The Handmaids Tale
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.
Dystopian Novels in a Cruel World
Camus wrote that “the world is ugly and cruel, but it is only by adding to that ugliness and cruelty that we sin most gravely”.Dystopian novels can be both a mirror and a magnifying glass, reflecting our world and exaggerating aspects of it to create their nightmarish realities. However, much dystopian fiction does not intend to simply add to the ugliness and cruelty present in the world. In fact its aim is entirely opposite- to warn against the grave “sin” Camus describes. By observing a fictional universe, we are shown what could become of our own existence if these warnings are not heeded. The barren desolation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the totalitarian oppression of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are merely extensions of modern humanity. In spite of the dystopian nature of both novels, also present are the key themes of love and humanity. It is this degree of hope that allows both works to be taken as warnings, rather than nothing more than nihilistic prophecies of doom. Both written in the West in the modern era, the novels, and their readers, concentrate on the key issues of the day, such as the environmental problems facing the world and humanity’s increasingly questioned relationship with God. Contextualised by both novelists’ nationalities and the right wing, global policing of American politics in the decades surrounding both texts’ creation, there is a viable political reading of the novels as critiques of the dominating political structures under which they were written: in the case of The Road, a critique on the consumerism and environmental abuse inherent within these systems, while The Handmaid’s Tale concentrates on the abuse of power and reduction in human rights.The exploration of God, religion and their places in the 21st century is present in both novels. The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be a warning against the authoritarian societies spawned from extremist monotheism, as seen in modern Iran for example. Atwood’s Gilead, and its perversion of religion to control, points out the dangers that can be created when religion is abused. Atwood herself says “such dictatorships gain initial acceptance by justifying their actions in the name of their subjects’ most cherished beliefs”. However, it is not religion itself that seems to be criticised by Atwood, but humanity’s practice of twisting ideologies for its own means. There is much conflict within the novel between the use of religion to exploit and control and the humanitarian aspects that underpin religion: for example the intentional misinterpretation of Biblical passages to vindicate the Gileadean regime’s more arcane practices, such as surrogate motherhood and public executions, is in direct conflict with the hope and love shown by Offred that help her to survive her oppression. The exploration of religion in The Road is altogether more complex and unclear. The book is full of religious imagery and references to God, but could be viably interpreted by atheist and believer alike. Echoing the Waiting for Godot, a strong existentialist thread runs throughout the novel, presented within the Beckettian, minimalist speech, the frequent use of ellipsis and the seemingly forsaken world, but this is countered by the Messianic figure of The Boy and traditionally Christian themes of pilgrimage, love and hope. The devastated world in which the novel is set could also be a comment on God; either in support of his existence or against it. The “barren, silent godless” land seems to refute the concept of Natural Revelation, the idea that God’s majesty is manifested and proven through the beauty of his creation, the natural world. The harsh and unrelenting landscape does not fit into the image created by the Christian scriptures, saying as they do that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalms 19.1) and that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities- His eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1.20). However, a believer may point to Nature’s eternal power that is shown in the book both through the final section and the fact that the world has outlasted the human race, as evidence for Natural Revelation. Certainly, the allusions to God are deliberately cryptic (e.g. “If he is not the word of God God never spoke”) – McCarthy does not seem to reveal a moral stance on religion, only an exploration of humanity’s need for divinity. Perhaps the closest we come to his own ideas is when reading “there is no God and we are his prophets”. God is a human necessity, whether He exists or not.Dystopian fiction is often set in a world that has suffered some sort of disaster, a physical manifestation of the moral corruption that has taken hold. Both novels take place after environmental disasters of human creation, but the details remain largely unspecified. This refusal to delve deeper by both authors may be a comment that there are in fact too many possible causes to warn against, be they nuclear, related to climate change or otherwise. It may be that this lack of explanation is also a comment that such a disaster is inevitable and cannot be prevented or warned against. Through her description of the hellish “Colonies” and the crucial drop in humanity’s fertility that underpins the Gileadean coup, Atwood is making an environmentalist point. Her comments paint a clear “portrait of what life will be like in the future if people continue to ignore the increasingly permanent damage being done to our ecological systems.” However, it is in The Road that mankind’s relationship with nature is more deeply explored. Throughout the book, natural phenomena are described as hostile towards the characters, with pathetic fallacy employed frequently- “the cold, autistic dark”. Yet this animosity is of humanity’s own creation: it is due to mankind’s own actions that the environmental issues have arisen. The ending of the novel seems to be entirely incongruous: the poetic language and beautiful natural imagery are in stark contrast to the novel’s bleak outlook. It is here that we are shown nature’s true significance: it is “older than man” and humming with “mystery”, giving it a status far higher than humanity. An environmentalist could interpret this as an instruction to mankind to treat our environment with respect even greater than that which we hold for ourselves.This is linked to the idea of Consumerism and mankind’s tendency to take without thought of giving back. The Road takes place in a world devastated by this consumerism: the capitalist societies have collapsed having exhausted their supplies of natural resources, but even then, The Man and The Boy are forced to live by scavenging from the land, taking what they can. Men have even taken consumerism to its most violent extreme, turning to cannibalism to survive. One of the strongest representations of consumerism is manifest in the shopping cart: dilapidated, with its wheels falling off, it represents the failings of consumerism and the impossibility of its sustainability. However, it is equally strongly symbolised in the can of “Coca-Cola” that The Boy drinks. By referencing one of the corporations synonymous with consumerism, and then describing it in such positive terms, McCarthy is admitting the lure of the consumerist way of life. “Really good” and “bubbly” are two of the most positive descriptions in the entire novel, but the fact this experience is so transient and superficial is a further comment upon the limited nature of consumerism. That strands of consumerism still persist, even in a world that has been devastated by that very lifestyle, could be seen as both a warning and a pessimistic lamentation: we, the readers, are warned to change our consumerist ways, but are also exposed to the inevitability of our destructive flaws, leaving two equally viable but diametrically opposed responses to Camus’ quotation and the given response.One theme which both novels deal with very openly is the relationship between parent and child. The bond between father and son is the very essence of The Road, and Offred’s relationship to her daughter is key to the survival of her personal identity. The beauty and intimacy of the link shared by The Man and The Boy is almost inexplicably powerful. The child is entirely dependent on his father for protection and survival and it is only through him that The Boy has any contact to the world of the past, however tenuous that contact is. However, The Man is equally reliant on his son- his entire purpose is to care for this child. He even tells his son, “if you died, I would want to die too”. The purity and simplicity of this dynamic, in the face of such a brutal and loveless world, is not only a powerful exploration of love but also a message to the reader: appreciate this love and treasure it above all else, for when all else has gone, it will still endure. The same value is emphasised in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred uses her memories of and love for her child to preserve her individuality amid the oppression of Gilead. She has a reason to survive and rebel against the regime: to find her daughter. Even when she doubts whether the child is still alive, the love for her daughter and Offred’s need for her reason to continue proves stronger than her doubts. This is another message of hope conquering the seemingly insurmountable adversity. However, the contrasting ways that the two novels deal with this theme reveal a lot about their author’s intentions. While this Parent/Child relationship is the central subject of The Road, with any moral and social discussion that is uncovered playing a secondary role, it is the opposite in Atwood’s novel, in which the questions posed relating to the morality of mankind seem more important than the human issues that are included. With parental relationships so central to both novels, it could be said that only a parent’s reading will fully experience both works and that those without children are unable to access the novels on certain levels.The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian literature in its truest sense. Echoing as it does Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, it follows in the tradition of using its creation as a means to open a moral discussion; we are forced to look at our own ethics and practises and reassess them. Atwood’s strict adherence to her factual bases (“I couldn’t put anything into the novel that human beings hadn’t actually done”) show that her intention is for us to inspect modern life and our own behaviour. The fact that Offred seems to escape the regime offers hope for the good in humankind, although the flippancy and gender of the lecturer in the Historical Notes seems to point out society’s tendency not to learn from mistakes. All these aspects mark the novel out as a warning. While there can be no doubt that the world described in The Road has dystopian traits, there is less of the traditional critique of society that is common in dystopian novels. McCarthy himself admits that, more than anything, the novel is a “love story”to his son: an exploration of the Father-Son relationship and a very personal journey encompassing God, consumerism and the possible futures of humanity. While this may not be an explicit warning in the same way that The Handmaid’s Tale is, in that specific practises and customs are not pointed out as dangerous in quite the same way, The Road can still tell us how much we have to lose. The character of The Boy, with his compassion and innocence, show us as readers the good that we must champion, especially when juxtaposed with the almost infinite desolation and corruption that fills McCarthy’s novel. Both novels, in different ways, are markers to their readership, asking questions and suggesting answers as to how disasters, both physical and moral, can be avoided and humanity’s inherent goodness preserved.
