health, good luck, renewal, generosity, and service. It is also seen as the color of fertility yet the Marthas are infertile, instead they help in making sure the Handmaids are fertile and healthy enough to produce a child.
The lowest of the Gilead hierarchy are the unwomen and those who stand against the Gilead government. These outcasts are sent away from the dystopia but instead sent to the colonies, where they will eventually die. All of the exiles, “[women and men wore] long dresses, like the ones at the Center, only gray” (Atwood 249). This grey represents nonexistence and shadows. The color suits them since the outcasts simply no longer exist in Gilead society; they are nonexistent, nonfunctional and do not partake in any duties the government has established. They are meant to be the shadows of those chosen or “blessed” to be part of Gilead’s society.
These colors play a prominent role since it creates clear divisions between people in Gilead’s society. By having one “class” all wear the same color, it diminishes the possibility of identity, the possibility of one person standing out from the crowd. The people of Gilead “don’t have different clothing [but] merely different [people]” (Atwood 237). The conformity allows for obedience and for all to remain on the duties Gilead’s government has tasked them with.
Other prominent archetypes are gardens and flowers. In Gilead, “many of the Wives [had] such gardens, it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for” (Atwood 12). These gardens would fill every household with bursts of color, lightness, and delicate smells. It creates a sense of paradise, almost like the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden was created by God in order to let Adam and Eve live in peace and to be able to reproduce. This archetype creates depth within the book, showing how Gilead allowed for the garden just how God allowed for the Garden of Eden. By creating a garden, there is a sense of tranquility, a worthy environment for humans to reproduce just like Adam and Eve. Furthermore, the garden is full of flowers, a symbol of fertility. Offred notices them so often, regarding them as the goal for many Handmaids by referring to them as “the swelling genitalia of the flowers, the fruiting body” (Atwood 153). Even beyond the flowers of the garden, there seems to be flowers everywhere for Offred from “the drapes [of Jezebel] are heavy flowered ones that [matching] the bedspread, orange poppies on royal blue” (Atwood 251) to the “watercolor picture of blue irises” (Atwood 7) in Offred’s room. Flowers serve as a reminder for Offred’s one duty of reproducing.
Besides colors or flowers, another pattern show throughout the book are the eyes. The emblem of Gilead is “[a] winged eye in white” (Atwood 22) which is seen plastered on various objects that are only owned for higher authoritative figures such as vehicles, uniforms, or government buildings. In addition, eyes can also refer to the numerous amount of spies the government employs. The eyes are the ones to arrest traitors and to “[crack down on any] underground espionage ring” (Atwood 83). The constant reference to eyes can be linked back to the archetypal symbol of truth and an all-powerful being. The government of Gilead plasters these images of eyes and names their spies as “eyes,” to create fear and be constant reminder of how powerful the government of Gilead is versus the people Gilead rules. It serves as a constant reminder that all under the eye are powerless and are constantly watched.
There are set patterns seen throughout multiple works of literature which help to enhance the progression and meaning of a story. Many works have followed the same, if not extremely similar, archetypes that The Handmaid’s Tale represents such as the use of a denied hero, the “quest for freedom,” certain colors, gardens, flowers, and eyes. Following Carl Joung’s belief, there will be no such thing as a “new” story since all human experiences are shared in a collective unconsciousness.
Female Identity In The Context Of Patriarchal Society In The Handmaid’s Tale
Throughout the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” readers can charter the increasing limitations the patriarchy places on the female identity through the experiences of the protagonist and the first-person narration Offred delivers along with her flashbacks to the society that preceded, conveying both the initial lack of opposition in the past and providing context to, the increasing support of the patriarchy due to fear, and reinforcement of the limitations on female identity imposed by Gilead in the present by females themselves. Much like Offred initially the factors affecting the female identity can go unnoticed by readers as we fail to question the impact of the measures taken to dominate the body, sexuality and language of women within the theocratic and typically dystopic government of Gilead.
However, Offred, in providing flashbacks to the society that precedes Gilead, we can identify brief moments and efforts of resistance to the regime in the present and can appreciate the extent to which the female identity has actually been affected in both the public and private sphere. In addition to this the flashbacks provide us with an explanation for the emergence of Gilead itself.
As detailed above, the foremost aim of this essay is to explain the ways in which, and assess the extent to which, the female identity is affected by the patriarchal society of Gilead. Secondly, I aim to identify moments of resistance from characters within Atwood’s novel toward their imposed identity and assess their success in contrast to the absolute control maintained by the patriarchy itself and agents employed by the patriarchy to further the success of its doctrines and instil fear in its subjects. Something that is achieved through constant surveillance of its subjects, destructive gender relations, distrust of others and severe punishment so that any opposition or resistance, although extremely rare and weak within the novel, will not hinder the growth of, or undermine the control of the totalitarian state and thus will be rendered insignificant.
The body is used by Atwood to characterise the dystopian female identity in the patriarchal society of Gilead and show how it can become a site of resistance with varying success. Offred is a handmaid and hence her worth to society is equated to her reproductive ability. However, on occasions within the novel we can observe Offred’s character resists this purely reproductive perspective of female identity enforced within Gileadean society, and instead recognises that her body can reinforce her female identity and sexuality. This is made evident in her encounter with two ‘Guardians’:
As we walk away I know they’re watching, these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me.
Offred states ‘I know they’re watching’ although she cannot physically see whether the ‘Guardians’ are hence, it is valid to say that her resistance is internal and therefore her actions that follow cannot necessarily be trusted; this is reinforced by the overt certainty of her actions conveyed within the confident ‘I know’. The verb ‘watching’ is significant in conveying how Offred is crippled by her fears but also how due to her rare ability to breed, Offred is constantly under watch of ‘The Eyes’ of Gilead reflecting its way of enforcing patriarchal regulation. This is reflected in Michael Foucault’s book – “Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison” as Gileadean control via “the Eyes” is an extreme form of what Foucault calls a “carceral texture of society with its capture of the body and its perpetual observation”. Hence, we can understand how whilst on the surface it may seem like Offred successfully resists the identity imposed on her by the agents of the patriarchal society of Gilead, in reality she only reinforces the disintegration of her identity as her feelings of power in this moment actually undermines her resistance. This is revealed through Atwood’s use of the adverb ‘yet’ as it proves how Offred’s feeling of power is transient much like the action of flirting itself.
