The Handmaids Tale
Literary analysis of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Essay
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a feminist novel that highlights the perils of women in a society that has not only dehumanized their status but also made it almost criminal to be a woman. The novel highlights a cruel world where women do not enjoy the freedom of choice. In ‘The Handmaids Tale,’ women are painted as objects for male selfish desires and satisfaction.
Using this law, men have withdrawn all the things that would have otherwise made life worth living for women. In the Republic of Gilead, women are not supposed to read, write or even listen to music. These are luxuries only reserved for men. Women are also denied the natural pleasures such as love and romance. They have seen as objects of male enjoyment something that has no human values other than to make men happy. As such, they live in a dystopic world.
The story reads like a fictional autobiography. It is told from the first person point of view. However, this story is not just propaganda to highlight gender issues. This is because of its complex characters, setting, and thematic concerns. The male character is torn between remaining loyal to the faith or breaking the law and engaging in the pure pleasure of love and romance. The reader feels that some of the male characters identify with the suffering of the female character but cannot do anything as they are held ransom by the Faith.
The novel also seamlessly combines the fundamentals of modern religion with ancient totalitarian regimes of leadership, making it a masterpiece. The complexity of the novel and the ideals it propagates makes it more than a work of fiction because it highlights real issues that affect modern-day societies.
To a keen reader, the setting of the novel is very complicated as it combines ancient, modern and post-modernistic issues in an almost unnoticeable way. Time-wise, the novel is set not so much into the distant future. Geographically, the story happens in a land where the former United States of America lies after a Christian theocratic regime overthrows it.
The Republic of Gilead, the resultant state, thus lies within the boundaries of the current United States of America. When the United States of America government is overthrown and democracy replaced by ancient Christian theocracy that borrows heavily from the Old Testament, the reader is thrown back in time to when government hid behind religion to establish oppressive regimes.
Still, the novels highlight the use of credit cards, effectively depicting a government desperate to fight pollution and other challenges of the modern world. That a commander rules the country brings the reader into the present day world, a world of absolute dictatorship (Atwood 81). The plight to the handmaids who are engaged to bear children for the commander’s wives is symbolic of the biblical Old Testament characters of Rachel and Leah.
This means that the social setting is not only heavily laden with fundamental Christian ideals but also post modernistic social issues such as population control. The complex nature of the setting, therefore, influences the direction of the story in that it helps the author to sufficiently blend historical and futuristic ideal in a way seen as still relevant to the modern world.
The reader can understand the story better upon a closer analysis of the characters. The main character is also the narrator and tells the story from the first person point of view making it more of an autobiography. The narrator, Offred, can be seen as both an objective observer and actor. Telling the story from the first person point of view means that any misinterpretations are avoided. As such, the reader is able to get information that is as close to the fact a first-person interpretation of those facts.
Because the narrator is the emblem of the plight of all women in this society, telling the tale from the first-person point of view makes it easy for the reader to understand what women go through and at the same time, share in their plight. It also helps to make the story real and eliminates the notion that the story is just mere feministic propaganda (Brians para 10).
Offred is best understood from the analysis of her name, the symbolic roles she plays in the novel as the symbol of women suffering. Offred, the protagonist, is kidnapped from her husband and thus separated from her family by this oppressive dynasty. She is brought to the commander’s house to bear children for his barren wife. Offred is her patronymic name which can be broken down into two names: of and Fred. This indicates that she is of Fred meaning that she belongs to Fred, the commander.
Offred is seen to change throughout the story from the wife of a peasant to the emblematic figure of women liberation. Her significance is seen through her symbolic birth name June, which in the context of the Republic of Gilead means Mayday, the day the women, will be salvaged from their torment. Her name June thus becomes symbolic of the résistance that would soon lead to their freedom (Atwood 220).
It is possible to develop an understanding of the character from her description of herself. Despite living in a male-dominated world where the power of women has been dramatically curtailed, Offred still manages to maintain a self-awareness of who she is and confidently identifies herself as a woman without any hint that she belongs to any man.
She describes her physical attributes that are distinctively feminine. Furthermore, despite living in a world where a woman is just an object of man’s desire Offred is able to strictly maintain the definition of herself as purely woman, devoid of any material trappings thus: ‘I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes’ (Atwood 143). It is this appreciation of herself as a woman coupled with her symbolic name June which makes Offred the emblematic figure of the resistance to male domination.
Offred is also the insignia of how women suffer sexually. It is through her experiences that the reader comes to know her strengths as a woman, repressed thoughts and aspirations that she poses regarding intimacy. It is through Offred that the reader is able to see the way women, in general, are degraded as mere tools for men’s sexual gratification.
Offred describes her sexual experiences from the first person’s perspective and sees sex in four ways. For her, the sexual experiences that women in the Republic of Gilead go through cannot be termed as lovemaking, neither can they be said to be rape as women are not supposed to have right to sex and thus by default should not have the right and the power to refuse.
In this case, it is not even within the power of women to refuse sex. Offred says that her sexual encounters with Fred, her master commander, cannot also be termed as copulation either as this means that two people are involved. In real sense, only the commander is involved as her senses, mind, and emotion are not. In her words, sex is seen as degrading, humiliating as well as an emotionless experience as it is only physical and given upon demand from men thus:
“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for” (Atwood 94).
Other than the main character, other characters play significant roles in this story. Even though these characters have individual uniqueness they have been categorized into two main groups: male and female. The male characters are divided into four: The Commander of the Faithful led by Fred, for whom Offred is a handmaid. He is the symbolic male chauvinistic character in the novel.
There are also the Eyes, the men who offer intelligence services to the Republic of Gilead rulership, Angels and Guardians of Faith who are the soldiers who fight to protect the republic as well as the Gender Traitors the homosexuals seen as traitors of the Faith and sent to die painfully in the colonies.
The relationships between the main character Offred and the men are master-servant kind of relationship. Through this relationship, the reader is able to see the weaknesses rather than the strengths of men. Although the novel presents men as superior and faultless, it is their ability not to procreate (to be infertile) that exposes their weak side. This proves that the notion of men being superior with absolute power over women is false.
Women are the stronger characters as they are the ones who are able to procreate. Offred, as well as other handmaids, are taken from their lawful marriages to procreate for infertile kings (It is unheard of and illegal to declare men as sterile). The commander is seen as sterile by his wife Serena Joy who arranges from Offred to sleep with her driver to give birth for the commander. This experience also presents women as too willing and ready collaborators.
Women characters are also divided into two main groups: legitimate and illegitimate. The legitimate women are the wives, maids like Offred, Aunts, Martha’s and economies. The aunts are seen as stumbling blocks to the freedom of the women. They, like the men, have the luxuries of reading and writing (Atwood 139) and are seen as part of the colony.
In one of the most visible oppositions to the liberation of the woman, the aunts tell Offred to stop’ June-ing’ too much: June means mayday liberations (Atwood 220). The handmaids in the house of the commander also give the story from a biblical perspective in reference to some of the biblical figures who took maids to bear children for them when their wives could not.
The most effective tool for communication is the use of language. The author uses language creatively as a tool for communication. The author uses modern language words and syntax construction, making the novel seem so deceptively easy to read.
Language is used as a very powerful tool for communicating women aspirations for freedom as well as portray the colonial mentality of their men in these societies effectively. The choice of words in describing Offred sexual experiences with the commander shows that the women are emotionally removed from the experience. It also portrays the ability of the woman to communicate their notion about sex, which is far from what men see it be.
The author chooses words like copulations, rape, fucking and making love to describe Offred’s perspectives of sex. These words also portray the author as having a modernistic approach to sex not just as an act of procreation but as a way to express love. Through the tone of language the reader can see that a woman does not see sex as just an act but an expression of love, something devoid in this society (Atwood 94). The authors choice of words like ‘unbabies’ reflect the fears that do exist amongst the women of this society.
The author’s use of dialogue is also as effective as the choice of words. Various dialogues have different effects. However, the most common outcome of the use of dialogues portrays women’s emotional connection regardless of their individual character. Offred’s prayer said in monologue reflects her fears as a woman, her loss self and of life, and her desire to gain it back (Atwood 286).
Although the treacherous Ofglen is the opposite of Offred in character, their dialogue portrays them as sharing in the suffering that all women go through (Atwood 285). Furthermore, the telephone conversation that Moira and Offred have prepares the readers for what might occur the woman after the fall of the United States of America. It is also an indication that the woman had a premonition of what was to befall her after the establishment of the Republic of Gilead (Atwood 174).
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a story told about the future and the problems that might occur in the world due to technological advancement. As such it is not necessarily a piece of science fiction but speculative fiction, a narration of probable things that might happen in future. It also deviates from the mere feminist propagandist genres as it has a complicated setting, characters, and themes.
Even though the novel is an exaggeration, it portrays the fact that women are still oppressed in the modern world. As such the tale is not far fetched as even the male, a reader is able to identify with the oppressed women in the novel as well as in real life.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1986. Print.
Brians, Paul. “Study Guide to Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1986).” 1995. Web.
Further Study: FAQ
? What are some literary devices in The Handmaid’s Tale?
There are quite a few literary devices used in The Handmaid’s Tale. The most prominent are metaphors and humor. Plus, the author implemented alliterations, literary allusions, and simile.
? What is The Handmaid’s Tale meaning?
The Handmaid’s Tale is about a totalitarian state, known as Gilead, that has overthrown the United States government. The novel explores themes of repressed women in a patriarchal society and how they are trying to resist to gain independence.
? What point of view is The Handmaid’s Tale?
The Handmaid’s Tale is told by a first-person narrator named Offred. The reader follows the current timeline in the present tense, while the flashbacks and background history are told in the past tense.
? What religion is The Handmaid’s Tale based on?
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a fundamentalist Christian theocracy which is based on Puritanism. It’s taken from the 17th-century America. The authoritative world that heavily relies on religion resembles the political climate of the country at the end of the 20th century.
The handmaid’s tale Essay
The handmaid’s tale is a dystopia that builds upon the dystopian imagery of feminist texts from 1970s. Atwood’s novel was written in direct reaction to the growing political power of the American religious right in the 1980s (Atwood). It projects a nightmare future in which rightwing religious extremists have established control of the government of what was once the United States but has now been transformed into the theocratic Republic of Gilead.
The thesis of this paper is based on three aspects. First is the imposition that women who have virtually no rights and are treated essentially as chattels. The second thesis is based on the role of religion in the society. Religion in Gilead is the similar to that of the current American society especially, the aspect of ambiguity which has been predominant with regard to the rightful application of religious beliefs and principles.
Lastly, language is a powerful tool with regard to formulating of ideologies and addressing issues. This book captures the implications of language with regard to addressing the pitfalls that face the people of Gilead. Similarly, this is the case with the American society where language has been used as an avenue to woo voters and address social issues.
Yet the brutal treatment of women in Gilead, however extreme, clearly serves as an extrapolation of patriarchal conditions that have long prevailed in uptown world and that many say as worsening during the Reagan administration of the 1980s – and that many have seen as worsening again during the Bush administration of the early twenty first century.
The Handmaid’s Tale is presented as the secret journal of Offred, beginning with her training for a life of sexual servitude as a “handmaid” in the republic of Gilead. Handmaid, we learn, are assigned to important men in Gilead whose wives have proved unable to bear children, so that those men might still have an opportunity to procreate (Wisker).