The Handmaid’s Tale: Dissecting the Feminist Dystopia
‘If I wanted to say just one thing to one person, I would write a letter.’ 1- Margaret AtwoodGiven the feminist reputation of The Handmaid’s Tale – it has been called a “feminist dystopia”1 – it is convenient to make the facile assumption that the novel issues its warnings of political apathy exclusively to a female audience. While this argument is seemingly unsophisticated, it is not without foundation. Indeed, many of the novel’s female characters, including the narrator herself, are accused of political apathy, and it is the women of Gilead that are most impacted by its totalitarianism. However, this is an overly simplistic view of Atwood’s social commentary, as she extends her message to all people to avoid succumbing to a world such as the one she describes: the men too are left unsatisfied by the regime, while some women preside over others, demonstrating that the author’s message is not a typically feminist one; at the same time, it is clear, as Coral Ann Howells argues2, that Atwood’s sympathies lie primarily with the handmaids. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that The Handmaid’s Tale offers warnings about issues other than totalitarianism, making comment, for example, upon the rise of religious fundamentalism that characterised global politics in the 1980s. It was of particular concern in the United States, where the New Right suddenly became a political force under the Republican presidency of Ronald Reagan, advocating a return to America’s Puritan inheritance.This essay will, however, challenge the assertion that the universality of Atwood’s message is issued through its genre as a social satire; this is instead achieved through a blend of different genres, of which social satire is just one. Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale can also be categorised as a feminist novel or a dystopia, and it will be argued here that Atwood predominantly exploits the latter of these categories, rather than that of social satire, in order to forewarn her readers, though they do overlap in several respects. Instead, the novel’s satiric elements seem to concern less harrowing matters than totalitarianism, focusing more upon the everyday life in Gilead and what the Washington Post Book World described as ‘some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex’3: the satire is therefore issued on a micro level, rather than a macro level as the question implies. The feminist implications in Offred’s narration seem to indicate that The Handmaid’s Tale is primarily targeted towards women. Indeed, her style exhibits what Hélène Cixous termed ‘écriture féminine’ (literally ‘gendered women’s writing’)4, which Elaine Showalter defines as ‘the inscription of the feminine body and female difference in language and text’5. This is most palpable on the evening of the monthly impregnation ceremony, during which Offred, in a refusal to be subjugated by the state-sanctioned rape of the Commander, poetically explores her body whilst naked in the bath. She used to think of it as an ‘instrument’, which she could control and utilise to satisfy her own desires, and which, while intrinsically limited, formed a ‘lithe, single, solid’ whole; now, however, she has been reduced to a ‘cloud’, a metaphor used to imply a loss of self-possession. This ‘cloud’ is congealed around a central object that is ‘the shape of a pear’; used to symbolise the womb, this has become ‘hard’ and ‘more real’ than Offred herself, suggesting that she is treated as a ‘national resource’ by the state and only valued for her child-bearing capabilities. To describe the rhythms of her menstrual cycle, she uses a cosmic analogy, comparing her ova to ‘Pinpoints of light’ that are traversed by a ‘gigantic, round, heavy’ moon, which has long been associated with menstruation. When this moon disappears, she sees ‘despair coming towards me like famine’, a hyperbolic simile used to emphasise the pressure on the women of Gilead to conceive. The female body is a prevalent theme in Atwood’s work, and her poetic background is conspicuous in the explicative imagery of this passage, whose elements of extended metaphor and fluency epitomise Cixous’s literary theory. Offred’s style is therefore distinctly feminine at times, a narrative approach that could be seen to contract Atwood’s readership.In spite of her occasional lapses into ‘écriture féminine’, however, Offred is distinctly un-feminist in several respects, which is perhaps an indication that the perceived audience of The Handmaid’s Tale is less narrow than an overwhelmingly female one. Indeed, as Arnold E. Davidson comments6, she is ‘passive’, ‘tellingly domesticated’ and ‘embodies the same sexual dualities that Gilead exhibits in their starkest form’. In this sense, therefore, she represents what Howells describes as a ‘moderate heterosexual feminism’, in contrast to Moira’s ‘separatist feminism’7. While Atwood is not critical of this moderatism (herself distrustful of ideological doctrine), she does warn against the political indifference of her narrator: Offred frequently laments her own indifference to her mother’s feminist activism, which, along with the political apathy of so many younger women, has contributed to the rise of the extreme right wing. As she now realises, ‘We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it’. The paradox in the second sentence condemns such apathy, implying that young women consciously disregarded the feminist movement. The women that Offred criticises, including herself, can be classified as belonging to post-feminism (a term first used in the 1980s, at the time of writing), which is characterised by a backlash, or mere indifference, to the radical feminism that preceded it; Atwood therefore exploits the apathy of her protagonist and other female characters to criticise contemporary social developments, substantiating the opposing argument that The Handmaid’s Tale is predominantly a warning to women.Atwood vindicates her warning through the backdrop of a totalitarian theocracy, in which the women are subjected to numerous hardships that the men are not forced to endure; this arguably makes the novel more shocking to a female audience, and it therefore seems to exist as more of a warning to this particular group. To exemplify, the women of Gilead have been dispossessed of their original names, illustrated by the patronymics assigned to the handmaids: they adopt the name of their respective Commander (hence ‘Offred’, ‘Ofglen’ and so on), which presents them as commodities and highlights the rigid patriarchy that has gripped American society. The fact that the reader never learns Offred’s birth name serves to emphasise her loss of personal identity. The remaining women in Gilead are granted similar anonymity, referred to by the functions that they perform; the ‘Aunts’, for example, are in charge of training and monitoring the handmaids, although this is an ironic title given their callous authority. The ‘Marthas’, meanwhile, are recommended to a life of domestic servitude; their name has a biblical origin, based upon a story in Luke 10: 38-42, in which Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, is preoccupied by ‘all the work she had to do’8. This allusion to Christianity is one of many in The Handmaid’s Tale, which serves to emphasise Atwood’s warning that religion can be used to justify all of society’s ills. Contextually, this is a response to the rise of the New Right (and indeed religious fundamentalism in general), which pervaded global politics in the 1980s.Along with the loss of their names, Barbara Rigney points out a myriad of ways in which Gilead is particularly oppressive to its female population9: they have been stripped of all civil rights, they are forbidden to read or write, and their position essentially amounts to that of a slave. The issue that permeates most through Atwood’s novel, however, is the treatment of women as ‘two-legged wombs’ with no other purpose than to procreate. This is epitomised by the epigraph from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal10, a Juvenalian essay advocating the treatment of women and children as cattle, which Atwood uses to outline her thematic and satiric intentions. This comparison between women and cattle is not an isolated one in The Handmaid’s Tale, however: the handmaids are controlled by ‘electric cattle prods’, which are generally used to control breeding animals. The satirical intent of the aforementioned epigraph anticipates the tone with which Atwood will handle Gilead’s obsession with fertility. Indeed, the impregnation ceremony, which Rigney paradoxically yet appropriately describes as ‘pornographic and asexual’11, is laden with irony and humour, in spite of its perturbing subject matter. The sex is entirely devoid of feeling, highlighted by the coldness of the room, the fact that Offred remains fully clothed, and her description of the procedure as ‘fucking’, a stark verb that connotes emotional detachment; this is contrasted with the ‘ethereality and matter’ of the white canopy that hangs above them. The passionless atmosphere is furthered by the sense of regimentation, which is created through the ‘two-four marching stroke’ of the Commander and the description of Serena Joy as ‘arranged’. Even the sexual act, therefore, has become a manifestation of the state’s methodical ethos. Offred’s use of the third person, ’One detaches oneself’, serves to maximise this effect. The importance placed on conception by Gilead has a contextual basis, as Atwood was writing at a time of rising infertility and birth-defect rates, which resulted from environmental pollution and natural disasters; her work frequently offers ecological