We can understand that eventually the ‘Guardians’ will have more control over the female body than the handmaids themselves as only they have the ability to impregnate and thus give the female body a purpose and meaning within the patriarchal Gilead; as in becoming handmaids, the women have lost control of their bodies and as a result their identities. We see that the consequence of maintaining an identity both on an individual and on a female basis is to become an “unwoman”. Atwood’s use of irony here is therefore key in aiding the disintegration of the female identity but also in getting readers to question the ideals imposed by the patriarchy depicted in the novel thus far. Further still, Offred’s use of poetic language when describing this encounter adds to the sense that her actions are actually idealised as ‘feeling the full red skirt sway around me’ reinforces the view held by Peter G. Stillman in his critical essay ‘Identity, Complicity and Resistance in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’ that, ’ No amount of verbal … reconstruction seems able to help Offred understand, communicate, or resist.’
Another key detail about this particular interaction is that the ‘Guardian’ is ‘the one that turns away’ hence we can actually observe that the resistance Offred feels is actually permitted by men and thus even her resistance to her patriarchal identity, is monitored by the patriarchy and, as can be seen later, permitted by the patriarchy also. However, Olivia Rook suggests in her critical essay, ‘Surveillance, Regulation and Selfhood in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)’ that ‘Offred uses the Guardian’s gaze to empower herself’ hence, with this view in mind, Offred’s body successfully becomes a site of resistance to the patriarchy as the control she clearly feels in instigating the prohibited interaction can almost be seen as a catalyst for further resistance. This point is reinforced further by Rook as she states, ‘Atwood’s simile reveals the vulnerability of the young soldier, his ‘‘exposed face’’, ‘‘like the skin under a scab’’, demonstrates how Offred’s look … physically penetrates this protective exterior’.
Here we see the idea that through Offred’s actions her female identity is restored momentarily both at the sight of the ‘Guardian’s’ weakness and but also the vulnerability of the patriarchy when faced with the female sexual identity which actually allows Offred to resist the purely reproductive identity she normally accepts. Hence, although what we see is a reclamation of female identity for Offred, once again this resistance is undermined by the fact that it would be permitted once again by the patriarchy; had the guard actually turned around, yet we cannot say whether he did or not.
We can observe that Aunt Lydia acts on behalf of the patriarchy and takes her role in aiding the continuation of Gilead, within the capacity of an Aunt in the Red-centre, very seriously. We observe the sadistic pleasure she obtains in stripping the handmaids of a female identity through the language she uses and the punishments she enacts. She believes that ‘to be seen- to be seen- is to be …. penetrated’ reflecting the lack of authority the handmaids actually have over their own bodies. Their body is almost viewed as a commodity by the patriarchy and something that can be traded from officer to officer, as in many ways handmaids are viewed by Gilead as the currency on which it must survive. Yet this phrase also reflects the price women like Serena Joy have to pay in order to have a child. In addition to this the quote conveys how life as a handmaid is devoid of love, through the verb ‘penetrated’ in particular, Atwood suggests the female body is almost a possession of the patriarchy itself.
However, the verb could also be indicative of Aunt Lydia’s teachings that ‘penetrate’ the minds of the handmaids replacing their resistance towards their newfound identity with fear and ultimate submission. Hence this quote reveals her true role in facilitating the ideals of the patriarchy, in accordance to the patriarchy’s proposed use of the handmaids’ bodies. The almost masculine language used by Aunt Lydia throughout the novel allows her this level of control over the actions of the handmaids. However, it undermines her also, as in order to feel the power she craves and thrives on, she has to succumb to the language of the patriarchy itself; therefore, undermining her power further.
Lastly Atwood’s use of repetition here can reveal the intense nature of the re-education process for the handmaids. It reflects the constant reinforcement of such ideas wearing away at handmaids’ sense of self as ‘to be seen’ or acknowledged by the patriarchy is to be submissive. It could also indicate that resistance is a means of being seen also. The former reading applies even to women in Aunt Lydia’s position, as it is made quite clear within the novel that her power is limited to controlling women, not men, and her limits of control seemingly do not expand further than the Red-Centre. After all, she is obliged to wear a uniform like the handmaids, just a different colour.
It is only through the character of Moira that readers can appreciate the effort and consequences of resistance, revealing the power of the patriarchy through Moira’s need of meticulous planning just to escape the red-centre, only to be found once again by the agents of Gilead shortly afterward. Here, Atwood allows readers to appreciate the consequences of resistance, as in Gilead, the only way to gain autonomy over the body is to remove the only purpose it serves in the eyes of the patriarchy .Conversely, we see that Moira actually obtains freedom from the sterilisation she receives as punishment for fleeing the ‘Red-centre’ and the clutches of Aunt Lydia. Therefore, she embodies the ultimate figure of resistance in the eyes of Offred however, what Offred fails to recognise is that Moira is now condemned to working as a prostitute in ‘Jezebel’s’. Whilst due to the fact that she is no longer a handmaid it would seem she has more bodily autonomy, as she has successfully rejected her purely reproductive identity, however what we actually see is further disintegration of the female identity.
Now Moira is seen purely for her sexual identity as she is now forced to be submissive to several men as opposed to one. What’s more, her body can never again be regarded as having a purpose in the eyes of the patriarchal Gilead as her punishment has rendered her infertile. The fact that Moira is a lesbian and is condemned to serve the commanders as a prostitute highlights how unsuccessful she was in her resistance, and reveals once again the extent of power Gilead has over the female identity as although Moira is now instead recognised for her recreational worth rather than her pro-creational worth, something viewed by Offred as a triumph of resistance, on a deeper level both purposes for the female identity exist in Gilead as both serve the patriarchy but with different outcomes. Hence Offred, through her continued optimism and gullible belief that Moira had been successful in her escape, makes it clear to see both her own and Moira’s continued subordination to the theocratic regime. This also highlights the utilization of the female body by the patriarchal society of Gilead within this dystopic novel to represent “the desires of the individual bodies with the needs of the body politic”.
