The Handmaids Tale
The Oppressiveness of Myths in The Handmaid’s Tale
Myths are essential to the human race. The Greeks and Romans used them to explain nature, life and death. Abrahamic and Eastern religions use them to modify behavior and mollify human anxiety about what happens postmortem. In order to keep a myth alive, to retain and exercise belief in it, people developed rituals. As Joseph Campbell said, “A ritual is the enactment of a myth”. In an age before science, myths and their rituals are what kept the world in order. Yet even today, it is human nature to believe in myths. As they have been around for much longer than science, we still cannot rid ourselves of our inclination towards rituals. Though our intellect, our brain may tell us something isn’t true, our blood and our spirit cave in to the ritual. Eventually, our truth becomes the truth of the myth. As Campbell claims, “by participating in a ritual…you are being, as it were, put in accordance with that wisdom [of the ritual]…which is the wisdom of your own life”. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale addresses this battle of ritual and wisdom. Through her character Offred, Atwood reflects Campbell’s quote. As Offred practices the many myths and rituals Gilead has set in place for women like her, what she believes is right and true is replaced by the twisted morals of her society. Eventually, she becomes so submissive to her enslaved way of life that even she begins to see herself and other women as lesser human beings solely because of their gender. As Offred participates in more rituals perpetuated by Gilead’s misogynistic myths, she becomes increasingly less dignified and loses all respect of herself.
Even before Offred started with her first Commander as a Handmaid, she had already begun to accept the myths of Gilead and lose her dignity. Though Gilead claims that the whole hierarchy of society was set in place to protect women, all it does is demean and oppress them. In order to force this wisdom that women need to be sheltered into society’s consciousness, rituals of victim blaming were practiced at the Red Center. Offred participated in one of these attacks on Janine. Before the regime of Gilead, back when the U.S. was still actually united, Janine “was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion” (Atwood 71). Instead of actually blaming the perpetrators of the crime, the Aunts directed the blame onto Janine. Offred and the other Handmaids chanted that it’s “Her fault, her fault, her fault” (72) and that Janine led the men on. When asked “Why did God allow such a terrible things to happen” (72) the whole group of women automatically replied: to “teach her a lesson” (72). Since the majority of Offred’s life was spent in normal society, one would hope that she wouldn’t accept such extreme and awful views after only a little bit of time at the Center. Yet these hopes are futile. Offred herself describes that “For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her. Crybaby…We meant it, which is the bad part” (72). Already, Offred has accepted the truth of Gilead, the wisdom of the myth. Her self respect has already lessened as well. If she can accept that something as horrific as rape is Janine’s fault, she is sure to accept blame for the other, if not smaller, violating acts in her life to come as well.
Another ritual in which Offred loses her dignity and comes into accordance with the myth of society is her bath. The only time she is allowed to be completely naked, one would expect Offred to cherish these few opportunities. Her body is truly the only thing she has left, so it is expected for her to appreciate and revere it in these private moments when it is hers and her alone. While her life may be owned by someone else, her body will forever only be hers. Yet Offred does not react this way. Instead, her reaction is as follows: “I avoid looking down at my body, not because it is shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that defines me so completely” (63). The fact that she refuses to look means she accepts that definition; she accepts that her body, more specifically her reproductive organs, are all the define her. This acceptance alone shows a loss of self respect. Again, Offred has adopted the wisdom of the myth as her own.
The ritual that finally breaks Offred and causes her to lose all self respect is the dreadful Particicution. Every so often, the Gileadean officials allow the Handmaids to express their pent up outrage and despair by letting them kill a selected enemy of the regime. Even as one reads about Offred’s exponential loss of self respect, one would still hope that no matter how deject she may feel, she would never participate in baseless violence and murder. Yet again, this is not the case. In the moments leading up to the violent act, Offred describes her feelings: “despite myself I feel my hands clench. It is too much, this violation…It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend” (279). While this completely loss of civility is hard to read, it is her reaction after the fact, her complete loss of dignity, that truly shocks readers. After the fact, after Ofglen has killed herself, Offred give up altogether, saying “Dear God, I will do anything you like…I will obliterate myself…I’ll empty myself, truly…I’ll stop complaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’ll renounce…I resign my body freely” (286). Here she utterly loses all dignity. She sees herself as the reproductive object Gilead has shaped her to be. She not only recognizes the subhuman treatment of her gender, but wholeheartedly accepts it. Offred is finally broken: the myth of the rituals has become wholly her own.