Procreation is, in fact, highly problematic in this society, where deteriorating environmental conditions have rendered most women sterile. Most men may be sterile as well, though in Gilead male infertility is officially non – existent, and the infertility of a couple is always attributed to the woman. The officials of Gilead have declared artificial insemination or any other technological intervention in the process of fertilization to be unnatural.
As a result, the handmaids are to be impregnated by ordinary sexual intercourse, though this intercourse occurs as part of a highly ritualized ceremony that is anything but natural: the wife looks on while the husband and handmaid have sex in a manner designed to remove all semblance of sexual pleasure, at least for the handmaid, though one suspects that the husband may take a preserve delight in imposing his power on a subjugated woman (Wisker).
In this book, religion is used as an aspect which is to enhance the fear of God. This is owing to the fact that when one goes against God, there is the likelihood of punishment. This gives a reflection of how things are in the current society.
The fear of God has been used to discourage people off the perceived evils which are going on in the society. Some of the illustrations in this book have been borrowed from the book of Genesis, for instance, the case where Rachael insists that her husband Jacob sleeps with the handmaid to conceive. This is a major biblical theme which is pronounced in this book.
Essentially, Atwood depicts how ambiguous the fundamentalists are using the bible to describe or to discuss the social on goings within Gilead. As the case is, currently, we are living in a society where there is a lot of ambiguity with regard to religion. People are using biblical explanations to justify their life styles in an age where there are no clear cut boundaries about what ought to be followed and what ought not to be.
There is an aura of hypocrisy which has bedeviled the society then as it is the case in the current society. This has been illustrated in the case where women’s role is defined as child bearing, as described in Atwood’s book, “Adam was not deceived, but the women being deceived was in transgression ” (Chapter 34, pp 221).
In Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, the power of language is equally evident. Women in the republic of Gilead are not permitted to read. (Judd, one of the architects of the Republic, is credited with saying, “Our big mistake was teaching them to read. We won’t do that again” [p. 307]).
The shops are known by their pictorial signs alone, women are expected to keep silent or to utter only approved phrases, and playing scrabble with a woman is indecent. Yet the rebels use a system of manual signs, a silent language to communicate. And the Handmaid finds her closet message in Latin scratched there by the previous, now dead, Handmaid.
This brings to the core the power of using language to shape ideologies. Essentially, the current American society has grappled with this concept.
Individual women, whether they are struggling with discrimination in the workplace, abuse in the home, everyday sexual harassment, the aftereffect of rape, or any of the other isolating conditions so common in patriarchy, can begin to reduce their resulting Societal Stockholm Syndrome by claiming language as their own.
This book indicates the subversive potential of language, not only reminding us how language has been and is used to alienate women from our experience but also inviting us to consider the everyday audacity of private and public language use as a form of mental liberation.
Atwood focuses on women and sexuality as principal targets of the religious totarianism of the Republic of Gilead. In this Christian theocracy, marriage is promoted as a social goal, though it is only available to those who have reached a certain social status. Indeed, wives, while they enjoy higher status than handmaids, are literally “issued” to successful males as rewards for loyal service to the community.
In addition, women in this society exist not as individuals but as members of well defined groups, corresponding almost to brand names (Wisker). Among the upper classes, women function principally either as wives (who serve as domestic managers), domestic servants or handmaids. In the lower classes, however, “Econowives” have to play all of these roles.
There are also “Aunts” who serve to train and discipline the handmaid and “Jezebels” who are officially though covertly, sanctioned prostitutes used to service foreign dignitaries and important government officials. Women who cannot or will not play one of these roles are labeled “Unwomen” and are exiled to the “colonies,” where they are used for hazardous duties like cleaning up toxic waste, much of the American landscape having been polluted to the point of being inhabitable.
It is worth noting that in this novel, we have a woman protagonist, Offred, with whom we sympathize, as readers, and who invites us to share her perceptions of events and disempowerment in Gilead, a republic controlled entirely by male power or patriarchy and based on the value of reproductive capability. Essentially, women are initially of high value but refused the opportunity to read and make their own decisions, make choices of how to live and who live with and are unable to own their own possessions and move.
This novel has clearly brought out issues which deal with representation of women’s roles, constraints, gender, sexuality and power, the management and control of reproductive rights, feminist themes, issues and reading practices (Wisker). In literary terms, it is also interesting to consider how and if women might write differently from men, other than treating different issues or similar issues differently and this leads us to thinking about the use of language and imagery.
The outlook for women in this possible future which has been offered in this book is indeed miserable, reduced to bodily functions and roles of handmaids, wives, or housemaids doing chores in the formal household system, or in the proletariat outside, as econowives.
In this critique of reproductive technologies and a dehumanizing control over women’s power and individuality Atwood imagines a future which has reversed all the equalities and achievements of the twentieth century. These include the achievements of the suffrage movement. Women in the novel are reduced to back to being owned by men rather than being able to own property, their own bodies and futures. In chapter 28 the turning point is seen.
This is a powerful moment and a shocking chapter. Offred and her husband Luke, along with their daughter, are living an ordinary life when, in the course of the week the president is shot, the constitution revoked, and armed bodies of Special Forces – troops of some sort – patrol the streets and control everyone’s actions. This position in the future is contrasted with the moments of equality, hard earned in the 1980s, and the beliefs, actions and visions of feminists in that period.
In conclusion, reading the novel in the twenty first century we can have a more distanced perspective on the views of 1980s feminism, on the kind of outcomes they would never have sought, and on the ways in which (while they have many rights in the western and parts of the Eastern world) they are frequently reduced to state disempowerment under extreme or fundamentalist regimes.
Atwood, Margaret. The handmaid’s tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986. Print. Wisker, Gina. Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale. Chennai: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010. Print.
The Handmaid’s Tale Essay
In the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, the republic of Gilead presents a different environment with different rules from those of the former order before the conflict and establishment of a new order. The new laws criminalize the women’s right to own property, have jobs, and even read by justifying it as a necessity to mitigate the effects of pollution that renders most women infertile and puts the society in danger of extinction.
One of the strategies that the government applies in mitigation of the population’s sterility is provision of handmaids to upper class citizens for reproduction purposes. The handmaids’ main duty is to conduct coital interactions with their commanders (male masters of their households) for reproductive purposes in an event that the people refer to as ‘the ceremony’. During the ceremony, men have sex with their handmaids while their wives watch. Most handmaids comply with their duties reluctantly mainly out of fear for their lives.
Offred copes with survival as a handmaid in Gilead by applying the use of calculated rebellion in her actions throughout her stay. The calculated rebellion entails keeping the old order memories alive, misbehaving intentionally during shopping, having a secret affair with the Commander outside the ‘Ceremony’ and sleeping with Nick, entertaining Ofglen’s proposal to spy on the Commander, and engaging in forbidden acts whilst visiting the Commander.
Offred’s acts of rebellion
It is important to note that Offred’s loss of her family owing to their attempt to escape from Gilead plays a significant role in the methods she chooses to apply in her rebellion. Offred, a handmaid who plays the protagonist in the story, finds several ways of coping with her new situation mainly through the application of calculated rebellion.
This assertion means that she weighs her actions in terms of pros and cons before implementing any rebellious act. Throughout the story, she voices her rejection of the objectification of women in the society, but chooses her moments carefully during her outward projections of such rebellion. Throughout the book, there is evidence of her rebellious nature, though the acts seem trivial in relation to the gravity of her situation, and thus they do not alter the society’s sense of normalcy.
One of the ways in which Offred uses calculated rebellion as a coping mechanism is evident when she goes shopping with Ofglen, a fellow handmaid. Although going shopping does not constitute rebellion, her behavior during the shopping trips does.
For instance, Offred sways her hips mimicking the way the Guardians move (Atwood 22). Acting in such a way is indicative of her rejection of the societal view of her as a lesser human being to the Guardians. Swaying her hips is her way of stating that she is more than just a ‘womb on legs’ and is just as feminine as the Guardians.
Additionally, Offred and Ofglen go beyond the wall where dead bodies of rebels hang. This aspect does not comply with the principle of absolute obedience that handmaids learn at the Re-education Center (Red Center). Additionally, going to the wall appears as an act of sympathy considering Ofglen’s affiliation with the Mayday rebel group. The government authorities do not favor actions that imply sympathy to the rebel group thus the two risk attracting punitive action from Gilead’s law enforcement authorities.
Secondly, although the main purpose for having handmaids in Gilead is for reproduction purposes, Offred takes her relationship with the Commander further by engaging him emotionally away from the commander wife’s watchful eye (Atwood 154).
Such a relationship also goes against the objective for the establishment of the Ceremony, which is to ensure that the wife has control over the handmaid’s interaction with her husband. Offred entertains her personal relationship with the Commander as a show of her rebellion, power, and to some extent obedience to her master. It is thus safe to say that she chooses this form of rebellion as it bears little potential for punishment.
A similar comparison to this type of rebellion is Offred’s rejection of the doctor’s offer to impregnate her and save her from her duty to the Commander. Although the doctor represents an authority figure, she has no qualms rejecting his offer. Another example indicative of Offred’s choice for calculated rebellion is her acceptance of Serena Joy’s offer to have sex with Nick and get pregnant in exchange for information about her daughter, who gets lost at the onset of the rebellion during their attempt to escape (Atwood 205).
Her choice to accept the offer and have sex with Nick represents her rebellion to authority as the rules outlaw such affairs. However, this move is a calculated show of rebellion because she weighs the rewards of her choice against possible disadvantages before accepting the offer. Since the offer affords her a chance to obtain information about her daughter and have sex with a different man without the possibility of punishment from Serena Joy, she jumps at the opportunity and embraces it gladly.
Additionally, Offred conducts her affair with Nick for a period longer than that which she agrees with Serena Joy and does so secretly. Her behavior then constitutes rebellion against her master’s orders and Gilead’s rules in general.
Offred’s recollection of memories greatly affects her perception of the new order and acts as a rebellious act against the formation of new ideologies and the government of Gilead’s efforts to instill new principles into the society. The government of Gilead goes to great lengths to ensure the enforcement of their perception of gender roles. However, the government also understands that voluntary compliance with the principles by individuals is crucial for a successful overhaul of principles that prevailed during the old order.
For this reason, the authorities established the Re-education Center (Red Center) and staffed it with women in charge of instilling the new principles to women and especially for handmaids (Atwood 25). At the Red Center, the handmaids learn about what their masters expect of them and what constitute punishable offences.
However, Offred chooses to hold on to ideologies on the old other with regard to women, thus defeating the purpose of the entire re-education process and serving as a rebellious act against the new order. For instance, in one of her flashbacks, Offred thinks back at the amount of pride that she had for her body during the period when she was married to Luke. In her opinion, her body was for her pleasure as well as her husband’s own.
She compares the perspective with her new situation in which the government values her only for her fertility, which lies in the decision to make her a handmaid to a sterile couple. She states that due to the state’s perception, she feels like a ‘womb on legs’, which is a probable feeling for many handmaids in Gilead. Thus, in order to ensure she does not lose herself, she holds on to her memories of her old life and the previous regime.
Offred’s willful association with Ofglen after discovery that she is a member of the outlawed rebel group, Mayday, also constitutes an act of rebellion as the government discourages such behavior. Offred goes to the extent of entertaining Ofglen’s proposal to spy on the Commander (Atwood 169), even though she does not act on the thoughts, probably due to the potential consequences that spying would cause if the Commander or Serena Joy caught her.