warnings, as in her short stories Hardball and We Want It All, from Good Bones (1992)12. Her fictional state is therefore an embodiment of contemporary issues, whose solutions she warns against.Interestingly, however, Offred’s description of the ceremony, while rather blunt, has a ‘sense of humour about itself’, a quality that the New York Times discerned throughout the novel13. Indeed, she ironically comments upon the Commander’s sexual performance, ‘At least he’s an improvement on the previous one’, and, despite being a victim of state-sanctioned rape, manages to find ‘something hilarious’ about the situation. Atwood is therefore comparable to Dickens, who, in novels such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations, exhibits a coalescence of the comic and the bleak14. This substantiates Amin Malak’s argument that the novel ‘avoids being solemn’ and ‘sustains an ironic texture throughout’15. Clearly, therefore, The Handmaid’s Tale is, at least in part, a social satire; however, Atwood does not harness this aspect of the novel to issue her warnings of political apathy. Indeed, her satire is more than often focused on small, private issues, which is significant given that the plot largely materialises in a domestic setting; this contrasts with Orwell’s masculine emphasis on state machinery in Nineteen Eighty-Four16. Nonetheless, as Malak points out, this satire serves to dislocate full emotional involvement, producing a Brechtian type of alienation17. In a sense, therefore, it distracts from the novel’s dystopian elements, which are Atwood’s main channel for issuing her warnings of political apathy: after all, her readership is more likely to heed Offred’s account of extremist social control rather than her humour underpinning it.This social control does not only affect the lives of women, however, but those of all Gileadean citizens, and so the statement is correct in its assertion that The Handmaids Tale extends its message to all audiences; to quote Malak, Atwood ‘refrains from convicting a gender in its entirety as the perpetrator of the nightmare that is Gilead’18. Indeed, as he also points out, it is rare that the novel’s male characters are portrayed as cruel, and ‘Even the Commander appears more pathetic than sinister, baffled with manipulative, almost, at times, a Fool’19. It must not be forgotten that he too has been stripped of his name (though not officially), referred to only by his job title. Furthermore, as Offred herself acknowledges, the impregnation ceremony is ‘not recreation’ but ‘duty’ for the Commander, and his eventual attempt at a private relationship is a pitiable failure, because, to quote Howells, ‘the personal has become inescapably political’20. Ultimately, he is just as isolated as the narrator, and his strange desire to play Scrabble with her, and indeed with her predecessor, illustrates the extent of his loneliness. Moreover, in spite of their superior position in the social hierarchy of Gilead, the male population are subservient in a more subtle respect: deprived of sex, it is often easy for them to be manipulated by their female underlings. Aware of her power, Offred teases the soldiers at the barrier by ‘flaunting her forbidden sexuality’, and they are forced to ‘touch with their eyes’. A similar sense of sexual desperation is created when the doctor, sexually starved, offers to make Offred pregnant. The state therefore prohibits sexual urges in men as well as women, serving as a warning to both parties in this respect.In the same way that not all of Atwood’s male characters are two-dimensional villains, Malak shows that not all of her female characters are sympathetic either, demonstrating that the novel’s message is not a straightforward feminist one. He describes the Aunts as a ‘vicious élite of collaborators’21, who, as Howells notes, bear marked similarities to leaders of the Concerned Women of America, a Christian women’s movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s that urged ‘family values’ and played a significant role in Congress’s withdrawal of support for the Equal Rights Amendment in 198022. They therefore represent anti-feminism (as opposed to the mere complacency of the younger women), and Atwood’s presentation of them as villains functions as a criticism upon the rise of religious fundamentalism. Indeed, they are portrayed as a paramilitary organisation, as signified by their khaki uniforms and their cattle prods, as well as propagandists of the regime, telling distorted tales of women living in pre-Gileadean society. They are also responsible for the most gruesome cruelties, such as the ‘Salvagings’ and ‘Particicutions’, as well as for individual punishments at the Rachel and Leah Centre. Their only individuation lies in Aunt Lydia, who, according to Howells, possesses a ‘peculiar viscousness’ under her ‘genteel feminine exterior’23. Indeed, she is responsible for the ‘dreadful spectacle of female violence’24 of the Particicution in which a man is accused of rape, in a perverse twist that sees women in violent command over men; the horror of this episode is vividly portrayed in Volker Schlöndorrf’s film adaptation of the novel, in which the handmaids visibly convulse with anger and engage in a bestial wave of hysteria and cruelty25. This scene is evidently influenced by the ‘Two Minutes Hate’ routine in Nineteen Eighty-Four26, during which Party members must watch a propagandist film conveying the enemies of the state and subsequently express their hatred for them. Atwood therefore employs elements of dystopian fiction to construct a terrifying world that serves as an effective warning to her readership.This nightmarish vision of the future is Atwood’s chief method for issuing her warnings of political apathy, and the ubiquitousness of its horror invites trepidation in all audiences. Malak articulates the salient features of a dystopia27, all of which are satisfied, although to varying degrees, by the Gileadean regime. First and foremost, he emphasises the exercise of absolute power in a dystopian society28, a quality very much present in The Handmaids Tale. Indeed, even the language is controlled by the state, in an attempt to manipulate the thoughts of its citizens: as Howells notes29, the rhetoric of ‘Aunts’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Salvagings’ takes words with reassuring emotional connotations and distorts them into euphemisms that become instruments of oppression. This is reminiscent of Orwell’s Newspeak, a fictional language in Nineteen Eighty-Four30, containing similar warnings about the dangers of propaganda and censorship. Malak also specifies the use of terror in a dystopia31, a feature reflected in the ruthless violence applied by Atwood’s theocratic state. Along with the Salvagings and Particicutions, the reader bears witness to spontaneous assault by the secret police on ‘an ordinary looking man’, which is described by Offred in a factual tone to emphasise that such spectacles are commonplace. The violence of Gilead contrasts with its fundamentalist Christian backdrop, demonstrating how religion, regardless of its pacifist doctrine, can be exploited for violent means in a political context, an idea based on an international range of models including Latin America, Iran and the Philippines, with more recent examples including Iraq and Afghanistan32. Offred’s declaration of ‘relief’ indicates how self-serving people become in totalitarian societies such as these. At the same time, however, Malak notes that the aim of dystopian fiction is not to ‘distort reality beyond recognition’, but ‘to allow certain tendencies in modern society to spin forward without the brake of sentiment and humaness’33; this is another feature met by the Gileadean regime, which is essentially an exaggerated representation of contemporary social trends. As stated in the ‘Historical Notes’, ‘there was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis’, a synthesis, to quote Howells, of ‘fundamentalist principles, late twentieth-century technology and a Hollywood-style propaganda machine’34. The novel therefore ends as a strong warning to learn from history, in order to avoid the development of a dystopian society such as Gilead.To conclude, The Handmaid’s Tale does indeed exist as a warning to all audiences to avoid the political apathy in which totalitarian regimes flourish: Atwood portrays not just the marginalisation of women but of men also, validating the comment from the New York Times that the novel exhibits ‘an ambivalence towards even its worst villains’35. It is therefore more comprehensive than its ‘feminist’ label suggests, its concern extending to include basic human rights. In addition, Gilead itself is unquestionably dystopian for all readers, and its depiction is therefore not gender-specific; indeed, the author exploits the horror and contemporary relevance of the regime more than any other aspect of the novel to communicate her message. The satiric facet of The Handmaid’s Tale, meanwhile, is primarily encountered on a diminished scale in Offred’s account of the everyday life in Gilead. Nonetheless, this represents Atwood’s departure from traditional dystopian fiction: while her male predecessors have given textual priority to the structural relations between the private and public realms, this novel is told from the point of view of an ‘ignorant peripherally involved woman’36, a perspective also adopted in Atwood’s preceding novel, Bodily Harm37. Her narrative is therefore an incarnation of the 1970s feminist slogan, ‘The Personal is Political’38. For the reasons already outlined, however, the novel extends far beyond its feminist origins, and Gilead is ultimately, to quote Howells, a ‘failed utopia for everyone’39.