This control extends to Offred’s view of her body even in privacy as in certain circumstances we see how the naked body provokes a feeling of autonomy for Offred as in shedding the restrictive clothing and therefore the oppressed version of her own female identity imposed by Gilead, Offred can obtain a momentary sense of freedom.
However, the autonomy her naked frame allows her is undermined once again by the patriarchy as, as succinctly put by Margaret J. Daniels and Heather E. Bowen, “they the handmaids have no choice regarding the treatment of their bodies” and hence, how their bodies are viewed by society. Although the clothes are restrictive her failure to conceive is something her uniform conceals. Hence in some ways the shedding of her uniform, although marked as a moment of resistance by Offred, can be viewed as Offred shedding her resistance and therefore becoming vulnerable to the intentions and restrictions of the regime. In shedding her uniform Offred is forced to accept the reality that she is not pregnant and is therefore one step closer to becoming an ‘unwoman’ in the colonies.
We see Offred experience the shame associated with this actuality reinforcing how the teachings of Aunt Lydia have completely consumed her as she states that “we are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important”. Hence Offred proves her recognition that her female identity has been oppressed in order for her body to fulfil its purpose to the regime. This conveys how she is forced to become nothing more than a “vessel” that forms the basis on which the very regime that oppresses her will continue to be built, therefore it can be said that Offred herself is an agent of Gilead as she works toward the continuation of the regime.
This is something that Offred understands but does not seem to resist as for her, being a handmaid is better than wasting away in the colonies like her mother. Her understanding is proven when Offred observes that identity within Gilead is “a made thing, not something born”. This is reflected by her name itself within the novel as it is based on that of the commander she serves, automatically making him dominant in the proxy-relationship and her “Of … Fred”. Furthermore, Offred’s comment that identity is “not something born” is likely a contextual allusion from Atwood to the time before where women could establish an identity for themselves allowing readers to question why Offred is not allowed the same opportunity to do so now. However this question is answered later on in the novel by Aunt Lydia as Gilead has seemingly replaced “freedom towith freedom from”.
Offred’s comment on identity reflects how in conforming to the expectations of the collective body of the Gileadean regime, unlike her mother and Moira, Offred has in fact severed the human ties of birth from herself as proven when she sees her mother in a video of the colonies as she’d “been thinking of her as dead”. Even though we get the impression that Offred has only been subject to the regime for under a decade she is eager to disown her human identity in order to show her allegiance, therefore Offred is unable to resist Gilead as she is under a compulsion to preserve herself, believing she is preserving her female identity of the time before, but is actually failing to recognise she is only preserving the identity Gilead allow her to.
Therefore, Offred can be seen as a metaphor of her continual servitude and allegiance to the Gileadean regime. This is made evident in her reaction to Moira’s choice to work as a prostitute rather than go to the colonies as the only reason Offred can think of why she wouldn’t like to go there is the fact that after “Everything considered, she liked this outfit better”. This reflects how the ideologies of the regime have completely consumed her and the fact that Atwood makes this reason appear very childish to readers indicates the re-education of the women and how they accept these new teachings without question. Whatsmore, this quote is quite ironic from Offred as it makes her seem in control of her identity due to her adhering to the teachings of the Aunts, however we recognise as readers that this is all an illusion. Thus, this quote proves the effects of the patriarchal society on the female identity in contrast to the time before Gilead whereby the insurgence of second wave feminism was taken for granted by those like Offred as she was, according to Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, “politically complacent before the takeover”. Now those who fought for the rights of female autonomy like, Offred’s mother and Moira, are being condemned for their actions whilst those like Offred contemplate why the regime has succeeded and how they can reclaim their female identity without opposing the state.
The sexual power struggle that remains prevalent throughout the novel is intrinsic to the female character’s sense of identity in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is something that is convincingly portrayed by Atwood through biblical allusions as “handmaids” in Hebrew can also be translated as “slave girl” conveying how the handmaids are slaves to the continuation of the regime, the commanders in the sexual sense and the wives of the commanders, as their bodies are used as birth surrogates. Hence, it can be said that the handmaids fully embody the role like the biblical “slave girl” and are symbols of ownership as a result. This is represented within the biblical scripture of Genesis, handmaids are the property of the mistresses who engineered the exploitation of their fertility for their own personal gain, a situation that was not only allowed but celebrated and deemed a holy sacrament within the Bible, as can be seen when the women of Shiloh were raped for the sake of building a nation and rescuing the Benjaminites from extinction , one cannot help but draw parallels.
The Handmaids Tale Novel in the Historical Context
Texts are, by nature, cultural artefacts, intrinsically influenced by the societys from which they emerge. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) offers a “twist of today’s society” – the phallocentric Gileadean dictatorship, as seen through the eyes of narrator Offred. Set in a totalitarian and repressive theocracy, Atwood warns of the danger of fundamentalist religion ideology – likely influenced by the global resurgence of totalitarianism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She offers a warning, particularly to female readers, of the need for feminism – due to the subversive nature of the patriarchy (written in the shadow of the 1980s anti-feminist backlash), as well as the need for women to work together rather than against each other. With the founding of the UN Environment Program in 1972, as well as the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, global concern over environmental degradation was evident during the 1980s – influencing Atwood’s dystopian warning of the need to preserve our environment. Hence Atwood’s contextual concerns arise in the novel.
The 1980s featured environmental concerns, influencing The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian depiction of a ravaged environment, and its suggestion of the need to preserve our environment ‘before it is too late’. 1980’s environmental concerns were evident from the 1983 UN World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report), the founding of the UN Environment Program and the Union Carbide Bhopal gas leak disaster India – which sparked immense protest and worldwide rage. Offred describes “an Unbaby, with a pinhead, or two body’s, or a snout…or webbed feet”. This disturbing dystopic image evokes Greek notions of half-man half-beast creatures – implying a need to avoid this scenario of environmental destruction. On numerous occasions, Offred observes the character of Serena Joy in the garden “positioning her shears” “like a kamikaze intent on the seedpods”. The seedpods are a plants reproductive organs, so on a figurative level, this could be read as humankind, ‘suicide bombers’ destroying the future of the planet and killing ourselves in doing so. Writing from the vanguard of the 1980s environmental movement, Atwood emphasises the importance of environmental preservation.