The last calculated act of rebellion involves Offred’s choice of activities when she meets the Commander for their secret visits. Offred chooses to keep the power she wielded in her life before the new order by playing chess and scrabble (Atwood 139). Scrabble and Chess are both games that require a certain amount of intelligence.
Therefore, by choosing to play the said games with her master, Offred implies her superior status to other women, considering that the law forbids such behaviors. She also implies her equality with the Commander, who is a representation of the men in the society in that story.
During the visits, the Commander also lets Offred indulge in reading magazines (Atwood 157), a concept that the administration frowns on. As stated earlier, the government at Gilead makes fervent efforts to ensure that the female population in the new republic adheres to total submission, which the governance considers crucial in ensuring that every fertile female commits to re-establishing numbers in the currently dwindling population.
By reading magazines, Offred passively rebels against the perception of women as child-bearers by presenting women as intellectual beings with needs similar to those of men. It is important to note that the Commander, a senior member of the society, is present and encourages Offred’s behavior. Therefore, even as Offred indulges in her ‘guilty pleasures’, she does so with the knowledge that the likelihood of punishment is slight.
Offred favors calculated acts of rebellion to outright rebellion as they present lower risks of punitive action from her masters and the government’s law enforcement bodies.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale, New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.
The Handmaid’s Tale vs. The Country Between Us Compare and Contrast Essay
The destructive aspects of totalitarian regimes attracted the attention of many writers during the Cold War era. One of the main issues that they explored was the state oppression of an individual who could eventually become alienated and dehumanized. Such themes as loneliness, control, and confinement occupy a prominent place in the novels and short stories of many authors.
This essay will discuss two works that eloquently illustrate the dangers of totalitarianism, namely, the novel The Handmaid’s Tale written by Margaret Atwood (1998) and the book of poetry The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché (1982). There are several similarities between these two works.
First of all, Margaret Atwood and Carolyn Forché show that the totalitarian states want to suppress people’s voices in order to make them isolated, confined and easily controlled. Furthermore, these writers show how the value of love, friendship and human life in general can decline because of people’s solitude and alienation. However, there is a significant difference between these literary works.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a construction of a dystopian society that might have never existed; to some degree it is a warning to the readers who should be aware of such dangers as sexism, religious intolerance, and religious intolerance.
In her turn Carolyn Forché focuses on the real experiences of people in El Salvador whose suffering went unnoticed for a very long time. More importantly, these descriptions can be more chilling than the imaginary world created by any writer who depicts a dystopian society. These are the main issues that should be discussed in this paper.
Similarities between The Country Between Us and The Handmaid’s Tale
It is possible to distinguish several themes that play an important role in these books. One of them is the acceptance of cruelty, violence, and injustice. They are no longer regarded as something outrageous or at least unacceptable. Margaret Atwood and Carolyn Forché show that people, who live in totalitarian regimes, become accustomed to the cruel behavior of the state and its injustice.
This issue is eloquently illustrated by Margaret Atwood (1998). In particular, the author describes a scene when Ofglen and Offred see the bodies of people who have been hung because of their alleged treason. However, one of the characters says, “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will.
It will become ordinary” (Atwood, 1998, p. 33). Such a sentence can be uttered only by a person who often witnesses such horrible events. He/she eventually gets used to this cruelty of the government.
Similar atrocities have been described by Carolyn Forché who explores the experiences of people living in El Salvador. In this case, close attention should be paid to the poem called The Colonel. In this part of her book, the author refers to the man who carries a sack filled with “many human ears” and he does not even try to hide them (Forché, 1982, p. 17).
The author describes this horrible behavior in a very nonchalant way in order to emphasize that totalitarian regimes can turn cruelty into a norm or something can be tolerated. On the whole, this behavior occurs in those situations when people feel no attachment to one another and human life loses its value for them.
In many cases, they are hardly concerned with the suffering of other individuals. This is one of the issues that should not be disregarded because it occupies an important place in Atwood’s novel and Forché’s collection of poetry.
Another idea that both authors examine is solitude of individuals and their alienation from one another. In particular, they show that in many cases, authoritarian states deprive a person of opportunity to communicate with people who are dear to him/her. Such a strategy enables the government to make people confined and controlled.
To a great extent, this issue is addressed by the authors. For example, one can mention the poem The Visitor by Carolyn Forché (1982). In particular, the author describes the experiences of a prisoner who hopes that his wife’s breath will be “slipping into his cell each night while he imagines his hand to be hers” because he can retain his dignity and humanity only in this way (Forché, 1982, p. 15).
When a person is deprived of this opportunity, he/she is more likely to follow the will of the state. The theme of solitude is also examined in Margaret Atwood’s novel. For instance, one of the characters says, ‘I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was, And I had friends, I was a lucky one, but I was lonely anyway’ (Atwood, p. 122).
In part, this idea can be explained by the fact that this individual cannot talk to anyone who can share her views and feelings. As a result, this person will pay no attention to the sufferings of other people. So, themes as loneliness and alienation are important for Margaret Atwood and Carolyn Forché because they strongly influence people’s attitudes and beliefs.
Apart from that, one should mention that these literary works highlight the hypocrisy of authoritarian states that claim to be virtuous and just. In most cases, the representatives of these regimes do not acknowledge that they only want to achieve power and ability to control people’s behavior. Moreover, they do not tell that they want to enslave the people of their countries.
These are the most important elements of their official propaganda. This is one of the questions that both writers pay attention to. For example, Margaret Atwood (1998) shows that the government of Gilead claims to respect the role of women in the society and their importance for the survival of the community. However, women are usually reduced to the status of concubines whose only role is the reproduction of the population.
Thus, the distinction between official propaganda and reality is very striking. To some extent, Carolyn Forché (1982) attaches importance to this problem in her poetic collection. In particular, the author shows that Salvadorian regime does not want to acknowledge that thousands of people could be imprisoned or even slaughtered by the state, even if they are completely innocent (Forché, 1982).
They can pretend there is no discontent with their policies or laws. This hypocrisy can be typical of many states, especially if they are authoritarian ones. This is one of the main problems that both writers want to emphasize in their books.
These are the main similarities between the works of Margaret Atwood and Carolyn Forché. On the whole, they demonstrate the destructive impacts of totalitarianism on a person. They can make people solitary and confined, because in this way, individuals can easily be controlled or manipulated. Under such circumstances, they are not likely to take any initiatives or independent decisions.
This is the most important idea the authors explore in their books. To a great extent, these literary works throw light on the experiences of people who fall victims of authoritarian governments. As a rule, these people are not attached to one another and they do not value interpersonal relations or even human life, and this is their greatest strategy.
Overall, these books are still worth attention because the dangers described by Atwood and Forché have not completely disappeared today. This problems depicted by these writers can be relevant to different communities even nowadays.
The differences between the literary works
Nevertheless, one should remember that The Handmaid’s Tale and The Country Between Us have several important distinctions. The readers should pay close attention to the genre of these literary works and the goals that authors try to achieve. First of all, one should mention that Margaret Atwood’s novel can be viewed as a classical dystopian novel.
It is aimed at describing a future society that is marked by racism, sexism, and religious prejudice (Atwood, 1998). These prejudices can still influence the ideas and decisions of many people. To a great extent, this literary work was greatly influenced by George Orwell’s 1984 because this author also shows how the state can control the private life of citizens and even their sexuality.
So, the author of this book relies on previous literary works about totalitarian states. In contrast, Carolyn Forché’s collection of poetry is based on real events that did take place in El Salvador. In this case, the narrator can be regarded as a direct witness of the events that affected thousands of people who were victims of the regime.
To a great extent, this author combines poetry and journalisms, and this is one of her greatest achievements since she combines rich poetic imagery with realism. Therefore, one can say these books differ in terms of genre, style and background.
Secondly, one should bear in mind that the authors differ significantly when they describe the motives underlying people’s behavior and their attitude toward the state and toward others. In particular, in her novel Margaret Atwood (1998) strives to explain why people can easily become solitary and controlled.
In her opinion, people can act in this way, because they expect the government to offer some benefits to them (1998, p. 271). This idea is expressed by Offred’s mother who believes that people can consent to the policies of the state, “as long as there are a few compensations” (Atwood, 1998, p. 271).
The author describes some women who can be humiliated by the state, but they do not protest against their policies of the state, because they can have power over other women (Atwood, 1998). In other words, they try to reconcile themselves with the state and expect some rewards or benefits.
In contrast, Carolyn Forché (1982) demonstrates that in most cases, fear is the main reason why people can become alienated from one another. Those people, who have been depicted by the author, know that their friends and acquaintances can disappear, and they do not want to suffer the same fate. This is the main factor that drives their behavior.
For example, the narrator says, “If we go on, we might stop in the street, in the very place where someone disappeared’ (Forché, 1982, p. 9). One should take into account that totalitarian regimes can easily abduct people, especially when they disagree that with the decisions of the government.
This is why citizens may be reluctant to express discontent because they do not want to share the same fate. To some degree, their conduct is understandable. Therefore, it is possible to say that Carolyn Forché and Margaret Atwood look at people’s behavior from different perspectives.
There are other distinguishing features of these books. One can argue that Margaret Atwood’s novel can be regarded as a warning to the readers who should remember about the dangers of religious intolerance, sexism, and the belief that some groups of people should be subservient to others. Margaret Atwood (1998) examines the social phenomena that may exist in different communities.
However, she describes their impact when they are developed to full extreme. Nevertheless, one cannot say that this novel refers to particular historic events. The author intends to demonstrate people have to limit the power of the state. In her turn, Carolyn Forché (1982) strives to show that the horrors of dystopian novels can easily come true and in some cases, they can be more terrible.
Her intention is to demonstrate that such events can affect many people provided that no one protests against the cruel policies of the state. She wants readers to hear “the cries of those who vanish” because these people are not protected in any way (Forché, 1982, p. 9).
As it has been said before, the author acts as a journalist who tries to raise readers’ awareness about the atrocities committed against people, living in El Salvador. This is one of the goals that she tries to achieve.
Therefore, it is possible to distinguish several similarities and distinctions between these books. First of all, these authors demonstrate that the policies of the state can make individuals solitary, alienated, and confined. Moreover, these writers demonstrate the hypocrisy of the regimes that claim to respect the rights and dignity of citizens. Nevertheless, these literary works differ in terms of genre and purpose.
Margaret Atwood (1998) relies on the rich tradition of a dystopian novel while Carolyn Forché (1982) focuses on the feelings of people who suffered from the actions of a totalitarian state. Nevertheless, these works produce a long-lasting impression on the readers because they give them deep insights into the nature of totalitarianism.
On the whole, such themes as confinement, loneliness, and control play an important role in the works of many authors, especially those ones who focus on the adverse influence of state on an individual. In many cases, they can deprive people of their humanity and ability to take independent decisions.
Such writers as Carolyn Forché and Mary Atwood show that individuals can get used to cruelty or injustice because of fear or hope to receive some compensation from the state.
Moreover, their alienation and solitude decrease the value of human life. These writers warn readers about the dangers of these regimes. These works are worth attention because they eloquently illustrate the experiences of people who can be victimized by the state. This is one of the messages that these writers convey.
Atwood, M. (1998).The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor.
Forché, C. (1982). The Country Between Us. New York: Harper Perennial.