With each misogynistic ritual that Offred participates in, her dignity and self respect exponentially decrease. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Campbell is right: individual wisdom and the wisdom of the myths one enacts cannot be separate. Eventually one will bleed into the other until the two are no longer distinguishable. As Offed says it, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down…You might as well say, Don’t let there be air” (291). It is pointless to fight. Eventually, we all preach what we practice. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary novel for a reason. In the end, we must all do our best to pick myths and rituals that we know are in accordance with our own wisdom and values, not the other way around. Only until we are able to think critically in situations such as these can we expect the world to become the better, egalitarian place it has the potential to be.
The Politics of Writing in The Handmaid’s Tale
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred describes her life as a concubine in a dystopic and patriarchal world, where fertile women are forced to provide children to their corresponding commanders. Most notably, women are not permitted to read or write in the Republic of Gilead, the faction inhabiting the formerly north eastern United States. Readers commonly accept Offred’s story as a warning against conservativism and Christian principles, enacted to an extreme. This basic interpretation fails to take into account the politics behind communication in the form of the recorded word. Writing and reading were strictly activities reserved for privileged men. Contrarily, women were not allowed to read or write because these pursuits were viewed as a means of power and a path towards awareness and understanding. If we neglect how reading and writing specifically are identified as masculine and correlated to the patriarchy in The Handmaid’s Tale, we will fail to understand the magnitude of the political aspects of writing, which can be used to oppress certain societal groups, as was the case in Offred’s recounting. These political aspects mainly include women’s role in the history of writing. Atwood includes countless examples of sexist or patriarchal scenarios in her book. The most prevalent is the fact that women are prohibited from reading or writing in attempt to communicate unlawful ideas or express outlawed emotion. In the Republic of Gilead, reading was solely connected to masculinity, and used to subjugate women to the overall cause of bearing children, usually against their wishes. In this essay, I will analyze the politics of writing in The Handmaid’s Tale through Winner’s Do Artifacts Have Politics, and then compare this relationship to the Feminist movement in writing using several subsequent articles.
According to Winner, technology is classified as “all of modern practical artifice, smaller or larger pieces or systems of hardware of a specific kind” (123.) Through this definition, Winner would not directly label the development of writing as an artifact, but he might describe the intrinsic properties of writing itself as an artifact that possesses politics because it “can embody specific forms of power and authority” (121). Because writing retains this aspect of power and authority, in that it can be used to control or convince, I would argue that the development of writing may be categorized as a technology because it exhibits features of an organized, large-scale system, and thus, writing will be treated as an artifact to Winner’s definition.
In his thesis, Winner argues that two types of governance, or politics, exist to manage different types of technologies. Technologies that “demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command” (131) are ineffective if controlled by a democratic institution because this type of artifice requires a consolidated figure capable of making decisions unencumbered by long wait times. The other type of technology that Winner discusses is one that is “man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable” (121). These technologies are considered to be democratic; they are organized by many people and require input from multiple sources. So, to finally answer Winner’s question, artifacts do have politics. Under an analysis of the relationship between masculinity and writing in The Handmaid’s Tale, this association would be considered authoritative by Winner’s argument because the women were prohibited from obtaining written forms of communication. These rules were either enforced by the Aunts, the numerous types of different soldiers, or by the commander. Women were banned from reading or writing in order to empower the male population of the colony, to keep control of the handmaids in order for them to perform their child bearing tasks, and to maintain order of the diabolic republic. Offred confirms these claims when she states that “writing is in any case forbidden” (Atwood 39).
The author provides many cases in her work where reading and writing have been outlawed or replaced for women. For example, all forms of currency have been replaced with tokens with an illustrated representation of a single object. Store names have also been replaced by illustrations signifying what service the shop provides. Handmaids don’t have access to writing utensils or paper. Most strikingly, the women don’t have access to the locked-up Bible, but instead, they are presented with an audio version, which Offred “knew they made that up, she knew it was wrong, and they left things out” (89). Even the Bible was locked up because the women were placed under the men’s control, signifying this relationship between the politics between manhood with writing. All of these instances are example to the politics behind writing, in that writing was used to control what the women thought, and to change their perceptions about the new world order. Also, these instances are relevant to the central claim because they all strengthen the relationship that reading and writing are masculine centered activities aimed to oppress the women in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Quite frequently, Offred would think of the meaning of words as a means to distract herself from the terrible world in which she found herself. This activity was almost meditative for her; it provided a sense of temporary freedom in her thoughts and a way to escape her surroundings. During one of these occasions, when she was sitting in her chair, she would “think about the word chair. It can mean the leader of a meeting. It can also mean a mode of execution. It is the first syllable in charity. It is the French word for flesh” (110). Even though Offred was not allowed to read in Gilead, she still embraces the words “to comfort herself” (110). words and the many different meanings awaken memories of her previous life and distract her from a world where the politics of writing are connected to patriarchy. Up to this point, I have established a relationship between masculinity and writing in The Handmaid’s Tale and analyzed it through Winner’s Do Artifacts Have Politics. To continue the argument, I will now pivot and analyze gender and language in The Handmaid’s Tale through Winner’s article, and how they are furthermore related to masculinity. Similarly to how writing has unmistakable politics according to Winner’s argument, language may also have politics because it retains a similar aspect of power and authority that also has the ability to control or convince.