Atwood submits an indictment against fundamentalist religion, likely influenced by her fears surrounding the resurgence of the American New Right such as the 1979 Moral Majority, figures such as Pat Robertson, as well as the rise of the 1979 Iran theocracy and Sharia law under Ayatollah Khomeini. The Gileadean regime forces its ‘Handmaids’ to undertake daily prayer. Offred states that “what we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with self-denial, semen and babies”. This highly sardonic, yet humorous, statement highlights the emptiness and hypocrisy of the regime -perverting what should be a meaningful religious act. Offred also humorously states that “the Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up”. To a modern reader, the concept of locking tea up seems absurd, and through the juxtaposition of these two actions Atwood highlights the absurd extent to which the regime has perverted religious worship. This is also seen in the Gileadean slogan that “God is a national resource” as well as the purchase of ‘prayers’– highlighting the regimes commercialisation and bastardisation of worship, and in turn discouraging fundamentalist religion.
Atwood criticises a world in which females are complicit in their own subjugation, emphasising the need for feminism. The character of Serena Joy acts as the regimes mouthpiece for anti-feminism – “her speeches were about…how women should stay home”, drawing a parallel with 1980s Christian televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker’s similar speeches. However, Offred’s extremely unsavoury portrayal of Serena perhaps indicates Atwood’s disapproval of the actions of female anti-feminists. For example, Offred introduces Serena with a ring on her finger “like an ironic smile” “like something mocking her”, depicting her actions as hypocritical. “Her lips were thin”, her chin is “clenched like a fist” and “her eyes flat hostile blue” – evocative of Serena’s unhappiness and ‘fury’ at having been “taken at her word”. The increasingly popularity during the 1980s of televangelists, in particular the “Praise the Lord Club” with 13 million viewers, likely influenced Atwood’s concern surrounding women who have a role in oppressing other women. After the second wave of feminism of the 1960s-1980s, pioneered by figures such as Germaine Greer, a conservative backlash was evident in America – for example, the 1982 failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (granting equal rights for women) to pass Congress – likely influencing Atwood’s portrayal of the inevitability of the filtration of patriarchal ideology into society, and the need for feminism. The society which follows Gilead in the ‘historical notes’ appears to have progressed with regard to gender equality– with a female “Professor Maryann Crescent Moon” chairing a historical convention. However, Professor Pieixoto then states that they are ‘enjoying’ the female chair “in two distinct senses, precluding, of course, the obsolete third” (sexual enjoyment). This is met with audience “laughter” – showing their acceptance of his belittlement of the chair. He regards her in terms of her sexuality, not her intellectual ability – drawing sharp parallels with the overtly patriarchal antecedent Gileadean society, and warning a reader of underlying patriarchal ideologies.
As readers, we are isolated from Pieixoto’s thought process, positioning us against him immediately. However, his sexual puns, acting in jarring contrast to Offred’s first person and deeply personal narrative, alienate us from him even further – condemning the patriarchal values he embodies. Pieixoto refers to the “Underground Femaleroad” – a resistance organisation rescuing women – as “the Underground Frailroad” – espousing the patriarchal notion that this organisation, and women, were weak and ineffectual. This is again met with “laughter” –and implicit audience approval. He refers to the Commanders as “gentlemen” – a subtle indication of the esteem in which he holds them, despite their creation of a phallocentric system of institutionalised rape, conformity and terror. In the light of the anti-abortion riots (after the the 1973 Supreme Court Roe vs Wade judgement legalising abortion) and the anti-feminist backlash which could be said to have characterised the 1980s, Atwoods concern with the pervasiveness of patriarchal ideas, and hence the need for feminism, is made clear.
Texts cannot be separated from their time periods, and The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception to the rule. Fundamentalist religion during the 1980s saw rising popularity, influencing the novels key concern with this trend. Figures such as Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker, openly opposing feminism, emerged during the 1980s – an arrival Atwood discourages through her characterisation of Serena Joy. With the 1980s came a sentiment that feminism was ‘over’ and equality had been achieved – a sentiment arguably still existing today – a complacency which Atwood warns against – by depicting patriarchal systems as invasive and ever-present, thus an ever-present need for feminism. Another ‘zeitgeist’ of the period encapsulated by Atwood is that of environmental concern – seen through events such as UN actions and the Bhopal gas leak protests. Dystopias, by nature, extrapolate existing social trends to their worst possible circumstantial outcomes, indicating that they are fundamentally intertwined with their production context.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Importance of Language in Understanding and Changing Important Social Structures in the Society
Over the course of history many governments, political figures, religious groups, and other organizations have used language to influence the population of every geographical area. Understanding that language and how it can be used to not only influence decisions from simple choices like what to have for dinner to life changing choices such as who is to be president can aid in understanding major social structures such as economical, religious, education, and political classes. Understanding how the same language can be used to remove basic constitutional rights while convincing the general population that it is best for them or will keep them safe can prevent this from happening in “real life”. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale religious, political, and legal language was used to change a relatively normal society, similar to one in any town or city in the U.S., into a patriarchal, puritan, socialist society where fertility was a commodity, women were little more than slaves, rich men ran everything, and poor men fought the battles.
One of the most fundamental uses of language is communication. If an individual cannot communicate he or she is lost in a dark, dismal place where nothing makes sense. In fact, some would argue that true language is what separates humans from the rest of the animals. Thinkers such as Blake and Lacan went a step further and argues that language not only gives us the ability to think, but also the ability to create (Wiggins). Every man, woman, and child views the world around him or her through a special sort of filter called perception. The trick is to filter through those perceptions and find the true meaning behind the language chosen. This is just what deconstructionists do. They sift through language in literature and look at the original meaning of the words, the changes in usage over time, and the perception created by the context the words are used in (Tompkins, Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, Postmodernism (1955-present)). In short, they study the changes in denotation and connotation in written language and use their findings to analyze literature and find the deeper meaning.