Luke Impact On Offred's Life
It is only when everything one loves is taken away, that a person is able to appreciate what they once had. In the Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, the narrator must learn this the hard way. The novel takes place in a futuristic society, known as the Republic of Gilead.
This city was created after the United States Government had been overthrown and replaced by a totalitarian government. In this society, people have no choice in their role or power, especially women whose role is society is subjective and seemingly unimportant. When Offred, the narrator, tries to escape the collapsing former world, she is captured, separated from her family, and turned into a handmaid. Handmaid’s have the role of sleeping with Commanders in order to provide children to empowered, infertile parents. While Offred made several new influential relationships, non compared to one from her past life. Offred’s experience as a handmaid in Gilead was most influenced by Luke, her husband in the former republic. Luke holds a major impact on Offred’s choices, emotions, relationships, and outlook on life throughout the book.
Offred’s memories of her former life with Luke, often bring back waves of emotions that impact how she feels in her present life as a handmaid. When Offred was captured, she was separated from Luke and her daughter. Offred often worries about if they are alive and if she will ever be able to see them again. Not knowing if either is alive remained a great mystery throughout the novel. At the beginning of the story, Offred is walking through Gilead and witnesses hanging dead bodies on a wall. She wonders if any could be her husband, although she notices they are all marked as doctors. Offred describes the feelings they evoke, What I feel towards them is blankness. What I feel is that I must not feel. What I feel is partly relief, because none of these men is Luke. Luke wasn’t a doctor. Isn’t, (Atwood 33).
Offred doesn’t want to feel anything towards the dead bodies, because she knows it will not help her as she adjusts to her new life. However, she is extremely relieved that none of these men is Luke. This gives her hope that he may still be alive, along with their daughter. While she initially holds out this strong hope, you can see it dwindle as the story progresses. A bit later in the book Offred narates, Luke, I say. He doesn’t answer. Maybe he doesn’t hear me. It occurs to me that he may not be alive, (Atwood 74). The longer Offered is in Gilead, the harder it is for her to believe that she could ever successfully escape and find her husband again, who may not even be alive. Offred is motivated to stay alive and keep her cover, because there is always a chance of seeing Luke gain. Although, Offred is often discouraged by not knowing if Luke is even alive. The uncertainty of Luke being alive has a major impact on Offred’s emotions and actions throughout the novel.
Throughout the story, Offred reminisces several special moments from her life with Luke. These memories bring different emotions to the surface that Offred probably would not be experiencing otherwise. The feeling Offred desires the most is the love she had for Luke. In the present society, families are no longer made out of love, often exemplified by the Commander and Serena Joy who never show affection to one another. During one of Offred’s meetings with the Commander, she recalls what it was like to fall in love. Offred describes, Falling in love, I said. Falling into it, we all did then, one way or another. How could he have made such light of it?…It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself, (Atwood 225).
Offred remembered why falling in love was so special. Years prior, Luke was still married and they were having an affair. Luke had left his wife, because of his love for Offred. During this passage, the Commander had made light of falling in love. Offred scoffed at him, for making light of something that used to be so important to people’s relationships and lives. In another passage, Offred reflects on the comfort and safety she used to feel with Luke. She explains, So the hotels, with Luke, didn’t mean only love or even only sex to me. They also meant time off from the cockroaches, the dripping sink, the linoleum that was peeling off the floor in patches, even from my own attempts to brighten things up by sticking posters on the wall and hanging prisms in the windows, (Atwood 172). Offred explains how her relationship was even more than love and sex; it was about safety and comfort. Even in a hotel, a totally foreign setting, she had Luke to make her feel at home. Offred misses how Luke made her feel. She felt much safer with Luke, wherever they were, than she does in her current situation as a handmaid in Gilead. The loving relationship Offred had with Luke, reflects a healthy relationship that their child was born into. When Offred has to take part in a birthing ceremony of a handmaid, she compares what families were like in the old republic, to how they are now. You can understand Offred’s emotions as she described the ceremony and the newborn. Aunt Elizabeth, holding the baby, looks up at us and smiles. We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy. Our happiness is part memory. What I remember is Luke, with me in the hospital, standing beside my head, holding my hand, in the green gown and white mask they gave him, (Atwood 126). Seeing the birth of a newborn baby brings Offred joy and optimism. She remembers what is was like to have a baby out of love, with Luke right there by her side the whole time. While babies in Gilead are no longer made out of love, Offred is still joyful when she remembers what life used to be like. Old memories of Offred’s life with Luke arise both cheerful and dismal emotions. Remembering the love and safety Luke provided causes Offred to resent her current situation, but also cherish what she used to have.
Some memories from Offred’s life prior to the overturn of the government, affect Offred’s current outlook on her life in Gilead and the society that surrounds her. Luke’s impactful role in Offred’s old life, often affects her thoughts and perspective. Some memories that Offred looks back on, cause her to recognize the lack of freedom she holds in her current role in society. Women in the former republic had many more rights, than women in Gilead, especially handmaids. Offred looks back on the simple liberties she used to have, like arguing with Luke or imagining their future together. Often describes, I’d like to have Luke here, in this bedroom while I’m getting dressed, so I could have a fight with him. Absurd, but that’s what I want. An argument, about who should put the dishes in the dishwasher, whose turn it is to sort the laundry, clean the toilet; something daily and unimportant … What a luxury it would be, (Atwood 200). Offred yearns for the ability to have unimportant arguments with Luke. She misses these simple freedoms in life that she no longer has. She reflects on what it used to be like to have such privileges throughout the novel. In another passage, she recalls what it was like to take such freedoms for granted. Offred explains, We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, … 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 23-24).
Offred continues to realize how many rights she used to take for granted. She is saddened by these memories that are now impossible for her to even consider. She calls the freedoms weightless; they were simple liberties Offred and Luke never thought they would have to go with out. Luke’s presence in Offred’s former life shows her what she must now go without. Along with many freedoms and rights, Offred must go without love. Offred longs for Luke and what it felt like to be in love. But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of loved we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere, (Atwood 103). Offred recognizes that she is surrounded by foreign people who she do not know or care for. She misses having the people she loved in her life. Now she must live with the fear that those people may be gone forever, and she will die in solitude. Even if they are alive, Offred doesn’t think she would ever be able to find them. Her lack of ability to ever see the people she loves again, makes her doubt the chances of her finding happiness, especially in this new, forced society. It is Luke’s presence in Offred’s memories that causes her to realize the lack of of rights and abilities she is forced to live with as a handmaid.
For the most part, It is Offred’s past that makes her question her current life and society she lives in. Although in a more rare scenario in the novel, her present surroundings are what cause her to question parts of her past. As Offred observes many societal changes, she questions her relationship with Luke. Offred wonders, So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn’t afford to lose you, (Atwood 182). While most of the time Offered embraced (good) her loving relationship with Luke, she has a realization that causes her to bitterly question their relationship. Offred is reflecting on the rights she slowly began to lose as a women as the Republic crumbled to pieces. In the moment, Offred was concerned with not losing her husband. Looking back at the case scenario though, Offred wonders if Luke really cared about her rights being taken away or if he did not mind. Offred rarely thinks of her loved one in such a negative manner, but the changes that had been happening in society cause her to change her perspective on not just her present life but also her past.
Luke does not just have an impact on the emotions Offred feels and her outlook on her new life, he also influences the decisions she makes in Gilead. Luke causes Offred to miss the way things used to be and resent her current role in society. She aches for Luke and being a person who is worth something. Offred exemplifies this when she says, I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name, remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something, (Atwood 97). Offred thinks these thoughts after the ceremony. She hates how powerless she is in her current life and misses having a valuable relationship. This loss of power causes her to go find something to steal so she can feel some sort of power and control. Offred continues to find ways throughout the story to feel some sort of the importance that she used to have with Luke in the old republic.
The relationships Offred forms in Gilead is heavily influenced by her former husband Luke and the mystery of if he is dead or alive. The more time she spends in Gilead, the more her faith dwindles. She aches for the love and compassion she used to know so well. When she is presented with the opportunity to feel this type affection again, she does not want to turn it down. Although, Luke’s presence in her mind makes her feel regretful for moving on. Offred first encounters this dilemma when Nick kisses her. Offred described, It’s so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy. Luke, you’d know, you’d understand. It’s you here, in another body…Bullshit, (Atwood 99). Offred does not want to admit to having feelings for anyone but her husband, Luke. After Nick kisses her, she tries to convince herself that Luke would be okay with it. She misses having a valuable relationship, unlike the forced one she has with the commander. Later in the book, Offred starts sleeping with Nick. Initially, the set-up is set up by Serena Joy, in hopes of helping get Offred Pregnant. The result is Offred sneaking off to see Nick regularly for pleasure.Offred narrates, And I thought afterwards: this is betrayal. Not the thing itself but my own response. If I knew for certain he’s dead, would that make a difference? I would like to be without shame. I would like to be shameless. I would like to be ignorant. Then I would not know how ignorant I was, (Atwood 263) Offred feels guilty for enjoying the love she feels when she is with Nick, when she doesn’t know the state of her husband. Offred feels guilty, but not guilty enough to stop seeing Nick. While she continues to enjoy the love she feels with Nick, Luke always has a presence in her mind, causing her to constantly feel apologetic.
Throughout the Handmaid’s Tale Offred’s life is impacted by many people. The Commander, Serena Joy, Nick, and her daughter are all great influences on her emotions and daily actions. Although, it is her former husband Luke that is the most influential person in her new life in Gilead. During the novel, Offred’s memories and thoughts regarding Luke, influence her emotions, choices, relationships, and outlook on her life. Memories of Offred’s former life with her husband bring back waves of different emotions that cause her to resent her current role in society, but appreciate the life she used to have. These memories are also impactful, because they make Offred aware how poorly she is treated in her current society. She loathes the life she has, because she remembers what it was like to have even simple rights and liberties. She is often reminded of how powerless she is in her current position. Offred recalls how appreciated she felt when she was with Luke. She misses being a valued person in her home and in society. Offred makes choices throughout the story, that relefect on her want for the power that she used to have. Luke’s presence in Offred’s mind has a major impact on how Offred feels, views and pursues life. He is not just impactful when Offred is choosing a way to obtain a feeling of power, but he is influential when Offred is seeking the feeling of love. Offred deeply misses the love, compassion, and comfort she had with Luke. When she is presented with the opportunity to feel any part of this type of relationship again, she does not want to turn it down. Luke’s presence in Offred’s mind does not stop her from forming a relationship with Nick, but it creates a deep feeling of guilt that Offred must live with. There are many ways in which Luke is able to influence Offred’s life as a handmaid without him physically being there with her. Even in his absence, Luke has the greatest effect on many of the emotions, decisions, and perspectives Offered has.
Identity And Female Power In The Handmaids Tale
Television has played an integral role in globalizing the world and shaping the thoughts, ideas and perspectives of the people in it. Many argue that television generalizes women in a sexualized and objectified way, portraying them as subordinate humans that are dependent on men, all while being sexualized and stereotyped to unrealistic standards of character and body type. Television often objectifies women as mindless and incompetent in comparison to men in television.