Through Offred, Atwood displays the capability of language and of being aware of innuendos, which she relies on heavily throughout the book. When the Commander allows Offred to use a pen, she inscribes her strengthening phrase: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (186). Offred remembers what ability to write feels like, stating “The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen is Envy” (186). This scenario is similar to Helene Cixous’ argument in The Laugh of the Medusa, where Cixous argues that women may only free herself from the grasp of phallocentrism through writing. When Offred writes for the first time under the rule of Gilead, she begins to feel the “power” it brings to her, to ultimately reach a state of enlightenment. In their essay, Hendricks and Oliver discuss the power of words and the effect that the author has of these words. Applying Cixous’ argument to theirs in that women live in a phallocentric world, and also including the psychoanalytic bit where women suffer from jealousy of the male sex organ, Hendricks and Oliver would rather argue that women instead experience the lust for the ability to communicate through written language as the real desirable power, as was the case for Offred, instead of suffering from Cixous’ idea of ‘penis envy’. Cixous’ argument for the psychoanalytic fails in The Handmaid’s Tale because Offred instead focuses on words rather than male genitalia. Thus, Hendricks and Oliver’s argument would be more applicable because of this focus on the politics behind the words. In her article, Jacqueline Rhodes argues that feministic composition, or feministic descriptions, shapes the feministic expressive thought. Basically, her argument is that the feministic vocabulary shapes the feminist’s thought. This applies to The Handmaid’s Tale in that Offred exhibits many examples when her vocabulary, or more specifically the words she chooses to analyze and relate to different schemas, forms part of her thoughts. For example, when Offred states “This is what she says, whispers more or less… I’ve filled it out for her as much as I can… I’ve tried to make it sound as much like her as I can. It’s a way of keeping her alive” (243) she is using her vocabulary to create a non-physical portrayal of Moira, which can only exist in Offred’s thoughts. Thus, I have displayed the politics behind the words and language of Offred.
The identification of a relationship between masculinity and written communication in The Handmaid’s Tale conveys the idea that writing can be viewed as a technology, a technology that is extremely male dominated in Margaret Atwood’s story. How would Margaret Atwood react to this argument? She would most likely agree because of the feministic ideologies presented in her book, and which are also present in her other works. The issues presented in Atwood’s fictional work thirty-one years ago are still pertinent today. One could easily argue that the history of writing has been mainly male dominated since it’s advent. By recognizing this fact, society may begin to broaden its scope, and to recognize more feministic works in the general public.
The Handmaid’s Tales and Its Various Archetypes
Every piece of literature has already been written; the reason for this is the phenomenon of archetypes. Archetypes are symbols, images, characters, ideas, and themes that are occurring all throughout literature. Carl Joung believed that these archetypes are due to the human unconsciousness. He stated that humans all share a collective unconscious, this is where all history human experiences are stored, therefore all humans will pull the same ideas, the same stories from this collective source of memories. This is the reasoning for archetypes. Since humans all share an unconsciousness, any piece of work written will contain similar patterns and meanings. This collective unconsciousness also allows readers to recognize these patterns which will add new meaning and understanding to a piece of literature. No matter how original a piece will sound, the piece will always have a similar companion. This is the case with The Handmaid’s Tale. Although seemingly an original concept, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts the archetypal journey of a denied hero attempting to regain his or her freedom, in addition to this, various symbols such as certain colors, flowers, gardens, and the bible bring depth and understanding into the work.
A clear, distinct archetype seen in The Handmaid’s Tale is the main character, Offred, as the denied hero. The denied hero is a protagonist whose status and otherness creates a sense of heroism; it can be compared to the story of the “underdog,” a hero that has been doubted and brought down by others but in the end, the underdog will achieve a victory. Offred, due to the creation of Gilead, is placed in a precarious position in society. She is made into a Handmaid, a low ranking position in Gilead. She is faced with the task of reproducing for higher ranking officials or else she will be outcasted and branded as an “unwoman” or killed. Offred becomes this denied hero stereotype when she begins to release her once suppressed rebellious thoughts. Due to this, Offred begins to regain small doses of her independence and gaining knowledge of the truth behind Gilead.