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. George Orwell: A Reassessment London: Macmillan, 1988 3. GOTTLIEB, ERIKA Room 101 Revisited: The Reconciliation of Political and Psychological Dimensions in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four4. LEA, DANIEL George Orwell: Animal Farm/ Nineteen Eighty-Four A reader’s guide to essential criticism London: Palgrave Macmillan 2001. 5. PATAI, DAPHNE The Orwell Mystique: A study in Male Ideology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984)6. STILLMAN, PETER G. and JOHNSON, S. ANNE ‘Identity, Complicity, and Resistance’ in The Handmaid’s Tale7. STIMPSON, CATHARINE “Atwood Woman” The Nation, 31 May 1986: 764
Language as a Form of Power In The Handmaid’s Tale
Since the beginning of history, language has been the most important means of communication and development amongst humans. Because of language’s enormous significance, manipulating it to control a large group of people is extremely effective. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood creates Gilead, an imaginary futuristic regime involving the complete stripping of freedom from women. Even though the new government employs armies of spies and guards to enforce its laws, the real power lies in the government’s control of language. Atwood subtly incorporates the theme of language into every aspect of the story, demonstrating not only the influence it has over groups of people but also how its absence affects the main character’s sanity. The novel begins with Offred, the main character and narrator, sitting in her stark, empty room at the Commander’s house. Once a successful working mother, Offred is now merely a tool for reproduction. Like all other unmarried or lesbian women in the country, Offred must exchange her real name for the generic possessive title indicating which commander she services (‘Offred’ meaning ‘Of Fred’). With the loss of their real names, the women automatically begin to lose touch with their former lives and find locating friends and family nearly impossible. The government takes a major step with this law toward its ultimate goal of ridding women of individual identities and indicating their insignificance to men. In addition to mourning the death of her name, Offred aches for the abundance of reading material and conversation once so readily available. She spends most of her time sitting in her blank room where the only written word is the word “faith” embroidered on a cushion. The only times she can leave her room are to service the Commander and to go on her daily shopping outing with another handmaid, Ofglen. In anticipation of the handmaids’ encounters with each other, the government teaches them acceptable conversation and forbids any deviation from it. Offred recounts a typical conversation during her walk with Ofglen: ‘The war is going well, I hear,’ she says. ‘Praise be,’ I reply.’We’ve been sent good weather.”Which I receive with joy’ (19).By limiting conversations to such meaningless remarks and pitting the two women against each other as spies, the government prevents the leaking of secrets and the formation of friendships or alliances. The elimination of casual conversation and relationships from the women’s lives serves the government well; the women crave human interaction so much that they are willing participants in the various sex, killing, and religious ceremonies that they would never have participated in previously. The most important – and perhaps most disturbing – practice in Gilead is the Ceremony, when handmaids must visit their Commanders’ rooms and have sex with them in attempts to get pregnant. At the beginning of Offred’s experience as a handmaid, she plays with language in her mind to distract herself from the strange man on top of her: “Household. That is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow” (81). Offred’s thoughts demonstrate her desperation to maintain some type of sanity; she struggles not to let her mental capabilities dwindle. After Offred lives with the Commander for some time, he secretly invites her to his room on a non-Ceremony night. Not knowing what to expect, Offred is shocked when the Commander asks her to play Scrabble with him. The word game is like a sensory overload for her: “Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it…What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them in my mouth. They would taste of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious” (139).The Commander takes full advantage of the power he holds over Offred through language. He turns her on by providing her with forbidden treasures like Scrabble and fashion magazines, while at the same time enticing her to continue to risk her life by returning to his room at night. Eventually he begins exploiting her sexually, even dressing her up and taking her to a whorehouse one night. The Commander’s manipulation of Offred through reading materials represents yet another way in which the government controls women’s thoughts and actions through language. In a society so accustomed to the freedom of speech, Atwood’s futuristic view of civilization comes as a shock. She deftly constructs a terrifying regime grounded in the beliefs of different groups and political parties of our time and brings one of our most cherished freedoms under threat. Although critics most often discuss the novel as an attack on the religious right, it is equally a warning of the power language holds. Atwood effectively illustrates the extent to which the absence of names, speech, and the written word can affect one’s mental health and control an entire society.