While television has developed and created more roles where women are seen as powerful and impactful, there are still times where women are characterized in a stereotypical manner. The TV series The Handmaid’s Tale is a unique case because it creates a world where women appear to be victims to the dystopic world they live in, while at the same time holding a great deal of power over men and the society. It is a story about the ways in which women are oppressed in a society run by men for their own benefit, and about howcertain womentake advantage of the situation to ally themselves with male power for personal gain (Schwartz, 2017).
Now, imagine a world where all women have no rights, and are, in a sense, slaves to the high-powered men in charge of the government. A society where a woman’s place is cemented in whether or not she can bear a child. Women who can have a child become surrogates for the wealthy and powerful families who can’t. The Handmaid’s Tale is a Hulu original television series based off of the 1985 best-selling novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The dystopian science fiction series creates an alternate reality set in the future where women are stripped of their rights and turned into servants of society. Men are superior to women, and the regime kills gay people, abortionists, and anyone who protests their version of what society should look like. Due to the new laws created by the Sons of Jacob, women are supposed to stand by the side of their husbands. Set in a dystopic society referred to as the Gilead Regime, the show is centered around main character Offred. Offred, formerly known as June, is separated from her husband and daughter, and later becomes a handmaiden to the very powerful Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy. She is now subjected to life as a handmaiden because she is one of the few fertile women left in society.
Each month, Offred partakes in a monthly ceremony where The Commander rapes her while his wife watches on, in an attempt to get her pregnant. Offred becomes the centerpiece in the rebellion against the regime, taking on the powerful men who rule in Gilead. Offred is a symbol of female power as she fights against the world that’s been created for her. Through all she experiences, Offred never loses sight of her past, holding onto her old identity which helps shape her into the powerful female character she becomes. The Handmaid’s Tale is a vivid expression of female power and identity and how it can contribute to the shape and construct of society.
Throughout the show, the audience sees Offred trying to maintain her old identity while keeping up her with her new identity and new life. Before she was Offred, she was June Osbourne. June was a mother, a wife, and an employed woman who had an independent life and created a merit of her own in society. In season one episode three, in the episode titled Late, all of the women in June’s office are fired, and later in the day June is informed that she no longer has access to her bank account because it is now controlled by her husband. As the women are all leaving their office having just been fired, they see guards with guns at the door and lining the streets. This signified the beginning of the uprising and the start of the new regime. Throughout the series, the show rewinds to times in June’s life between her being fired and becoming Offred. Offred doesn’t want to forget her old life, as she had a husband and a child. Now, in her new role as handmaid, she must bear the child of the powerful Commander Waterford. The Gilead regime creates an identity for the handmaids, taking away who they once were and creating them into someone different. Offred tries to hold on to her memories of who she once was, including her husband and child, but her memories fade as the regime pushes her further and further away from her past identity. The handmaid’s lack of connection with others in the outside world creates another part of their lacking identity, because the only people they really spend a lot of time with are the families they are assigned to be a part of. Offred’s lack of satisfying social interaction impedes her development of her sense of self in the regime. Offred also fails to maintain her identityto structure a sense of self, to connect with others, and to actbecause in Gilead even apparent forms of resistance or attempts to create, maintain or grasp an identity frequently turn into complicity with the regime. (Stillman & Johnson, pg. 75) Handmaids are forced to not have an identity besides the one created for them because the only identity that matters is the one created by the regime. Any attempt to connect with who they once were or try to develop an identity outside the lines, is seen as a resistance to the regime and a rebellion against it. Within this vortex of fear and vulnerability, this contrast of blank time and intense interactions with powerful, inscrutable individuals, the Handmaid ultimately fails to maintain her identity. (Stillman & Johnson, 1994, p. 74) Offred is able to use her old identity to help shape her new identity. She takes aspects from her past life to help her develop into her new role as a handmaid. While holding onto pieces of the past, she must fully become Offred in order to stay alive.
When June is captured while trying to flee to Canada, she becomes a handmaid and is given her new name; Offred. Offred is the name she is given by the family she is assigned to. It means Of-Fred, Fred being the name of Commander Waterford. Each handmaid is given a name like this, others including Ofglen and Ofwarren. Their new names signify who they belong to, meaning Offred belongs to Fred, and Ofglen belongs to Glen, and so on. This parallels to slavery in the 1800’s, where slaves were given names that turned them into property. Many aspects of Offred’s life are clear parallels to the enslavement of African Americans. She required a special pass or permission to leave the house, she was forbidden from reading or learning, and she is repeatedly raped by her Commander in order to conceive a child for him. Offred endures domestic slavery and forced sex?”?hardships that are strikingly similar to those experienced by non-white women in much higher numbers throughout history, and in various parts of the world still today (Cottle, 2017). Her identity in the show is based around what she is or isn’t allowed to do. In the series, the audience sees transitions between Offred’s old life and her new life. Each episode of the show gives new information about who Offred used to be, and the audience is able to see how it shaped her into who she is now. This helps the audience continue to develop her identity as a character, and shows more of the theme of identity in the show. ‘These shifting reminiscences offer glimpses of a life, though not ideal, still tilled with energy. creativity. humaneness and a sense of selfhood, a life that sharply contrasts with the alienation. slavery, and suffering under totalitarianism” (Feuer, pg. 86) While the audience is seeing more and more of Offred’s past life and learning more about her old identity, Offred is drifting further away from her old life and getting deeper into her new one. Offred ‘s rebuilding of a self all but obliterated by the pain of her experience and the necessity of forgetting in order to survive. She must create. or recreate, herself after having been “erased” as a person (Feuer, pg. 90). Offred’s transition into being a handmaid is more of a struggle for her because she had a life before becoming a handmaid. Future handmaids and members of the society will have an easier time transitioning into the roles they are set to be a part of, as they will not have any life outside of what the regime teaches them. By using parts of her past self as June in her development of her identity as Offred, she blends her two senses of self which lead to her growth and development as a powerful female character and a powerful female in within the Gilead regime.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a strong representation of female power, feminism and sexuality. Offred is able to use her power as a woman and her sexuality to her advantage in her relationship with The Commander. Offred knows that she is a desirable woman. She knows and sees that The Commander is interested in a relationship with her outside of her being the family’s handmaid. Offred was put into the handmaid role in the new society because she is able to have children. She knows that in the family dynamic, she holds a lot of power because she could potentially carry the child of The Commander that his wife, Serena Joy, so desperately wants. Offred is portrayed as a victim, but also someone who holds a great deal of power in her situation. The Commander frequently invites her into his study to play Scrabble, something he can’t do with his wife. The Commander is interested in Offred’s mind and her ability to play and compete with him in Scrabble. In Offred’s past life, she was a well-educated woman, so this part of her new life comes from what she was able to learn in the old society before it became the new society. Her power in this situation stems from her mind and she uses it to get gifts and favors from The Commander in exchange for her time with him. Offred later on has a private intimate relationship with The Commander, which breaks all of the laws put into place about handmaids and their relationships with their Commanders. Offred and The Commander are never supposed to be alone together, and they are only supposed to be intimate during the ceremony each month while the wives watch on. Offred knows that she is breaking the law, but she sees The Commander enjoys her company and uses it to her advantage to get information from him as well as special treatment, while showing how she uses her power as a female over a man.
Commander Waterford is an example of a man who feels powerless to a woman’s power. The Commander repeatedly rapes Offred in the monthly conception ceremony, and uses Offred’s daughter, who she thought was gone, as a bargaining chip in order to get what he wants. In spite of the multiple rapes and the lies that Waterford and the other men in Gilead use to maintain control over women, the most powerful weapon they have is turning the women against each other. When Commander Waterford finds out about the music box his wife gave to Offred as a gift, he realizes that Serena Joy and Offred are starting to form a relationship. In season two episode eight, in the episode titled Women’s Work, the Commander beats Serena Joy in a show of dominance that also serves to humiliate her in front of Offred, who he forces to watch. He beats her because she went behind his back and did a favor for Offred. Commander Waterford feels threatened by the two women’s developing friendship because he doesn’t want them to become close. The Commander fears that if Serena Joy and Offred become close, they will continue to go around him and do things to disobey him. Commander Waterford also fears their friendship because before Gilead, Serena Joy was an author who wrote a book titled A Woman’s Place. In a series of flashbacks, Serena Joy and Commander Waterford are shown as having a large role in the creation of Gilead. Serena Joy was once an impassioned woman with conservative views on woman’s rights, which she details in her book, saying that a woman’s duty in the world was to bear children and stand by their husband’s side. Once Serena Joy realizes that her future child won’t be protected under the new laws, she decides to fight back against the regime to try and get women the right to read the Bible, which she loses a finger for advocating for. This scene, which occurs in season two, episode thirteen titled The Word, Serena Joy finally transforms into a powerful character after being suppressed by her husband and society.
While not obvious, the use of female sexuality is also prominent in The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are forced to dress very modestly, adorning long dresses with sleeves, meant to take any sexual appeal they have away from them. Women also must cover their heads in order to appear as invisible as possible. In Gilead, they get rid of anything that remotely represents anything sexual, including pornography and revealing clothing. The regime executes gays and lesbians, unless the women are fertile and can be used as handmaids. In Gilead, they also execute abortion doctors because Gilead’s rule is based on the Bible which outlines the woman’s place as a child bearer. Sexuality is meant to be concealed, but Offred is able to use hers when she is alone with Commander Waterford, as it gives her a small feeling of power over him. She also recognizes and acknowledges her enjoyment of her own small exercises of power, however ignoble: her slight power not only over the Commander, because he wants something from her, but over his wife, whom they are deceiving. She comes to understand that the Commander craves some unspoken forgiveness for the conditions of her life and that to bestow or to withhold forgiveness is a power as well as a temptation (Neuman, 863). This small power grab gives Offred the feeling of being in control in sexual situations with the Commander, as well as an unspoken feeling of power over Serena Joy, because she is the one who is sleeping with her husband and she is the object of the Commander’s affection.
The Handmaid’s Tale, in later episodes, brings into light the power of confidence and self-actualization. Gaining her confidence from her small acts of rebellion, Offred realizes that she must stand up for herself, for what she believes in, and for what she feels is right. Offred begins to support the secret female rights movement called Mayday, and starts searching for ways to escape Gilead with her daughter. Soon after, when all handmaids are ordered to stone Janine, formerly Ofwarren, to death, Offred refuses to do so despite what the consequences may be, which inspires the other handmaids not to stone Janine. These acts demonstrate that sensing the need of time, Offred turns out to be a brave female who knows how to get what is hers. On the other hand, Offred is not the only female character in the show that demonstrates power and strives to break the chains that Gilead has placed on them. In season one episode seven, titled The Other Side, through a series of flashbacks to June’s attempted escape and after her capture, the audience sees many details the life of June’s husband, Luke. In this episode, the audience is introduced to Zoe, who is an ex-Army doctor who is fleeing Gilead and helping others do so as well. Her brave personality is the opposite of what the Gilead regime would want her to be. Such portrayals of Offred and other strong women show that women have the power to fight back and speak for what they believe in.
The Handmaid’s Tale creates a far-off, futuristic society where women are stripped of their rights and turned into child bearers. While the concept is dystopian, the themes of identity, sexuality, and female power are still visible, even in a society where women aren’t meant to have any of them. The show supports female empowerment and the strive for equality among genders, and how women in Gilead fight back against oppression and objectification by their government. The women become of themselves, coming into their own as women instead of a property of another. At surface level, The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be a sexist, anti-feminist television show. Upon analysis, the many instances of female power, identity, and sexuality show that the series wants women to fight back when put into situations where they’re not meant to. The show later turns into a rebellion against the dystopian society, with the women and other characters trying to take down the society that has taken away who they once were. While the future of the fictional society is not yet revealed, the development of the themes continues throughout the show, pushing the boundaries of identity, sexuality, and power in dystopic, disturbing ways, making The Handmaid’s Tale an anti-feminist, feminist work of art.