People use language to communicate their perceptions about the world around them. In a way this is a form of creation because what one person perceives will not be the same as what the next person perceives. Writers are the ultimate creators, according to Blake and Lacan, because they use language not only to demonstrate their perceptions of the existing world around them but also to create new worlds within the existing world (Wiggins). If this concept is true of writers, think for a moment about those people who are the ultimate writers. These are the people who use language to change our perceptions about the world around us. These are the advertisers, the politicians, the lawyers, the minsters or priests – the people who can make us believe up is down and black is white. What could on charismatic leader of any kind do with a few well-chosen words? Well, Hitler started a world war, O.J. Simpson walked, Abraham Lincoln freed slaves – the list goes on. The point is that people will live or die on the basis of a few well-chosen words.
In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale this is just what was done. Language was used to convince a fairly large population that small losses of freedoms they had always lived with were good things in light of civil unrest so that when the large losses were put into place they did not really question it. It was subtly and brilliantly done over a period of time so that initial outrage at one loss faded and, when that loss became the accepted norm, another was put into place. Once the major reforms were put into place, language was used to control the population, for the most part, to convince them that the new society was the right society, to convince them that it was the safest and most natural way to live.
The most noticeable change in this society was that people became commodities. For some reason changes in the environment in Gilead (Atwood’s name for the society in question) it became more and more difficult to conceive, and birth defects in the offspring of those who could conceive became more prevalent. And so any one who could have a normal, healthy child became valuable. While it might appear that this would affect the women more than the men (women actually conceive and carry, after all), this was not so. Men were just as obligated to participate in the attempt to conceive as women. Fertility was the real commodity, it just happened that fertility lay in people.
For women fertility meant becoming property in the truest sense of the word. A fertile woman was rented out to families who could afford her, but could not have children themselves. That woman was used to conceive, carry, and nurse a child to a certain point. Once the child was perceived to be healthy it was passed on to the wealthy couple to raise as their own and the woman went to another couple to do it again. Language played an important part in convinced these women that it was their obligation to go along and accept this as a norm. Ironically, it was a cross between biblical language and political language that was used to do this. “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs” (Atwood) was a misquote from a biblical reference and from something that Karl Marx said in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.” It was used to stress what was a socialist point of view that each person should give to the entire society according to, in this case, her ability. This was a socialist point of view in that Marx, who borrowed it from a French socialist Louis Jean Joseph Charles Blanc, believed that ability was the true commodity and people should use their abilities to benefit all of society rather than only benefit themselves (Marx). However, it was also biblical. The actual quote from the bible reads, “everyone according to his ability” Acts 11:29. It was in reference to a group of people who were beleaguered that Jesus’ disciples gave aid to, according to what they were able to give. Again, this concept references giving what you can to those who need it. And so, language is used to create a class of people who are commodities, just as slaves were in our own history.
Of course, the same language could also have been used to influence the class structure of those who could not conceive. Gilead had a military government system. The leaders were the upper class, those who could afford to be educated. The lower class or uneducated became foot soldiers. Of course, these were only the men. Women did not lead anything but the other women in their household. If ability is used to designate place in society, then it only makes sense that those who are the most educated have positions of power. This is historically comparable to military service from the beginning. Upper class, those with money, could purchase a rank in any given military in early history of military service. Even in modern military history there is a form of classism. Those who are wealthy can go to college or university and enter military service as officers – without the years of “foot soldiering.” Those who are not wealthy or who cannot go to college for whatever reason enter at the low ranks and are at higher risk. Indeed, as one upper-middle class woman pointed out “People like us don’t have children in the military,” (Daly). Language is used here to position the men according to their rank in society. The men in power, the ones Atwood mentions, were “commanders” and the foot soldiers were “angels” and “Guardians of the Faith”. Angels are the soldiers, Guardians are the police and menial labor. Of course some lower class men went into domestic service – Nick, who took care of the commander’s car and drove him is one example- and some became spies for the government called “eyes,” but for the most part all the reader sees is the military hierarchy of commanders, guardians, and angels.
Women in Gilead were reduced to one of five classes, all but on of which are not permitted to read or write. Aunts are the only women in this society permitted to read or write because they have to give reports and educate the rest of society as to their place in it (Atwood). They are the teachers, the educators, the ones who are responsible for reeducating those who must be made to conform to the new society norms. Upper-class women are simply wives, they are married to the commanders. Lower class women who have husbands are called “econowives” who have to do everything in the household (Atwood). Women who are lower class, but not married become “Marthas.” Marthas work in the commanders’ households. They are the domestics, the maids and cooks. Their name derives from the name of the sister of Lazarus who served Jesus (The Holy Bible ESV) implying that such service to the commanders and their wives is akin to serving Jesus. The fertile women are called “handmaids” (Atwood) in a biblical reference to the women who wash the feet of the servants of the Lord (The Holy Bible ESV). These women are not really upper or lower class, but a class of their own. They get respect because they provide children to the upper class families, yet they have no rights. They are even stripped of their names and called by a name that reflects who they are in service to, such as “Offred” who was the handmaid belonging to Fred’s household (Atwood).
Of course, in any social structure there are those that protest the changes. Usually these are the disenfranchised, the people who do not fit into the social structure as neatly as we would like them to. In Gilead, as in all societies, these were the people who fell outside what was considered the norm. These people were given a general name – not one that described them as a person, but one that made them less than a person so that it was easier for the leaders to remove them from the rest of society. “Unwomen” (Atwood) are women who are not able to bear children, but are not in domestic service or are not wives of any class. They are protestors, subversives who will not go along with the new society. These women are gathered up and shipped to a place called the colonies which reads like a similar situation to Australia when it was used as a prison. Women who are fertile, but who are subversive or undesirable due to sexual orientation are sent to a government run brothel used by the upper class men for entertainment. Men who are subversive, who were doctors that performed abortions, or who are homosexual are executed and hung from a wall for everyone to see.