Gilead’s Greatest Hits: Volume One
When the general public studies and analyzes fiction, the plot, exposition of characters, climax, and resolution seemingly serve as the “critical” elements highlighted in its evaluation. Provocative literature, however, employs several less predictable but arguably more poignant characteristics. Description and symbolism flesh out the plot and characters, adding depth and form rather than mere shape and matter. Margaret Atwood’s subtle use of diction, imagery and allusion in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale lends dimension and realism to a dystopian society. Through her subtle use of the titles of the cassette tapes, Atwood alludes to the moral foundations of the Republic of Gilead, and thus displays her linguistic prowess. Several tapes bear the titles of “Folk Songs of Lithuania” and “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings,” which represent both the return to tradition and modesty pursued in this society. Furthermore, “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years” hearkens to the controversy of sexuality and society’s role in its censure. As an assimilation of the two, “Boy George Takes It Off” and “Twisted Sisters at Carnegie Hall” represent the question and clarification of traditional gender roles as a response to the pop-culture hysteria of the 1980s. These titles, in addition to instances in the novel categorized beneath them, attest to Atwood’s broad scope of knowledge and meticulous attention to detail. Without divulging a single note or melody of a Lithuanian folk song, cursory research reveals that such compositions have roots in tradition, similar to the mandates of Gilead. Defined as songs “handed down from generation to generation” amongst “a common people,” folk songs represent the continuation of ritual and values throughout an evolving society (“Folk Song”). Lithuanian folk songs, more specifically, highlight “tradition and spirituality, celebrating heritage amidst and industrialized world” (Institute of Cultural Partnerships). Similar to this genre of music, the Republic of Gilead and its regulations find roots within tradition and religion. In fact, the inspiration for the institution of handmaids stems from the Bible-the ultimate document of tradition. The Red Center, officially entitled the Rachel and Leah Center, hearkens back to the Bible wherein Rachel gives her maid Bilhah to “bear upon [her] knees, that [she] may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 3). The very system that dictates the lives of Offred and the others is rooted in the tradition of the Bible. Furthermore, the jargon of Gilead establishments likewise stems from this reverence for religious customs. When conditioning the women for their new roles as reproductive vessels, the Aunts chant the Beatitudes, hailing that “blessed are the meek” (Atwood 89). Through song, prayer and rite, the Beatitudes remain an indoctrinated element in any Christian education, thus becoming a form of religious tradition. During the Ceremony for reproduction, the Commander reads aloud from the Bible and “ask[s] for a blessing and success in all [the] endeavors,” thus transforming sexual intercourse into a religious process (90). The mere prevalence of religious (or religious derivative) terms, such as soul scrolls, prayvaganzas, salvaging, and Jezebel, littered throughout the text amplifies the religious and therefore traditional tone of the novel. “Folk Songs of Lithuania” does not merely act as a title for a collection of tapes, but it also symbolizes Gilead’s pursuit of tradition and religion in a modern society. Closely related to a return to tradition highlighted by the folk songs, “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings” also represent a celebration of classical and modest values amidst a chaotic world. Annunzio Paolo Mantovani composed “soothing instrumental music” and found vast success internationally from the 1950s until his death in the 1980s (Slonimsky). During this dynamic era spanning rock and roll, disco, and pop music, this classical orchestral musician managed to garner several gold albums and sell millions worldwide. Often categorized as “background listening,” Mantovani’s music offered a soothing alternative to the music of the times (Slonimsky). Gilead, like Mantovani’s mellow music, promotes modesty and simplicity. In pre-Gilead days, love, passion, and violence ruled unchecked. Women subjected themselves to utter misery and “starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone” to suffer the “indignity” of courtship (Atwood 219). Husbands would abandon their wives and children or “stay around and beat them up” (219). Fear emanated women’s lives: fear of abandonment, fear of sexual predators, fear of being killed (226). The founders of Gilead recognized these miseries and attributed them to unrestrained emotions and impulses. Therefore, to abolish such problems, modesty and simplicity became law in the new society. Society rules that women’s (handmaid’s) speech be stripped of emotion and restricted to “praise be” and “blessed be the fruit” to avoid any temptation to form bonds (19). Women’s “modest apparel” now reaches from neck to floor, often covering their heads with veils, to inhibit them from inspiring lustful feelings among the men (221). Impulses and love no longer act as the driving force to sexual activity; rather, reproduction alone justifies sex. In a society where “love is not the point,” women are free to “fulfill their biological destinies in peace [and] with full support and encouragement” (220). Convicted sexual predators meet violent ends in a society that no longer tolerates extreme and immoral behavior. Unmarried men may have no source of pleasure for fear that their morals be undermined. This return to modesty and moderation draws the parallel between Gilead and “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings.” As a challenge and excuse for to Mantovani’s call for modesty, Atwood includes “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years” as another symbol for the moral foundation of Gilead. Infamous for his 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley stirred controversy over sexuality and society’s role in monitoring it. Due to his provocative pelvic gyrations on prime time television, the cameraman resolutely held the camera above Presley’s waist in an effort to censor the singer’s performance. Despite the reluctance from adults, Elvis was embraced by a generation of more sexually liberated youth. The conservative nature of Gilead and its reverence for the creation of life caused the leaders to censor sexual activity by ruling that sex exist solely for the sake of reproduction. With this mandate came the end of the “pornycorners” and “feels on wheels” programs (210). Sexuality likewise became forbidden. Once seen as an instrument for pleasure, Offred’s body appears “shameful, immodest” to her because she sees herself merely as a womb or reproductive vessel (63). Although society indoctrinates her sub-human and emotionless status, Offred manages to escape this mindset, if only temporarily. As she passes two guards “who aren’t yet permitted to touch women,” Offred taunts them with the sway of her “hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway” around her (22). First feeling slightly ashamed, Offred feels overcome with a sense of power because her masters “will suffer” for “they have no outlets” (22). They must feel the physical discomfort of censured sexuality. Although often criticized for its far right political and moral standards, Gilead does not stand alone in its regulation of sex. Throughout the novel, Offred’s mother stands as the archetype for feminism and political activism. Even liberals, however, enforce restrictions on sexual liberation. As a protest to pornography, Offred’s mother and her peers burn piles of magazines depicting women “hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands” (38). Although some may deem this display of sexuality as obscene, the women in these photographs appear to embrace their sexuality and manipulate it for a profit. Wary of unrestrained sexuality, the leaders of Gilead, like the people who censored Elvis, stifle and restrict sexual liberty in an attempt to preserve their society’s morals. Like Elvis Presley, Boy George and Twisted Sister became icons of a musical generation-not only because of their songs but also for the controversy they incited. Boy George, a member of the Culture Club, unsettled the foundation of traditional male-female roles. As a society having barely adjusted to the sexual revolution of the 1970s, people were then expected to accept the gender revolution of the 1980s. An open homosexual transvestite, George flagrantly ignored and challenged convention. Similarly, Twisted Sister belongs to the genre of “Eighties Hair Band”-a breed of musicians noted for their long, teased hair and rock ballads. This band, however, took a step further in their personas by wearing thick, pronounced, and colorful make up. Although their lyrics and sexual preferences were decidedly heterosexual, their gender-deceptive appearance shocked audiences. Although society tolerated such behavior in the pre-Gilead era, leaders in Gilead removed any uncertainty of gender roles by implementing strict policies governing men and women’s positions. Gileadian women must submit themselves to the service of men and country. Once-powerful women like Serena Joy gave “speeches about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay at home” (45). Titles such as “Wife,” “handmaid,” “Offred,” and “Martha” restrict their roles within the home to positions of servitude. Serena Joy becomes part of a collective group known as “the Wives,” defining her as property of her spouse. Handmaids serve society and their households to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (88). The titles of the handmaids themselves (“Offred” or “Ofglen”) combine the word “of” with the name of the commander. Women in this society do not possess the luxury of a first name but rather become the property of a man. Marthas fall victim to the stereotype of women as maids. Their responsibility is to tend to the manual needs of the household: cooking, cleaning, and serving. Essentially, Prayvaganzas embody the standards of male and female roles: “women’s prayvaganzas are for group weddings” and the celebration of domesticity, whereas “men’s are for military victories” and the celebration of conquest (220). While the titles of the women place them as subjects of the men, the men’s titles imply a sense of honor and nobility. The Commander, by his name alone, adopts the role of leader and guide. Likewise, the “Guardians” watch over the women with a sense of authority and domination. Not only do the men assume respected statuses, but they are also placed in positions that govern over the women. Furthermore, Offred attests that, although “household disciplines” are “women’s business,” “there’s no doubt about who holds the real power” in the society-the men (136). Fighting against the blurred gender roles of Boy George and Twisted Sister, the Republic of Gilead establishes rigid laws governing men and women and their social status. Through her subtle nod to the music of her generation, Atwood weaves the thread of Gilead’s foundation throughout the entire novel. Her use of these specific song titles affirms Atwood power over language and imagery. Through the cassette title “Folk Songs of Lithuania,” she highlights Gilead’s return to tradition and religion. “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings” offers a modest contrast to the chaos of modern music like Gilead offers a modest (emotional moderation) contrast to the chaos of modern society. “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years” strikes a chord with Gilead and society’s censorship of sexuality. Gilead’s reaction to individuals represented by “Boy George Takes It Off” and “Twisted Sisters at Carnegie Hall” entails a detailed and rigid definition of gender roles in society. Beyond this analysis, however, the song titles act as a thread woven throughout the novel-a thread that embodies how elements of the past influence the state of the present. Gilead exists as a backlash to previous generations’ treatment of sex, reproduction, and the environment. The status of the world in 2195, even if only through the topics its people discuss, relies upon the existence of Gilead. Therefore, these songs connect the readers to the pre-Gileadian people (because of the songs’ existence), Gileadian people (because of the songs’ connection to the tale) and the people of 2195 (because of their study of Gilead). Neither time nor music can be isolated-the present relies upon the past. Works CitedAtwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: O. W. Toad, Ltd, 1986.Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Mantovani.” Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 2001. Biography Resource Center. Galenet. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomas Gale. 18 Nov. 2004
The Commander: A Corrupt or Sympathetic Character?