Gender Inequality In The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale
Inequality is an occurring problem and Margaret Atwood is describing what she feels our country will turn into. Every time there is a step forward for equality to take two steps back. In Gilead, women’s obligation is obedience after transitioning from a time of extreme liberalism to radical religion.
Women being cut off from their resources, freedom, and their sole purpose was for their wombs. During this time of radical religion, Gilead decided it was it was a good time to come together and make changes to the for the greater good that would impact everyone immensely. The futuristic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, concentrates on the unequal relationship between men and women: women are exploited for their biological functions and government-sponsored religion reinforces female servitude.
Offred feeling exploited for her biological function felt nothing more of herself than her as a womb. Even in Offred’s dreams, she affirms her feeling, I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a mean of transportation, or an implement of the accomplishment of my will… Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping (Atwood 73). With Gilead trying to come back from the alarming shortage of children women that are healthy and being forced to bear the children of the Commander’s, if their wives are not able to do so. Offred’s body had so much meaning to her life before her life of being a handmaid that all she dreams of the day she could feel like that again. Her body previously used for pleasure and freedom but now her whole existence revolves around a single body part. Offred’s feeling about her body is the way the entire society of Gilead looks at all the women of that generation.
With sex being readily available through prostitution and the strong equality of women men began to feel demoralized. Wendy Perkins,an Assistant Professor of English at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, explains her thought on why the Commander believe the way Gilead is governed is for the best. Perkins points out the Commander , We’ve given women more than we have taken away. This way all they get a man, are protected can full fill their biological destinies in peace. He is trying to prove the reason for constructing Gilead into what it is today. Commander Fred is suggesting that the over sexualization of the country made men lose their interesting in seeking woman. Women having equal rights made men not want to seek a marriage or sexual relationship. Men feeling demoralized by strong women made them rethink their thoughts on sex, marriage, and life.
Offred after spending forbidden time with Commander Fred begins to think differently of him. She began to see him less as her boss and more of her equal which brought a shift in the novel. After remembering she watched a Nazi movie as a child Offred begins to think back and sympathize with the woman of the movie that was the girlfriend/lover of the one the leaders. During a scene in the movie the Nazi girlfriend states, He is not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait he whistled off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made him sit up for a little piece of raw steak. How easy it is to invent humanity for anyone at all. What an available temptation. (Atwood 145-146). After spending the intimate time with the Commander Offred begins to see him in a different light: friendly, kind, and caring. He is still part of the problem. His job as a Commander makes him an oppressive figure in society but his private life he wants his handmaid’s smart and expressive. The Commander is in a sense dangling the steak in front of Offred like the a dog because he is giving her small bits of her old life back by playing scrabble and letting her express herself privately to him. Although Offred enjoys the time with the Commander she knows that is anyone found out about these times she would be facing death. He is providing her more of a life than just a handmaid but is still a huge part of the problem by this only being a secret in his life.
The government of Gilead are claiming to base their belief of how to repopulate the community from The Bible. In Genesis Rachel is unable to bare Jacob’s children and uses her maid, Bilhah, as a surrogate mother. The Bible states, Now when rachel saw she bore Jacob no children…she said to Jacob, Give me children or else I die!…So she said, Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her and she will bear a child on my knees that I also may have children by her. (Genesis 30:1-3, 26). Women being used for their wombs after the absence of children because so many being born with deformities from the pollution. The government using Genesis 30:1-3 as a point of reference is a misinterpretation of what I feel it is stating. Bilhah was the maid of Rachel but it did not say she was being subjected to all the torment that these ladies seem to have been to have a child. I believe that she was being used as more of a surrogate. In an article by Sophia Lee she states her interpretation of the scene in the novel and television series where the handmaid is being used by the husband and the handmaids are between the legs of the wife during what they hope is conception is are from Genesis 30:3. My interpretation of she will bear a child on my knees that I also have a child by her (The Bible, Genesis 30:3, 26) means that Rachel would be in the room during the delivery like many of the modern mothers are in today’s day and time. Men would never be called out as sterile even though we know this can be true. After the trial of infertility a new handmaid would be sent to them to try again. Even though the government is using the Bible as part of their philosophy for running Gilead twisting words to make them to your way of living doesn’t make them true. Amin Malak said it best in his assessment of the novel, Theory claims to be founded on Christian principles, yet in practice miserably lacks spirituality and benevolence (9-16).
The government of Gilead was only taking select quotes from the Bible and twisting it to how they needed to use it as their governing practices. During the Women’s Prayvaganze, group wedding, the men recite, Let the women learn in silence with all subjection? All? But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to ursurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve (221)? This passage is letting the women know it is their job to continue to be silent and follow the men. Women biblically should follow the example of their husbands but in retrospect the husbands need to be the ones setting good examples for the wife. The women are being manipulated and made to think that they will be rewarded for all the do and suffer in silence.
The smallest things have been changed and manipulated by the government. People and shops names have been changed to sound more Biblical. Clothing shops are now called Lilies Mathew 6:28 states, So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;… (The Bible 852). Even the phrases that the handmaids are only allowed to use are pulled from the Bible such as Praise be, Blessed be the Fruit, and May the Lord open. Even though the people of Gilead are only allowed to say things of these sort of phrases and the shops are called different names people will still be who they are and feel how they feel. You can try and control people anyway you want false teachings of the Bible or through your own beliefs but people will always find a way to believe how they want to. Reading was forbidden so even if Offred or any of the handmaid’s felt that the teachings were incorrect it couldn’t be questioned. Such as Offred saying the scripture she is forced to say but in her mind having the meaning as a her troubles rather than the word bread she is actually saying.
Human nature is something that is hard to exactly nail down. There were a few bright spots in the novel but for the most part it was about the suppression and control of women by men that should have been protecting them. The use of the Bible for control women and forecable women to reproduce for the Commander’s make a hard reality for them. The biblically set laws make it so hard for any of the citizens to even come close to being perfect that they all pretend and just have hopes of not being caught. They could strive to be the best version of their self everyday and it still not be enough. The futuristic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, concentrates on the unequal relationship between men and women: women are exploited for their biological functions and government-sponsored religion reinforces female servitude.
Love and Death: The Complexity of Emotion in Gileadean Society
There are countless disparities between the society of Gilead and 1980s America. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the citizens of this dystopian totalitarian state have unconventional reactions to life, death, sex, and violence. When we are first introduced to Offred, our protagonist describes for us her current setting. She is in a gymnasium of sorts but has a unique emotional reaction to her surroundings. “We yearned for the future…” says Offred (3). “It was in the air; and it was still in the air, an afterthought, as we tried to sleep…” (4) This first glimpse into Gilead is extremely revealing in regards to how our society has changed. Something so simple as a university gymnasium has become so sentimental, a palimpsest of what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts in the wonderful nation that no longer is.One major aspect of Gileadean society that differs greatly from ours is the way the citizens view life and death. In Gilead, public executions are commonplace, and seeing the dead on display is something Handmaids experience daily. “It’s the bags over their heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be” Offred thinks as she sees dead men hanging from what they call the Wall (32). “The heads are zeros… What I feel towards them is blankness. What I feel is that I must not feel.” (32-33) This could be contrasted to our society where viewing the dead is something seldom seen beyond the world of television and movies. If you were out running daily errands like Offred and saw this, the last thing you would feel would be nothingness. It would be shocking and terrifying to us today but the theocratic dictatorship of The Handmaid’s Tale has desensitized its citizens to the macabre.The Handmaids’ views on death are also twisted to mean something else to the living. Suicide has been completely eradicated by the Marthas. They have removed any tool that could be used to orchestrate a suicide; be it glass, rope, or even a hook. There are no knives and nowhere to jump so the Handmaids are doomed to live. Offred develops delusions of grandeur in regards to death; in the end, death can be considered a success if she cannot conceive a child. This attitude is revealed when Offred reminisces about an old library with a mural painted on the walls. Victory is on one side of the inner doorway, leading them on, and death is on the other… The men on the side of Death are still alive. They’re going to heaven. Death is a beautiful woman with wings and one breast almost bare; or is that Victory? I can’t remember (166).This shows Offred’s corruption by society because in the past, when the mural was painted, of course the woman depicted was Victory. Offred also personifies the Gileadean convolution of ideas regarding sex and violence. For her, sex is a job, her only meaning for existence. The Handmaids are glorified concubines and if they do not conceive a child quickly enough, they are deemed “Unwomen” and exiled to the colonies. The concept of being an “Unwoman” is introduced to the Handmaids by Aunt Lydia who indoctrinates them with a fear of promiscuity and sexuality. The aunts would sit the new Handmaids down and force them to watch violent pornography, trying to make them realize the error of their past lives. This A Clockwork Orange-esque scene speaks volumes to the lengths The Sons of Jacob went through to brainwash women and create in them new beliefs regarding their own sexuality.These ideas become apparent when Offred is put in a sexually charged situation with her commander. After one of their scandalous games of Scrabble, he asks her for something new. “I want you to kiss me,” he says (139). Offred physically reacts to the situation like any other girl with a crush would; she leans in and awkwardly satisfies the demanding man, though her thoughts stray from the traditional feelings of attraction. I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands (139-140).Though she admits these feelings were an afterthought, they still perfectly illustrate the conditioning Offred went though before assuming her role as a Handmaid. She can no longer feel a purely sexual urge towards anyone; not even a man she has sworn to procreate with, a man who makes her feel free, a man she may love. She now feels sex and violence go hand in hand; it can end with death, and a gruesome one at that. These major aspects of society that are so contradictory to reality portray Atwood’s concerns for our political and social future. The views the members of Gileadean society adopt concerning life, death, sex, and violence are very contrary. Margaret Atwood did a phenomenal job creating a futuristic society that has made Americans cringe and yearn for change, especially for women.