In looking at the language used to maintain the status quo once it was established, one becomes curious about how it actually did become established. . A political rule that I once heard in a sociology class is that a person is smart, people are stupid. Politically, this is even truer when the word “terrorism” is put into play. In chapter 28 of Attwood’s novel, Islamic fanatics are blamed for the destruction of the government. Once the government is down, then removal of rights ‘for your own safety” (Atwood) becomes easily accepted. Terrorist and terrorism are two words that hold a lot of political power. For example, the presidential debates that aided in George W. Bush’s reelection were primarily about how the government planned on keeping citizens safe from terrorism at home. If a leader wants a policy to be accepted almost immediately all he or she has to do is tie it to terrorism, and it’s hardly looked at or questioned.
Of course other words are used in the establishment of this new regime that make it even easier for people to accept. Of those words, one stands out. That word is “temporary.” All of the measures that are taken are initially billed as “temporary” so that people believe the rights which are removed will be reestablished once everything is settled and they are safe. “Temporary is a good word and can be used to get a lot of things to slide under the radar that may be unethical or even unconstitutional,” according to a local politician who did not wish to be named (Anonymous).
Perception is everything when it comes to language – whether it is used to inform, entertain, or persuade. In studying the language in The Handmaid’s Tale and how it was used to establish a society where babies are a commodity and money and gender determines social class, it can be argued that manipulation of language leads to manipulation of people. This is true in all aspects of society, but more so in the political aspect where men and woman in power can change the perception of the meaning of language so that basic beliefs, values, and feelings of well-being are changed in large groups of people. Language and perception of the meanings behind language is the true key to the hearts and minds of people, thus, language becomes the key in controlling or managing society as a whole – not just in Atwood’s dystopian society, but in all societies.
Critique Of Current Society In V For Vendetta And The Handmaid’s Tale
Numerous writers have used a narrative form to convey their predictions of the future, they criticise their current society by asking questions based on their contextual values and concerns. The main purpose of these dystopian worlds is to warn audiences about the path the writer thinks their current society is travelling on. Through the use of narrative conventions, a writer can project their concerns in a relatable and imaginative way. The audience can then use the platform of familiar characters and settings to relate to this speculated world. This is exactly what happens in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “V for Vendetta”. In the “Handmaid’s Tale”, the controlling government of Gilead oppresses women, politically and religiously manipulating them, and submitting all women to sexual slavery. “V for Vendetta” also responds to the rise of Christian Conservatism in the UK during the 1980’s, with their system embodying typical Christian conservative opinions. Therefore both texts adopting elements of context to warn its audience about the future, based on current issues.
Feminism is a major issue in The Handmaid’s Tale. When asked Atwood, she states it was not to be looked from a feminist perspective but instead was based off her own observations. This statement implies there was gender inequality during the 1980’s. In this text women are presented as properties of men. Everything has been confiscated from their belongings such as rights, freedoms, identities and even being forced their own bodies. The men own the womens’ bodies as they are abused, turned into prostitutes and been illustrated as sex objects through pornography. It is clearly evident throughout the story that the handmaids are subjected to forced sex in order to fulfill the commanders wishes as it conceives children. On the other hand, the women were deceived into believing what they were doing was quite frankly normal.
Throughout the whole novel, Atwood has demonstrated the use of characterisation to show the lack of identity women are prone to in the dystopian society. We could suggest that this is how Atwood feels about her own identity and is fearful of people in the future could be stripped of their identities. Characterisation has also been effective in V for Vendetta as it helps reinforce the dystopian society. It allows the audience to see the characters perspective on their society, enhancing the audiences’ perspectives on the society shown. Characterisation also allows the audience to relate to the characters. Due to this, the audience believes that the future presented in the film could possibly their own futures.
Atwood also incorporates historical allusions and parallels when describing the society of Gilead. Offred describes one documentary she watched “The one I remember… was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who has supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews…”. This quote is implied to be referred as The Holocaust where the Concentration camps hold many similarities to the Red Center. V for Vendetta also alludes back to many historic events, some of the most important being the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot which is significantly important to English History. ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’ The fifth of November commemorates the failed attempt of Guy Fawkes to blow up the British Houses of Parliament and kill all the political leaders and the King at the state opening in 1605. V blew up the Old Bailey as it symbolised ultimate justice for the government. Through V’s eyes, there was no justice at all whatsoever. So he decides to blow up the Old Bailey as he sees the government as people who have taken justice away from the people so why should such an iconic symbol exist. V also quotes, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.” This quote is suggesting that a government who is not concerned with serving the public can easily become tyrannical. The general consensus should guide the government in its choices, not the other way around. The public should have the ability to place representatives in power, and also remove them from power if the position is abused and this serves us a warning for future political governments.
The Socialization of Holidays in Gilead
In all societies exists some sense of spirituality. This may be religion or simply a sense of mindfulness and connection. While this aspect may be beneficial for communities, it may oppositely corrupt depending on in which ways it is enacted and received. In Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the society, Gilead, is built upon a totalitarian government derived from a strict interpretation of the Holy Bible. Set in the near future, Atwood writes about a country riddled with infertility; the women, handmaids, who are capable of conceiving children are domesticated, nearly property to their household. Because of this infertility, birth transforms into a sacred occasion — revered as the most valued event in Gilead — so much so that “Birth Days” are shrouded as a holiday of sorts. Through the examination of a “Birth Day,” one is able to recognize how this absolutist government presents this holiday as a means to maintain control, present hope, and manipulate freedom over the women.
The women in Gilead are intensely segregated. Handmaids are employed in order to continue the race for the officials and wives who are unable to bear children. On these “Birth Days,” the handmaids are refused cakes and other sweets that the wives snack on. The wives employ the excuse that the luxuries are unhealthy for the women and the babies; however, they only intend to oppress these women because they have leverage over the wives through intercourse with their husbands. Therefore, in any case control must be maintained. Depriving them of luxuries as simple as sweets is one way it is achieved easily. Secondly, the vehicles the two types of women take to the house of the birth is drastically different. The wives enjoy plush seats with large windows to the outside world while the handmaids receive wooden benches and thick drapes to obstruct their views. By placing this extreme difference in luxury, the handmaids are forced to recognize their caste. Their worth is based only on their ability to produce a child; they have become vessels instead of people.