“Better for some never means better for all.”
In everyday life we encounter people who can be nice, moderate, or are just monsters. Those monsters are corrupt, inconsiderate, or badly-behaved people. In literature this person is called the antagonist, someone who makes the main characters life harder than it should be. These characteristics can be seen to fit Fred Waterford, the main Commander of The Handmaids Tale. Fred Waterford being one of the main commanders who aided in creating this treacherous regime is so self centered and does not care about the prosperity of women, being the agent of Offred’s misery. Primarily the Commander abuses his power within the regime to women being totally obnoxious about his control. Furthermore, the Commander shows his corrupt ideology throughout the novel and does so being totally arrogant. Additionally, he is oblivious to what the women have to go through, and the discomfort that is present in Gilead all due to his corrupt insight. Lastly, he helped create the regime but decides to break the strictly enforced rules. Due to his lack of understanding of women, his arrogance, twisted ideology, and hypocrisy, Fred Waterford makes Offred’s life completely unbearable.
The Commander shows his power to women in many different ways throughout the novel. His arrogance is presented to the reader in ways that the reader can not overlook such as the Commander showing Offred that he can get anything for her when he showed Offred the Vogue magazine. Offred describes the occurrence as “Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait”(pg.156). The Commander is showing Offred that he is the real deal here because these magazines are banned within Gilead, and are thought to be extinct. Conclusively, the commander waiting before giving the magazine to Offred is showing his capability like a human would when giving a treat to a dog, it shows complete dominance. To add on, the Commander does not follow protocol pre-ceremony. Usually, the Commander is supposed to ask permission to enter, as the waiting room is supposed to be Serena Joy’s territory. It is a little act that is big to her. The commander, as usual, is being arrogant because “before Serena Joy can speak (grant permission), he steps forward into the room anyway.” (pg.86). Once more the commander is being inconsiderate of his wife [Serena Joy] because the waiting room is her area and he totally disrespects the little amount of power that she gets. Conclusively, the Commander shows his power, lack of respect and irritability to women within Gilead. To sum up, Fred Waterford shows his complete disrespect and power over women by degrading Offred in every chance that he gets. Women are going through tough times and are being smart about taking care of themselves with limited resources, using butter as lotion. Offred is open to Fred about this and he laughs at Offred showing disrespect. When Offred tells the Commander this he replies with “Butter. That’s very clever. (He laughed)” (pg.159). Offred thinks that she could have slapped him but does not because the Commander has so much power. This shows the lack of sympathy that Fred has, and Offred becomes enraged with him due to his lack of understanding of what these women have to go through. All in all, the Commander’s relentless arrogance shows the reader that he abuses his power, and has a complete misunderstanding of the women in the regime, making their lives a living hell.
Moreover, the Commander makes the women within the regimes lives completely unbearable due to his depraved ideology. Atwood introduces to us that Fred Waterford is high ranking and aided in the establishment of Gilead, which the reader knows is a corrupt gender dominant setting. For instance, the Commander asks Offred of her views on the regime during one of her visits to his office. With no reply, Fred says “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs… Better for some never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.” (pg.211). The reader gets a clear impression of the Commander’s corrupt ideology here because he is saying that they created this regime for the better of men and knew that women would have to suffer for them. This shows the reader the inconsideration that Fred has especially when in modern society gender dominance is greatly forbidden. These acts clearly symbolize those of a monster. With this in consideration, the Commander’s corrupted ideology continues at Jezebels when Offred describes the Commander getting a room key and how she is expected to have sex. Specifically, “The Commander has a room key….He shows it to me, slyly. I am to understand. (pg.251). His ideology is that he dominates Offred, and he has the assumption that it does not matter if Offred enjoys it, he is the one in control. This continues in the bedroom when Offred clearly does not want to sleep with the Commander, when it comes to the time Offred “Fakes it”(pg.255). Recurrently the Commander shows his ideology when Offred has to fake what was happening and had no say about if she wanted it. Decisively the commander yet again shows his negligence towards women and expresses his corrupted ideology. Thirdly the Commander knows what he wants to do with Offred in an intimate way. Specifically, he prowls outside her room as if he is examining the territory. Offred describes this moment as “Something has been shown to me, but what is it? Like the flag of an unknown country…It could mean attack, it could mean parley, it could mean the edge of something, a territory.” (pg.49). In this instance, Atwood uses words that are commonly used when talking about war like “flag”, “attack”, “territory”, “parley”, and “country”. Despite the mixed signal from the Commander, the control is clear and Offred receives her potential threat. To conclude the Commander’s ideology is so corrupt, although he knows what he is doing, being arrogant and inconsiderate making Offred’s life worse in an extra way.
Additionally, Fred advances his cruelty when he is only thinking about himself and puts Offred at risk for his own benefit making Offred’s life a risky mess. Firstly, the Commander showed his obliviousness by trying to touch her face during the ceremony when Serena Joy is right there. Specifically, Offred describes the occurrence as “He reached his hand up as if to touch my face; I moved my head to the side, to warn him away, hoping Serena Joy hadn’t noticed” (pg.162) The Commander once again is being reckless possibly compromising Offred’s secrets at his own benefit. Offred knows that her life is potentially at stake here, If Serena Joy had seen this then there is the potential of Offred being transferred to the colonies. As a result of this careless act by the Commander, Offred is at a high risk. Nonetheless, the Commander uses Offred once again at the Jezebels as if he is showing her off. Fred wants to bring Offred to Jezebels but only to have sex with her and to be in control of her. Offred is at high risk here as it is extremely illegal for a handmaid to be there and the Commander carelessly sneaks Offred in. The Commander says “Now I’ll have to ask you to get down onto the floor of the car… We have to get through the gateway” (pg.232). When the Commander says this both Offred and the reader know that the Commander comprehends the risk here just so he can have sex with Offred freely. This being said the Commander is being selfish putting himself ahead of others by endangering Offred’s life with the possibility of being sent to the colonies or being apart of the next women salvaging.
Lastly, the Commander is inconsiderate when he arranges for Offred to meet with him for his entertainment, because he can not do it with Serena Joy. Offred describes this as “Now it is forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife” (pg.138-139). This being said the Commander knows that he can’t have any fun with Serena Joy, so he uses Offred as his entertainment knowing that Offred is exposed to great danger. As can be seen, the Commander is self-centered and does not care about the well being of Offred, endangering her life in many instances. Being self-centered and only caring about himself, the Commander is completely oblivious to what is happening in the regime. Being one of the founding Commanders, Fred puts himself first. With this in mind, the Commander uses Gilead for individual gain, putting women below him. To begin the Commander imposes these strict rules that can get people killed, but decides to break them when he kisses Offred. Precisely the Commander says, “I want you to kiss me” (pg.139). The Commander is not asking Offred to kiss him, rather telling her. This is another example of Fred controlling Offred, and the Commander being naïve using Offred as an object for his personal gain. It is also ironic that he aided in the creation of the regime but does what he wants within the regime showing inconsideration of what others have to put up with in Gilead. In addition, we see the hypocrisy taking Offred to Jezebels, an illegal prostitution center, he is even willing to break the rules of Jezebels which is a contradiction to the rules alone. “The Commander has a room key….He shows it to me…I am to understand.” (pg.251). This suggests to Offred that they are going to have sex in a room. Fred seems as if he has done this before, where he takes his handmaid out to a prostitute installation and has sex with them. Yet again this desire for companionship by Fred shows how naïve he is being, especially creating the regime and breaking the rules. Lastly, the Commander shows his inconsideration and obliviousness to the lack of attention that he gives his wife, Serena Joy, instead showing it to the temporary Offred. When Offred asks the commander why he didn’t give it to his wife, he replied: “We don’t seem to have much in common, these days.” (pg.158). This shows the reader that the Commander is once again being inconsiderate because he is not showing much attention to Serena Joy who is permanently his wife, whereas he is treating the temporary handmaid Offred, which is forbidden by the rules of his government. With all being said, the Commander comes off as an oblivious, self centred monster who makes Offred, and Serena Joy’s lives that much worse.