Gilead’s Betrayal of Women in The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale presents a disturbing future dystopia in which all power is stripped from women and left in a male-dominated power structure. Throughout the novel, betrayal remains the over-arching theme, seen in men’s betrayal of women as well as the reason behind abandoning all sense of self and former relationships. Society’s betrayal of women as a whole leads Gilead to a power hierarchy which leaves handmaids, specifically June, no choice but to betray themselves by giving in to the society which strips them of identity and leaves them with no personal relationships and a constant trial to stay alive. Stuck in a society which has stripped all meaning and emotion from sex, and justified by self-preservation in a power-dominated ménage-trois, June commits acts she is both ashamed of and doesn’t enjoy. Driven only by her need to stay alive, she continues to follow these orders, blocking them from her mind as much as possible. During the time in which June is known as “Offred”, the stratification of the society of Gilead has shifted solely to accommodate an act which is made perfunctory and shameful. The “Ceremony”, as it is called, is void of emotion and simply exists as an obligation in order to procreate. “What he is fucking is the lower part of my body… Nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (94). This is June’s account from the ceremony around which her life is now entirely based. Even this early in the process, she has separated herself from what she once knew and created a new knowledge of what takes place, recognizing that this is not like the passionate sex she once knew with Luke, but is reduced to the simple act of insemination. For the entire community sex, has lost the meaning it had before and has shifted to this monthly ritual: “This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (94-95). This change in thinking is one of the most serious in the new society. Though nothing vital has been eliminated and procreation will continue, what was removed from society may as well have been an essential part of living. Without it June, and even the Commander, struggle to know where boundaries lie and how relationships should exist. The Commander orders June into his office, breaking all semblance of structure and tenants by thinking himself to be above the law, and putting June in a position where she has no choice but to follow him, but could still be killed for following his orders. She is left with no way out, and while the Commander realizes this, he sees his own need for companionship as a higher priority, knowing the cycle of handmaids will continue far past June, and caring more to make a real connection to someone. In his office the Commander does not want sex or inappropriate behavior, but rather something that has become even more intimate, real companionship. Each night, as her visits continue, the Commander requests a kiss from June “He draws away, looks down at me. There’s the smile again, the sheepish one. Such candor. ‘Not like that,’ he says. ‘As if you meant it.’ He was so sad” (140). This glimpse at the Commander’s true desires shows that more than being a corrupting authority, he too has a hard time in this society of emptiness that he helped create. The restructuring that took place has moved focus from that of love and relationships to the need for reproduction, making Serena Joy’s sole purpose to wait for a baby. Her status in society depends on June’s pregnancy, creating an odd power dynamic between the two of them, as they are completely dependent on one another. In her desperation Serena Joy offers the idea of breaking the rules and arranging for June to have sex with Nick, intending to better her chances, and once again showing the corruption that exists in the society which was created to be void of corruption. “This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: heavy, formless, dark; collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort” (205). The irony of the commander and his wife requesting that June break the rules is both overwhelming and appalling, as she could be betrayed and killed at any time for anything she does, even following their instructions. She is stuck in a position of deciding whether she should follow the rules set out for her by society or follow the orders from her superiors to break these rules. Knowing either path could lead to her demise, June chooses the more interesting path and follows the orders of her Commander, as much as she sometimes despises her actions. With the Commander, June separates herself from her actions as much as possible, seeing it as a duty more than an experience. “With the Commander I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close” (269). June’s separation from intimacy with the Commander is her way of maintaining the hope that one day she can return to a life in which she is with someone she loves. The Commander’s request for June to accompany him to Jezebel’s, though an interesting experience for her, exposes the reality that there is no room for intimacy in this society which has made it both obsolete and a necessity. There is no middle ground between procreating and making love in Gilead, where personal relationships have no place. “The trouble is that I can’t be, with him, any different from the way I usually am with him. Usually I’m inert. Surely there must be something here for us, other than this futility and bathos” (255). June’s separation from her actions has become so deeply ingrained that she cannot reach past it to take part in something more than she has had for the past five years. Her focus remains on staying alive, keeping herself restricted to breaking the rules, but internally removing herself from her actions in order to maintain the hope of being herself and in control of her own body and mind again one day. Through almost the entirety of the novel, June manages to maintain hope, though faint, and finds vicarious rebellion in Moira and Ofglen, even in a society so deprived of all things hopeful. June searches everywhere for even a scrap of evidence suggesting hope and on the inside of her wardrobe she finds it: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Even without knowing the meaning June uses this as her motto and her words of inspiration, left from a woman who knew all too well what she was going through. “I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do” (90). The writing on the wardrobe is forbidden, so June cherishes it as a secret she keeps, seeing it as her little piece of power and connection with someone else, as distant as it may be. Moira becomes her lifeline of hope, beginning in college before the new society took hold and continuing through the Red Center and Jezebel’s. Her rebellion and irreverence stay with June even when they are apart for so long, offering a sort of optimistic heroism and the hope that there will be a way out of the hell which has become her life. Moira’s escape from the Red Center was impressive, conning her way out by threatening and posing as an Aunt. She was known to be the disobedient one, but this level of dangerous risk-taking was unheard of. “Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman” (133). June’s passive attitude left her to experience rebellion through Moira and the others’ more exciting and dangerous choices. Moira’s daring approach ran out, however, and at Jezebel’s (ironically June’s moment to live dangerously) she confided in June that she had given in, that she was content being a plaything for men because she was allowed to have more freedoms than those confined to households. Moira’s bravery and gumption far exceeded that of most, so when she gave up on her dream of escape and conceded to be part of a society which exploited her, it caused June to feel as if she had no hope left either. Her acceptance of having only three or four years left, rather than looking for another escape plan showed June that her hero had faded and was broken, just like herself. “I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swash-buckling heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.”(249) Moira wasn’t June’s only hope. In fact, as thrilling as Moira’s life was in June’s mind, Ofglen offered an even greater sense of hope. Ofglen’s hope was almost tangible in its accessibility, and June, though wary to become a part of the group, found herself relying on the “Mayday” group for hope of a future escape. June was lured into the group by the sense of belonging and power in a group of such magnitude and secrecy, though her reverence for this group did not overshadow the fear she still felt for the societal structures that bound her. Ofglen’s status in this organization meant that she was both a friend and a threat to June, offering companionship and information during their outings, but also the chance of exposing what she knew about June’s secret meetings with the Commander if she were ever caught. Ofglen demonstrated incredible perseverance through her suicide, knowing that she would expose others, and hanging herself as her last vestige of self-control in the society which stripped her of it in all other ways. Similar to the disappointing end felt with Moira’s acceptance of the way things were, Ofglen’s suicide, though a relief, also exposes June to the enormity of influence society truly has over all of them and that hits her even harder than Ofglen’s death. “I want to keep on living in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power” (286). Despite her hope and her fantasies of one day being with Luke and her daughter without constraints, June abandons everything she once believed in and hoped for and resigns herself to the same conclusion Moira reached; she has been broken by society. June feels immense guilt and sorrow over her own betrayal of Luke, even with the knowledge that she will never be with him again; Gilead’s society has cultivated a shame which envelops her even in her simple desire for pure human connection. Even following instructions, June feels guilt in being with Nick. Society has stripped all meaning from the act, but her feelings for Nick, though human nature, are still forbidden in her mind because she had no resolution with Luke, and a part of her heart still belongs to him, or at least she thinks it should. “And I thought afterwards: this is a betrayal. Not the thing itself but my own response. If I knew for certain he’s dead, would that make a difference?” (p.263). Gilead’s denial of all personal connections has left June with no one to turn to and no one with whom she can be herself. Nick offers that escape to a place where she is human again, not literally, but emotionally, and that is something June can’t pass up. She has given up everything she once was and everything she once loved and poured herself into this new relationship, as dangerous as it may have been. It becomes the one thing she can look forward to, and the one way she can escape from the unfortunate reality she faces daily. “The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him… Telling this, I’m ashamed of myself… There’s pride in it, because it demonstrates how extreme and therefore justified it was, for me. How well worth it” (271). Though she’ll never see them again, and knows that she’ll never have her other life back, June still feels as if she is betraying her family, but continues, even though she is ashamed of her actions because she never knows when it will end. She stops listening to her guilty feelings and begins living in the moment because she has nothing else to live for. She has betrayed the person she once was and she doesn’t like the choices she makes, but still can’t make herself abandon the newfound emotion she has for Nick. “I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow” (267). June resigns herself to the realization that life will never be the same, and as much as she wants it to go back, she has been broken by Gilead’s society to the point where she can’t help but be a part of this clandestine relationship, even one where they agree not to love each other. She is left with nothing else to live for.
Selfishness and Survival in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984
Are Winston, Julia and Offred eventually made into ‘reluctantly-selfish’ victims of totalitarian regimes or are they innately ‘pragmatically-selfish’ beings? Discuss in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984.Offred and Winston, the main protagonists of the two strikingly similar dystopian fictions, The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, have disparate fates in the endings of the novels. Julia’s fate, however, is undetermined, as (like the two protagonists of both novels), she succumbs to the party out of the “selfish” desire to survive. Orwell gives us a fatalistic vision to his prophecy, where Winston dies. While Atwood gives us a positive ending, where the “heroine” finds hope in her romanticism with her secret lover Nick and presumably, survives by escaping from the regime to tell her story. Winston’s doom, however, partly lies in the core of the regime’s invincibility and partly lies in his impracticality and idealistic views on an indomitable regime. Offred, on the other hand, survives because of her ‘selfishness’ or ‘pragmatism’. Winston clearly shows himself to be selfish toward the end, but Offred, vacillates between being selfish and being a pragmatic post-feminist. It is perhaps her balance of selfishness and pragmatism that helps her to survive the regime, which she eventually succumbs to but escapes. All three characters display selfish traits that “benefit” them. Offred, the primary narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale is by no means a conventional heroine. Her unconventionality lays in the fact that she resists the regime but does not take any tangible action against it. Offred’s gradual but certain conformity serves to attest to the fact that she is not truly “heroic” and that the regime is ‘all-powerful’. Many commentators on the novel have characterized the narrator as a heroine, a developing consciousness, or an emerging woman . Offred also appears in many ways as a sympathetic narrator, an every-woman, who in the pre-Gilead world of the contemporary United States, was “an ordinary sensual woman, with a college degree, a husband, a daughter, a job in a library ”. Her lack of active resistance, however, does not make her a patsy for the oligarchic regime either. Offred is a ‘pragmatist’ because she is savvy about how to live under the constraints of Gilead. She recognises but ignores the social and power relations and conflicts that impinge upon her life. She is ignorant yet aware simultaneously. Her consciousness is partly apparent because of her faculty of double vision – she is a survivor of the past and her remembering of the past allows her to survive the present. Offred is thus seen to be “savvy” when she first meets her shopping partner, Ofglen, and is apprehensive, refusing to be drawn into a conversation about the on-going war:“[Ofglen] may be a real believer, a Handmaid in more than name. I can’t take the risk”When she finds out that Ofglen is actually a member of the underground organisation, Mayday, whose mission is to subvert the regime, she refuses to implicate herself in the organisations covert operations, refuses to supply information and refuses to join it. This adduces to her part selfishness and her part pragmatism. Offred knows that to trust another person, is to risk her own life. Her rejection of the