Oppositely, “Birth Days” present a positive light. Due to the fact that babies are sacred and coveted in Gilead, producing one earns the handmaid a reward. She is able to receive praise and exemption from her duties for the entire term. Therefore, for one handmaid to conceive a child offers hope to the remaining. It is readily understood what a baby equals to these women. For a period they will have worth, praise, and love — despite it being a false appearance. Secondly, the thought of a baby presents hope to the other house staff. For example, Cora, one of the Marthas, a maid, desires a baby because it equals recognition for her. Offred, the handmaid of her house, is a physical representation or hope for Cora. A baby for the family means that she will have a child to care for. It will bring people to the house whom she can wait on and impress with her skills of cooking and cleaning. A baby will make her life and efforts notices — the same being said for a handmaid.
All handmaids in the district are forced to attend Births as a way to create a false sense of freedom. Due to the importance of the day, they are exempt from all obligations. Once arrived at the house, these women may do as they please — within limits of course. They gossip with the other handmaids and become drunk off spiked grape juice. For a time, they are normal women not glorified sex slaves. They are free. It is teased before them intentionally alike to the control methods so that they understand their place. Moreover, the handmaid herself who is giving birth receives the scent of freedom. She is allowed to move freely around her room surrounded by her companions — all to help her give birth. These women are presented with a fleeting sense of freedom, one that is manipulated to look desirable in order to get the job, birth, done.
As the novel revolves around this obsession with child birth, one is able to comprehend much. Women have become vessels, tools of sorts. As an attempt to mask this, the government glorifies birth itself. It is manipulated into a holiday in efforts to hide the cruel use of these women, the handmaids. They are manipulated so much so that women of all categories yearn for a birth day — whether they be wives, Marthas, or handmaids. They yearn so that they may receive the benefit of control, hope, or freedom despite how temporary and oscillating they are between each birth.
Using Written Literature to Communicate Directly to Readers With an Examle in The Novel The Handsmaid’s Tale
Literature written in our times is the most effective when they are able to give readers a message that can directly correspond to the real world they are living in today. Through contemporary literature, readers can be made aware of conditions in society the time it was written. This is more thought-provoking and leaves a lasting impact than simply if it was written for informative or entertainment purposes. Contemporary literature is at its best when readers can identify these problems in society, as the author can talk to the readers and convey a strong message by making them alert, or even being able to provide a solution to these social problems. This is clearly shown in the novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”, written by Margaret Atwood. Written in 1985, this piece of contemporary literature is a dystopian novel full of cautions for the development of society and our environment. Through the development of ideas and settings, we realise nothing in the novel is original, but in fact, have already taken place in our real world. This is due to the fact that history repeats itself and shows us that the same, or even worse issues may arise or already be present in our modern society as in the past.
The extreme power and control of the government in “The Handmaid’s Tale” stimulates readers to see and imagine how such a government could arise. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian theocratic regime set in the near future, where the men hold all the power and authority. The regime strictly limits the amount of freedom and individuality available to its citizens through removing, manipulating, and censoring any unwanted information and also language itself, in order to suit the leaders’ wants and beliefs. As Michel Foucault said, “knowledge is power and power has control over knowledge”. All people in society are victims of this oppressive government, and are always under constant surveillance and fear of being killed or sent outside to the “colonies”. “The Wall” is a key method the government uses to gain power through establishing fear amongst its people. Citizens who have rebelled or broken and gone against the rules are publicly hanged on a brick wall for all to see with only their faces covered with a paper bag, making them unrecognisable. Offred says, “We’re supposed to look; this is what they are there for”. The regime uses The Wall as a warning and threat, and even though Offred and others know this purpose, they do not do anything against it due to fear. This is a reminder of the difference between being ignorant and ignoring, and how they let fear overcome their ability to do what is right. “We lived, as usual by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it”. Through Offred’s narrative, Atwood successfully conveys the idea that it is so easy to let power take control. She shows us that it is only until when people take notice and protest or take action, that change is able to take place. Complacency is dangerous, and as people, it is our duty and responsibility to form the society we are living in. If we continue to look past and ignore the problems and faults of our society today, we may end up with a society just as bad as Gilead. This dystopian, future time setting in the novel alerts us to the vulnerability and potential power of our society and community, and makes us become more aware of our own country’s political state and development.
A prominent social problem displayed throughout the text is the idea of feminism and gender equality. This can be seen through the setting of the Commander’s house and the Rachel and Leah Centre (Red Centre). Women are assigned jobs purely based on their sexuality, and we see them, through Offred, struggle to survive in their male-dominated world. In the society where infertility rates are high, the goal of every woman is to be able to reproduce, or perform domestic roles within the household. She says they are, “two-legged wombs, that’s all; sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices”, highlighting the fact that they are not considered human and instead, objects for reproduction. The setting includes the public sphere and the private sphere of society. The public sphere is where citizens have the chance to voice and express their opinions and needs to the regime. In Gilead, it is limited only to the men, who are able to be employed and work. All women including Offred are part of the private sphere; where they are hidden from society, only allowed into the public sphere for domestic reasons. Through this, Atwood portrays America during the 1980s, where Reaganism was most influential at the time. Reaganism, termed based on American President Ronald Reagan, brought back “traditional” family values, and many changes took place which Atwood viewed with disquiet and disapproval. At the Red Centre, an institution for training girls to become handmaids, the young women are taught to be silent, that “modesty is invisibility”, and are brainwashed by the Aunts. Aunt Lydia tells them, “There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from…Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” These references act as a reminder for us to not take for granted the respect and freedom women before us fought so hard to attain. While there has been a noticeable movement towards gender equality since the 80s, especially in contemporary Western society, “The Handmaid’s Tale” warns us that inequality is still present in the world today, and is a problem we are continuously solving. This can be seen in the recent Women’s Marches throughout America after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Women dressed as handmaids from the novel appeared at these demonstrations and forced people, including myself, to contrast the events and ideals of America under the presidency of Trump, to Gilead and view the similarities between the two worlds in the matter of this societal issue.