Ultimately, women’s lives are completely unbearable due to the monstrous characteristics of the Commander, Fred Waterford. He does so by showing his capable power to Offred, implying to her that he can get whatever he wants, being ignorant about the creativity that the handmaids had of using butter as lotion due to the lack of decency for women within the regime, and by taking away the little power that Serena Joy possesses, in the waiting room. Nonetheless with the Commander’s corrupt ideology, saying that better never means better for everyone it shows how self-centred he is and doesn’t care about others, which clearly are traits which a monster would possess. He also uses other people putting them at risk for his own benefit being inconsiderate of what other people must go through, just being inconsiderate. Lastly being one of the founding commanders of Gilead he breaks rules that are strictly enforced to others because he feels obligated enough and more powerful than others. With the idea of being a monster, it is clear that the Commander is as corrupt, badly behaved, and inconsiderate as suggested. Being the obvious antagonist, Fred Waterford truly does make Offred’s life completely miserable and brutal.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. “The Handmaid’s Tale.” SparkNotes, SparkNotes, www.sparknotes.com/lit/handmaid/section11.rhtml. “Manipulation of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Gender&LitUtopiaDystopia Wiki, genderlitutopiadystopia.wikia.com/wiki/Manipulation_of_Power_in_The_Handmaid%27s_Tale.
The Significance Of Identity In The Opening Chapters of ‘The Handmaids Tale’
Whilst identity in the modern day setting is seen as a fundamental right, in the seemingly dystopian society of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, identity is robbed by the government to create a subservient society. As is common with totalitarian regimes, people are divided and oppressed to preserve the strict social hierarchy, yet those in power seem to neglect the basic fact that no regime can destroy essential humanity and the need to express individualism.
Atwood explores the theme of a forfeit of personal identity to show the reader the significance of these constraints. Through the handmaid’s patronymic names, they no longer belong to themselves, but rather are the possessions of their Commanders: “Of-Fred”, for example. The replacement of the handmaid’s name once they move to a new posting after three failed attempts at bearing children show how easily names are changed in Gilead, a branding of the woman which amplifies the notion she has little to no control over who she is, and just like her name she can be substituted. Atwood implies that names are used to instate fear in people when Offred says: “She may be a true believer, a handmaid in more than name.” These phrases imply that having this mentality is dangerous, and only serves to increase the mistrust between women, who are meant to be united by their gender. Instead, these “true believers” are complicit with their given identities and so accept the life created for them. This concept is expanded on in the maternalistic names of the ‘Aunts’, who connote ideas of love and care but rather are there to indoctrinate the handmaids with the Puritan-like views of the Gileadian regime. The juxtaposition of their titles to their roles shows how their identities discourage the relationship between women in this misogynistic organisation, and by giving women authority over other women, a divide is maintained. A feminist critic may argue, however, that the dichotomy between the titles given to the women (Aunt, Commander’s Wife) and the men (Commander, Guardian), is a way of enforcing ‘traditional’ gender roles upon society, creating further barriers. These women exploit others to consolidate their own power.
By giving all the handmaids specific uniforms, and by allocating different sections of society various colours, individuality is eradicated, reinforcing social status. The “ankle-length” skirt, the “red gloves” and “red shoes”, the colour of the clothing itself becoming a parody of sacrifice and fertility. Furthermore, the overpowering, vibrant red could also symbolise the blood in death as well as in life, as is seen with the men hanging on the Wall, with “heads of snowmen […] the blood which has seeped through making “another mouth, a small red one.” The dehumanisation of these men emphasises that in Gilead, there is no identity even in death; you are stripped of your humanity whether you are alive or not. The Marthas, on the other hand, wear a dress of a “dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before”. Unlike the handmaid’s dress, the Marthas are made less desirable by a colour which denotes service instead of passion. The irony of the “wings” worn by the handmaids is bittersweet: wings are a symbol of freedom, and yet here they are used to restrict the access the handmaids have to the outside world. This inability to choose what you wear and instead have a prescribed uniform minimises personal identity, reinforcing the social hierarchy and so reducing the risk of subverting the government. This factor is important as it suggests that just by dressing factions of society in certain clothes, and by removing this form of expression, an entire nation can be controlled.
To the narrator, her mind and body are two separate entities, which do not exclusively determine her identity. Before the Ceremony, Offred must “compose [her]self. [Her] self is a thing she must now compose”. The repeated reference to the version of herself as a ‘thing’ demonstrates the internal struggle she is having, separating who she was in her past from the role she has to play today. The final sentence of this chapter: “What I must present is a made thing, not something born” is significant as it shows she believes this new identity has been forced upon her, it isn’t natural to her as she wasn’t born with it. Her ability to distinguish between who she was then and who she is being made to act like tells the reader that she is aware of the detrimental consequence of losing one’s identity completely.
In conclusion, the theme of identity, or rather the loss of identity, in The Handmaid’s Tale is a significant, recurring theme which is used by the government of Gilead to control its society. Nevertheless, those individuals with an inherently strong will and an inability to forget who they were, will strive to retain some aspects of their identity.
The Power of Love
In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Offred, the main character lives in Gilead, a dystopia where fertile women are solely used to reproduce children. Known as handmaids, these women are confined into prison-like centers and forced to fornicate with an aging commander. In this world, the handmaids are treated as farm animals instead of humans. Instead of love and respect, these women get punished or even killed if they do not complete their task. Most importantly, these women lack a sense of love and care that is necessary for civilization. Love is the quintessential emotion that motivates people to strive forward. Because these women do not receive any love, they are not treated as human. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses Offred and the other handmaids to show that the capacity and conscious of love for oneself and each other makes us human.
Conscious love makes us more than just objects. During one instance where Offred has sex with the commander, Offred thinks about the commander’s role in the process of impregnation and how both of them are just tools to the government. Atwood writes, “Possibly he wants something from me, some emotion, some acknowledgment that he too is human, is more than just a seedpod” (262). Atwood describes the commander as a “seedpod” because his sole purpose is to spread his seed and reproduce. More importantly, seedpods do not have a conscious, and that is what the government of Gilead wants to impose on the commanders. Their relationship also emphasizes the importance of love because love is the emotion that Offred describes. Furthermore, this quote is a critique on modern society and human relationships. Atwood points out the importance of understanding each other as people instead of just useful tools. Atwood also describes this type of objectification. During a group wedding arranged by the government, Offred talks to Ofglen, another handmaid; Ofglen tells her that the relationship between handmaids and commanders is strictly professional.” Atwood writes, “But you aren’t expected to love him. You’ll find that out soon enough. Just do your duty in silence” (221). As sex slaves, these handmaids are only supposed to bear children for Gilead. Ofglen tells Offred that she should do her “duty in silence” because she does not have to enjoy her job. Just as the commanders are objects to the handmaids, the handmaids are also tools in the eyes of the commanders. On the other hand, the names of the handmaids demonstrate the objectification of the handmaids. Ofglen and Offred literally means “of Glen” and “of Fred”, the commanders that they are assigned. Like cattle to farmers, the commanders have full ownership of these women. This hierarchy shows the lack of love and care for the handmaids.