anti-Gilead illegalities proposed by Ofglen manifests her selfish yet pragmatic nature. In Offred’s inertia, it becomes evident that the reason Offred ignores Ofglen’s requests for information on the Commander and urgings at Particicution is that she has fallen back on her romanticism with Nick:“The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.”Offred’s accommodation of herself and her life to the misogyny of the totalitarian contemporary Unites States, her acceptance of such conditions as ordinary and usual, is mirrored by her gradual succumbing to the conditions of the theocratic regime. She acknowledges and admits it:“I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settler’s wives thought… if they had a man. Humanity is so adaptable…Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”Clearly, Offred has found value in her life and has made one for herself through Nick; showing that the basic human desire to love and to be loved becomes omnipotent in The Handmaid’s Tale helping Offred to sustain her psyche. Her selfishness or pragmatism thus results in her conformity. Offred is evidently not a heroine and not a feminist as one would see it. Her clandestine sexual love affair with Nick, inherently does not undermine the regime, but bolsters it because of her dependence on men like Nick and the Commander. This clearly shows that the regime is indomitable and succeeds in converting deviants of every form, eventually. No one is exempt. As she slowly disentangles herself from her identity, a result of the absolute reduction to her reproductive capacity, she becomes more selfish, rather than pragmatic:“Ofglen is giving up on me… I do not feel regret about this. I feel relief.”The idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’ is Offred’s mentality, shows her transience and gradualism as a discrete individual to an inert, more selfish and monolithic being. Her romanticization of Nick paralyses her and delivers control of her destiny into the hands of others. But Offred becomes slightly reckless, her trysts observable by others – hardly conducive to survival in Gilead. Later, after Ofglen is uncovered as a member of the resistance, Offred’s acquiescence to and internalization of the conditions and standards of Gilead becomes complete. Her fear and paranoia possess her, and she starts to visualise her fate tragically. Offred even admits her selfishness to be a fact:“Moira was right about me. I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly. I’ll confess to any crime”When Offred then finds out that Ofglen has committed suicide, she is ‘relieved’ to know that she herself is “safe” and in celebration of her temporarily-ensured safety, she indifferently comments that she “will mourn [for Ofglen] later”. Again, her immediate concern with her own survival renders her a selfish being, more than a pragmatic one. The change from being a pragmatist, to a selfish person is gradual but transparent in Offred. Her selfishness and subservience becomes complete when she unabashedly says:“I’ll do anything you like. Now that you’ve let me off, I’ll obliterate myself, if that’s what you really want; I’ll empty myself… I’ll give up Nick, I’ll forget about the others, I’ll stop complaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’ll renounce.”Here, like Winston’s submission in Room 101, her conversion to the regime becomes complete and cemented. Her willing outpouring and confession is something she assumes will exempt her from purgatory. Offred has given up her rights, and her will power to resist, as well as her identity, for ultimate survival. She is lucky, however, and survives with the help of the Mayday organisation, which intercedes with her fate and helps her to escape; as is generally assumed. But the fatality does not lie in Offred’s predicament but in her submission and ultimate surrender to herself. She betrays herself because of her selfishness. Yet it is her selfishness or pragmatism that helps her to survive. Offred’s weaknesses and lack of “swashbuckling heroism” fails her, as she succumbs passively to the “over into the hands of strangers”. Her loss of faith renders her inert, making her a useful tool for the regime had she not had the timely opportunity to escape:“I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.”Unwilling to work with her mother and Moira (her lesbian best friend) before Gilead, with Moira at the Red Centre and later with Ofglen, Offred shows herself to be self-absorbed, focused on her own happiness or survival, and unconcerned with women as a group, with society at large, and even with the quality of her own life . Offred has internalised the expectations of the Gilead regime, as she had those of the contemporary United States, soothing her ills with romantic dreams and hopes. She eventually hands her body, her self, and her destiny over to Nick. Offred’s lack of understanding of the larger political and social structures and forces surrounding her separates her from Moira and her own feminist activist mother, she then submits herself willingly and utterly. Her co-possession of the interlinked qualities of ignorance and selfishness are the reasons for her ultimate betrayal; the loss of her identity. To her, any problem as well as its solution was a totally personal matter. Offred failed to think in terms of acting with others; and she privately mocked such awareness in both her mother and her best friend Moira. However, Offred’s submission can be seen as a form of adaptability, her conformity is a reason for her survival and thus, she is a “heroine”. She transcends boundaries and debasements, allowing herself to survive and, concurrently surpass the regime, although she does not defeat it. It is through Offred’s acceptance of her conditions that she can be seen to be humble and malleable, but not fragile because she survives, albeit with the help of others. Offred is not subjected to the terrors and punishments of the regime and she overcomes these fears through submission; a true pragmatist. The character of Winston in 1984 is neither selfish, nor is he a pragmatist. He is a hero and not a hero. But what remains almost certain of him is that he is a fool, or, at best, a rebel at heart. He is definitely a stubborn rebel who reluctantly falls victim to the Party. Winston, unlike Offred, does not try to stay alive. Instead, he prides himself on his folly and he tries to subvert the regime which he despises, at first. His unrealistic and idealistic ambition makes him foolish, often inspired by intellectual concepts like the integrity of history and the notion of freedom rather than being concerned with his own survival. But more than anything, Winston refuses to let himself be a brainless follower or a patsy of Big Brother’s regime; his fatal flaw.Winston’s mistress, the rebellious Julia, is in many ways, similar to the character of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Julia flouts the minor and then major rules of the totalitarian society of Oceania. Like Offred, Julia is uninterested in understanding the political dynamics of the society surrounding and oppressing her and is a hedonistic pragmatist who seeks to undermine the regime but not subvert it:“Except where it touched upon her own life she had no interest in Party doctrine.”Julia invariably falls asleep when Winston talks to her of the Party and its doctrines, clearly uninterested and unmotivated in revolting, unlike Winston. Like Offred, Julia is a post-feminist and she willingly subjects herself to the sexual uses of men with her many liaisons. As Winston explicitly observes, Julia is “a rebel from the waist downwards.” She objects to the regime purely because it stops her from having a good time. Julia is solely motivated by the love of sexual pleasure, similar to Offred. This is where her selfishness or pragmatism stems. Julia’s rebellion against the Party does not have an ideological or theoretical basis, rather, it is grounded in her desire for pleasure and the pursuit of a personal life.When Winston first comes into acquaintance with Julia, he learns that she, unlike her appearance and behaviour, is a very sexual being and had her first love affair when she was sixteen. The Party member with whom she had had the affair committed suicide to avoid arrest and torture to which Julia selfishly remarks that it was “a good job too”, fearing they would have had her “name out of him when he confessed”. Here, like Offred, Julia is spurred on by sexual desire, liaisons and love affairs that motivate her to continue staying alive. But Julia is, in many instances, more pragmatic than Offred. She is careful and successfully manipulates the Party into thinking she is orthodox. It is Julia who initiates contact with Winston and meticulously plans their encounters. Her pragmatic mentality is seen in her declaration that “the clever thing was to break the rules and stay alive all the same”. Julia pessimistic and unconvinced about the revolution against the Party that Winston idealises so often, she is realistic:“She [Julia] had never heard of the Brotherhood, and refused to believe in its existence. Any kind of organized revolt against the Party struck her as stupid.”Clearly, it can be deduced Julia is more pragmatic than selfish. She knows the limits and the rules of the game, therefore Julia is seen to be realistically-pragmatic. “Unlike Winston, she [Julia] had grasped the inner meaning of the Party’s sexual Puritanism.” Unlike Winston, who is willing to ‘join the Brotherhood’ and risk all, she pragmatically or, perhaps, sarcastically states that:“I’m quite ready to take risks, but only for something worth while, not for bits of old newspaper.”Julia does ‘join the Brotherhood’ nonetheless; but only because she is spurred on by her love for Winston, who believes his life mission is to subvert the regime. In her and Winston’s clandestine meeting with O’Brien, Julia hardly speaks and when she does, she only does so to object to the suggestion that she and Winston were to separate in the name of the Brotherhood. Julia’s orientation is also purely practical: she is capable, mechanically oriented (she works on the machines in Pornosec) – and hedonistic, unanalytical, opportunistic . Julia’s pragmatism makes her an unlikely deviant in the eyes of the Party, fooled because her behaviour and appearance obscure her inner-self. But her ‘ugly’ yet centrally pragmatic/selfish nature is seen when after capture, she capitulates to O’Brien’s methods at once, like “a textbook case”. Julia’s quick succumbing is evidence of her more pragmatic and selfish nature compared to that of Winston’s. Her conversion to the regime, again, unlike Winston’s is far more willing and selfish.Winston is defined by most critics to be ‘heroic’ and in that sense, selfless in the beginning. But, like everyone, he eventually succumbs to the regime’s imposed ideals. Winston’s submission is far more forced and impinged, unlike that of Offred’s or even Julia’s. In idealising about a revolution against the regime, Winston becomes too absorbed and risks everything, becoming ‘selfless’, which is what he naively thinks will assist in subverting the regime. Winston ‘heroically’ or foolishly attempts to understand his society and the Party’s doctrines. When Winston is invited to ‘join’ the Brotherhood, whose existence he chooses to believe in, he disregards everything and all his morals for the sake of overthrowing the regime. The atrocities he claims he is willing to commit are morbid and fearful, ranging from murder to sabotage; all in the name of subverting the regime or what he believes is “for the greater good”. Thus, Winston becomes blinded by his ‘selflessness’. The only instances where we see Winston being selfish is in a distant and vague childhood memory of his; in his selfish and uncontrollable hunger, he denies his mother and his sickly sister their fair share of food. But under the regime, Winston is far too isolated and solitary to be selfish as he hardly interacts with anyone else other than Julia. The lack of any real human relationships makes him ambivalent toward the outcome of others. This can be accredited to the success of the Party’s ‘dehumanising’ policy and Winston is made an unwilling victim. In the end, like Offred, Winston does commit at act of selfishness. Faced with the possibility of being subjected to his worst fear, rats, in Room 101, he re-enacts his first act of betrayal by offering up the body of the only person he loves as a surrogate for his own:“Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones.”Here, Winston offers up Julia as a human sacrifice to the hungry rats selfishly. The act is one of betrayal on two counts: betrayal of Julia and the second is betrayal of himself. Winston inconceivably destroys his hard-won liberation, the maturity of his selfhood, and pushes himself into another, far more terrifying infancy . Winston’s conversion to the regime becomes complete as he mutates into a typical ‘Big Brother-loving’ citizen of Oceania. The subsequent self-betrayal and act of pure selfishness, Winston’s emotional and psychological breakdown at the prospect of being devoured by rats – is crucial to the exercise of power and to the disintegration of individual will. Politically, Winston’s capitulation was pre-ordained by the dynamics of totalitarianism . Winston eventually transforms from a ‘selfless’ person to a selfish being.Unlike Winston who is seen to be ‘naiive’, Offred sees the regime for what it is. She understands “for the first time, their true power” making both her and Julia far more compatible and both more pragmatic than Winston, who constantly fights the regime yet fails to understand that his resistance and existence is futile. Hope exists only in being selfish. In the fates of the characters, particularly Winston, we see the complete and absolute control of the totalitarian regimes and how the characters are selfish, inherently because of the power of absolute control. 1984 shows us ways in which corruption extends to the individual’s sense of autonomous selfhood. The dehumanising and cruel ways in which the Party seeks to destroy selfhood serves as a dramatic warning to readers of the probability of such a future. The deracination of the self means that the recalcitrant individual can no longer maintain a discrete and autonomous selfhood; thus we see the purest form of totalitarian control, which is self-control, or the lack of it. The willing submission of the self to the macrocosm of the state renders victims like Winston, Julia and Offred selfish. The fact that all three main characters of the two novels eventually succumb to their respective regimes, one way or the other, adduces to the fact that they subsequently and eventually become selfish victims rather than being innately – selfish and inhumane beings.Like Oceania’s Airstrip One, Gilead’s political ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun’, utilizes repressive laws and politics, and is solidified by the isolation of each woman, the fragmentation of her social world, and the reconstruction of each woman’s world into Gilead’s mould. Power, like God, becomes beyond reason in the two totalitarian states where even the most stubborn ‘heroes’ are forced to become victims. The people under the control of these states become selfish as a result of the loss of self; presenting us with a paradox: to lose one’s self is to retain one’s self by the act of submission. 3215 WordsBibliography: 1. ATWOOD, MARGARET Bodily Harm. New York: Bantam 19822. BUITENHUIS, PETER and NADEL IRA B. 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