Another social problem the contemporary literature alerts readers to is the environment. The environment outside of Gilead is one that is soaked with chemicals and pollution, and it is this environment that caused infertility rates to rise significantly. Offred sees glimpses of the state of the environment through the television; “Now we can see a city, again from the air. This used to be Detroit”, “…a clump of trees explodes”, and “From the skyline columns of smoke ascend”. Through these descriptions, we become aware that the state of the environment is not clean, but is bleak and post-apocalyptic, with wars occurring and people dying not long after being exposed to the toxic atmosphere. It furthermore adds to the dystopian setting of the novel. The environment is an important part of society, as it provides resources and space for our survival and ways of living as a community, such as for food production, water, and air for breathing. This environment, like the other social issues, is not taken out of context, but is also a reference to events that happened during the time the novel was written. Global issues such as oil spills, climate change, nuclear testing, air pollution, and the overuse of pesticides led to growing concerns about the environment and the high risk it was at. As a member of the Canadian Green Party, Atwood portrays her concern through the novel by showing us the consequences and damage that will occur if irresponsible actions towards the environment continue through setting it in an extremely destructive environment. It is mentioned in the historical notes, that the “incidents of sabotage characterized the period”, and “their effects were noticeable”. This reminds us to be conscious of our actions and take care of the environment as damage to the environment does not only affect the environment itself, but also us humans, who depend on it.
The best form of contemporary literature is one that raises awareness of the problems we face as a society. “The Handmaid’s Tale” written by Margaret Atwood is a cruel, but realistic depiction of the future of our world, and emphasises its potential to become a place like Gilead if social issues are not properly addressed. Atwood says, “There’s not a single detail in the book that does not have a corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact”, and as readers, we are clearly shown the contrast and influences of our real world through the novel and settings. Because of this, the novel leaves a lasting impact, and is one we will not forget.
The Nature and Significance of the Kindness
Kindness, when given out, is habitually expected to be returned. More often than not it is seen that kindness, in fact, is given so that something else of value may be returned. Kindness is often exchanged for similar invaluable things like favouritism and prosperity, making the giver of such manners manipulative. When one contains the hidden motive to receive something in return for expected kindness, one has the ability to control not only the relationships around them, but their own singular destiny as well. For example, the character Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale treats her masters Serena Joy and The Commander, as well as her only friend Ofglen, with kindness merely to achieve a sure confirmation of her own well-being. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred uses kindness to mask her inner thoughts and feelings in order to ensure her survival and her believed destiny as a handmaid.
Though Offred’s gentleness and quite nature are expected in her ranking as a Handmaid, Offred’s treatment towards Serena Joy differs from her attitude. Having known Serena Joy previously to be an enthusiastic pioneer of the new Gilead regime, Offred works dutifully to live up to her mater’s expectations. Understanding that ” it was best not to speak unless [asked] a direct question”, Offred secures her status in the household in her silence and servitude, though inside she holds the belief that as long as she presents herself well, she will eventually be rewarded. This inner belief results in Offred’s small acts of rebellion; although she speaks and acts as she should, Offred still identifies herself as an independent and free thinking woman, her only rebellion. This discrepancy between her inner non-conformity and her outward manners toward Serena Joy is what Offred believes will ultimately bring her some amount of freedom. By operating under the guise of servitude, Offred can eventually gain small amounts of independence, at the will of Serena Joy. Offred does achieve this soon enough in the form of a cigarette and match given to her by Serena Joy, demonstrating that in order to truly manipulate someone, one must be truly kind and hide their inner motives.
Offred’s kindness to her only friend Ofglen originally is performed to ensure her social status among the other Handmaids, but quickly Offred learns that in order to gain information from her partner, she must act accordingly. Ofglen reveals herself as a veritable source of rebellion, and if Offred is to share this rebellion, she needs to show her willingness. Offred does this by kindly greeting Ofglen with the forbidden greeting of “Hello” and by mocking the Gilead enthusiasts with “I thought you were a true believer.” By acting in this “old fashioned” way and speaking their minds, both Offred and Ofglen are ensuring their friendship and stating their superficial commitment to each other. Though Offred only complies to gain information of the underground resistance, it is this behaviour that associates Offred with no one. She displays kindness to Ofglen only to manipulate her, conveying to the reader that though Offred does not identify with the traditional Gilead regime, she doesn’t identify with the resistance movement either. Here it is displayed that though Offred possesses the traits of rebellion and kindness, she only does so to secure the survival of only herself.
Towards her ultimate master, The Commander, Offred is kind and almost invisible, in this way securing her destiny as a Handmaid. Offred recalls the story of a Nazi guard who “was not a monster”, at least not to his wife. By comparing the wife’s situation to her own, Offred realizes that although the Commander is the agent of her oppression, she can use his affection to her advantage. By displaying kindness towards the Commander and complying to his wishes to see her after acceptable hours, Offred secures her relationship with him. Offred, succeeding in gaining the Commander’s kindness, now uses it to gain whatever she wishes. Magazines and moisturizer among her rewards, Offred’s kindness has secured her destiny, at least for the time being. For while she is living in the house of the Commander and Serena Joy, even if she is failing to produce offspring Offred can be sure that her survival is guaranteed because of the relationship she has with the Commander. Her kindness is her only weapon, and here it is seen that Offred uses it to her every advantage in winning the affection of the Commander.
Kindness is often expected, and no saying is more true than in the life of the Handmaid Offred. Offred uses her kindness in exchange for possessions such as cigarettes and magazines, but also in exchange for intangible things such as information, affection, and control. For it is seen that when one can receive power when they display kindness, said person can achieve ultimate subsistence. As seen in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred ensures her survival and control of her own destiny through her behaviour in her relationships, thereby allowing her the ability to achieve ultimate freedom, if she so chooses.