Love serves as a way for people to connect and show their empathy. Near the beginning of the book, Offred explores a room and finds stains on a mattress. Immediately, she thinks of Luke, her husband before she was a handmaid: “The stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now….I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me” (52). This “old love” refers to the act of sex as an enjoyable and pleasing activity. Even though she still has sex wit the commander, the feeling of pleasure has been lost because the activity is forced. Atwood describes the stains as “dried flower petals” because the petals symbolize love and fertility. Both flower blossoms and children renew a sense of pleasure and delight. However, these flower petals are dried up and dead to show the loss of that love. Offred also thinks of her husband Luke because this “Old love” reminds her of her old love with Luke. She is reminded of her human connection with Luke and wants to keep that thought alive to stay motivated. Later in the book, Offred thinks about Luke again while she is sleeping and sees his face in a flash of lightning. Atwood writes, “… nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s lack of love we die from,” (103). In this quote, Atwood demonstrates the difference between love and sex. People die from a lack of love because love is about care and respect for one another. While sex can be a part of love, love is not only a part of sex. The act of sex does not motivate us to live because humans do not only strive for physical pleasure, but also spiritual pleasure. Sex does not provide the spiritual pleasure that comes from love. Atwood also uses this quote to criticize the current view of sex and love. In popular culture, the definition of the two words have blurred significantly to such an extent that they almost mean the same thing. Without this sense of affection between two people, each partnership would be like the relationship between a commander and a handmaid. Love not only connects us to each other but also gives us motivation to survive.
Love gives us hope and comfort. During another conversation between Offred and the commander, Offred brings up the topic love and how it motivates her. Atwood writes, “The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always for the incarnation. That word, made flesh” (226). This abstract and total “Love” that Offred describes is a feeling of connection with another human being. Atwood uses the lowercase and uppercases differences of the words to show the differences between her relationship with the commander and her hope for true love. The abstract love is uppercase to show that it is more important than the “love” with the commander. This quote also gives a sense of Godliness to love. Similar to love, the image of God is abstract and total and many people hope to see God in the flesh. Atwood compares religion and love to show its importance for humanity. Love, like religion, moves society forward and can bring comfort into a gloomy and depressing world. In the same scene, Offred also remembers her past love and reflects upon it. Atwood writes, “That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain…. you would be filled with a sense of wonder because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done“ (226). Offred compares love to pain to show the duality of both feelings. Even though pain is usually physically or mentally harmful, it can teach us and improve us. On the other hand, love can bring joy and comfort but it can also bring some pain, especially with heartbreaks. The mistakes and recklessness that can come with love is part of the experience because humans improve and retry past failures. In addition, Atwood explains love as “an amazing and precarious and dumb thing” because it is so unpredictable, but when it works its life-changing. Our ability to comprehend the full body experience of love is unique to humans. Just as Offred needs love from others to survive her torment, we also need it to help with our daily struggles.
As humans, we believe in love because affection is a sign of hope. Offred believes in love and fights for it even though almost all hope is lost. She holds on to that last bit of hope because that bit of love is keeping her sane. Despite the horrendous treatment, Offred’s unwavering love for herself keeps her humanity. Atwood discusses love in The Handmaid’s Tale to outline its importance in our everyday lives. Atwood demonstrates how love guides us through our darkest times. Love is a spiritual realm full of opportunities and dreams; love makes us human because we are capable of understanding it. Our expressions of love not only make us human, but also bind society together with its simple, yet complex terminology.
Atwood’s History: Framing Text and Political Context in The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is an epistolary fiction whose 300 pages allow the reader to induce the structure of an entire apocalyptic society through the story of one character. The novel explores the author’s speculation on how American society will evolve in the next century or two, creating a fictional historical account. The book concludes with a scene of a symposium of historians, set yet further in the future, at which the keynote speaker discusses a “soi-disant manuscript” of The Handmaid’s Tale that has been discovered (Atwood 300). This 12-page address allows the author to instigate contemplation of how history as a whole should be documented and studied: are narratives or raw facts, subjectivity or objectivity, more effective for understanding the past? Atwood provokes consideration of the context and significance of the book, the message in the epilogical “Historical Notes” section, and the process of academic research in today’s world.
It is important to note that The Handmaid’s Tale is itself a symbol. This can be determined by recognizing that every element of the book signifies something else, many of these symbols highlighted and explained by Atwood. For example, to emphasize the importance of female fertility in the future society, Gilead, the narrator describes,“the large white canopy of Serena Joy’s outsized colonial-style four-poster bed, suspended like a sagging cloud above us, a cloud sprigged with tiny drops of silver rain, which, if you looked at them closely, would turn about to be four-petaled flowers” (Atwood 93). Further vivid visual imagery leads to the narrator pondering that the canopy of the bed resembles a ship’s sail. She continues, “Big-bellied sails, they used to say, in poems. Bellying. Propelled forward by a swollen belly” (Atwood 93). The character’s train of thought leads the reader from an entrancingly detailed description of a scene to a conspicuously symbolic comment. The Handmaid’s Tale is sprinkled with such occurrences; the author makes it apparent throughout the book that almost everything has a second, more intricate meaning.
It can be considered, then, that the novel itself is a symbol. A suspicion grows in the reader that there is some sort of extra meaning in the sometimes bizarre epistolary form of the book, and this is all but conclusively confirmed in the final episode. Atwood doubtless disapproved of many facets of American society, her reproachfulness impelling her to pen a fiction of the dark future toward which she believed the country was heading. Stylized as a narrative, The Handmaid’s Tale was likely intended to serve the double purpose of being an engaging speculative piece and the author’s demonstration of a way for history to be written and understood.
At the end of the book, it is clear that the attendees of the symposium have a strong preference for fact-based history, although there seems to be an appreciation for primary sources. The presentation given by the keynote speaker of the event is in itself quite informative, with sentences such as:
There was, too, a negative inducement: childless or infertile or older women who were not married could take service in the Aunts and thereby escape redundancy, and consequent shipment to the infamous Colonies, which were composed of portable populations used mainly as expendable toxic-cleanup squads, though if lucky you could be assigned to less hazardous tasks, such as cotton picking and fruit harvesting. (Atwood 308)
The detail and commentary in this sentence are maintained throughout the speech, confirming that the speaker and, presumably, his audience hold facts and objectivity to be of primary importance.
Toward the end of his presentation, the historian says, “This is our guesswork. Supposing it to be correct…many gaps remain.” He continues sarcastically, “However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has designated to vouchsafe for us” (Atwood 310). The historical convention appears to regard narratives poorly as sources, and this speaker especially undermines the value of the manuscript on which he is presenting by acknowledging the many questions it leaves unanswered. A strong message is conveyed at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale in the speaker’s closing comment:
As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day. (Atwood 311)
This powerful conclusion to the address makes a strong case for the type of objective lens that Atwood symbolically opposes with the book.
Perhaps the conflicting historical ideologies presented in The Handmaid’s Tale are actually Atwood’s final piece of meta-symbolism. They deny rest to the question that has been posed, that of the presence of actuality and personality in historical study. Since historians endeavor to compile and organize all that has happened, a mass of information that exists only in innumerable fragments, their current method is to attempt to use primary sources to infer factual conclusions. For example, the depiction in a textbook of specific events during the American Civil War is that which a group of researchers decided was most likely correct based on the many descriptions that were written by those who personally experienced the time period referenced; a line of best fit, as it were. This notion draws the complaint that this type of history is too objective to accurately report what happened. However, it is no more than the historians’ best attempt to accurately summarize what happened. In a trice, more occurs in the world than could possibly be documented in real time; but each instant is insignificant compared to decisions made in hours, wars fought for years, time periods lasting centuries. The purpose of history is not to describe every single event, nor to oversimplify the past, but to provide the most accurate compendium.
The historians at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale might claim that a summary has no room for the feeble, subjective explanations found in a narrative. Conversely, Atwood may purport that facts about a time or occurrence are not useful without an understanding of the corresponding human sentiment. Due to the conflicting beliefs presented, this provocative piece leaves the reader in a cogitative state—and entirely entertained, moreover.