Every hero in every story will partake in an adventure. The denied hero archetype of The Handmaid’s Tale is coupled with the pattern of “the quest for freedom.” This is a quest the hero will partake in, in order to gain back his or her independence.
The journey always begins with departure, it is when the hero is called to an adventure whether the hero wants to or not. Offred, whose name was originally June before Gilead’s time, was taken away from her husband, Luke, and her child when she tried to escape the country, the developing Gilead. She was reluctant but was forced to be in this new developing society, forced to be on this adventure.
Then, the hero enters through a threshold into a new, dangerous world; this is called the initiation. After the attempted escape and capture, Offred is taken to the Red Center, a learning area to condition the few selected to be Handmaid’s (women used for the sole purpose of reproduction). She is then entered into the completed Gilead society and performs her duties without say.
The hero then faces various obstacles, enduring tests of strength, resourcefulness, and endurance. Offred encounters the central conflict of whether she should conform to the society she was unwillingly placed in or if she should find a way to escape once again. There were multiple occasions where she was tempted with freedom from isolation, freedom from her duties, and freedom from constrained intimacy. This was seen during various moments such as the time when the doctor hinted if Offred wanted an easy way to pregnancy since most commanders were “sterile. [But] there was no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law. [And she wanted] a baby.” (Arwood 61) and even Nick seemed to offer freedom from lack of intimacy when Nick “[looked at Offred], and sees [her] looking [at him]. He [began] to whistle. Then he [winked]” (Atwood 18). The continuously struggles between being herself, June, and being Offred.
The hero then enters the innermost cave, an underworld, that a great trial will occur. This trial will cause a change in the hero whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. In the case of Offred, after conquering many obstacles, she is taken to the innermost cave of Gilead, Jezebel. Jezebel was the underworld of this “holy” city, it was full of commanders and other high ranking officials having sex with typically outlawed women like lesbians and the educated. This is where Offred is reunited with her long, lost best friend, Moira. Moira has been a role model for Offred since she was rebellious, independent, and fought for what she believed in. Offred wanted to still believe this even after they were seperated due to Gilead’s upcoming. Yet, after meeting with her motivator in Jezebel, she realized that Moira is changed. She no longer has the fighting spirit that Offred remembers. Instead of taking this revelation negatively, Offred feels as if she’s more liberated and begins to stray from the confining rules of Gilead.
Finally, after the trial faced at the innermost cave, the hero will return and reintegrate into society. The hero will then use this change in him or her to restore his or her independence. Before the incident at Jezebel, Offred acknowledged that her “name [wasn’t] Offred, [she had] another name, which nobody [used] now because [it was] forbidden.” (Atwood 84) but after she began to disregard this rule when she “[told Nick her] real name, and [felt] that therefore [she was] known. [She acted] like a dunce” (Atwood 270). This little incident marked a great change in Offred; it lead to Offred finally letting herself feel intimacy once more after being tempted by Nick by sneaking out of the house to see him and it lead to Offred being courageous enough to mention the rebellion group “Mayday” to the new replacement for her handmaid friend, Offglen. Instead of being conflicted with the rules of Gilead, she began to take risks and think more freely in her own thoughts. This will eventually lead to the end of the journey, when the archetypal hero finally regains his or her freedom. Nick aided Offred in escaping the commander’s household and finally gaining her independence. After all of the conflicts, problems, issues, events, trauma, Offred was finally be able to decide things on her own and not be confined by the rules of Gillead. The denied hero, who has been placed so low in society, will finally gain a vitory on the “quest for freedom.”
Color plays a crucial part in the telling of The Handmaid’s Tale. In the dystopian society described in the book, everything and everyone is color coordinated. The people of Gilead are broken up into different classes and each class has a set color.
Those with high ranking positions are associated with the color black, this refers to the commanders and anything the commanders owns like Offred’s commander owning “a very expensive [car], a Whirlwind, it’s black, the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek” (Atwood 17). In addition, government property is also described to be black like the vans that are used to transport any “criminals” are described as “a black-painted van, with the winged eye in white on the side. The windows [were] dark-tinted, and the men in the front seats [wore] dark glasses: a double obscurity” (Atwood 21-22). Commanders are also described as wearing a “black uniform” (Atwood 86). Such a dark color is used to create a mysterious, sinister, and controlling aura, showing the reader how unknown the lives and actions of the authoritative Gilead figures truly are. The color black is used as the color of villains, making it clear to the readers who the antagonists of The Handmaid’s Tales are.
Below any of the authoritative figures of Gilead, are the Wives. The Wives are described as typically wearing “a light blue veil thrown over [their heads]” (Atwood 12) and “dresses, sky blue with embroidery in white along the edges” (Atwood 81). This blue is used to symbolize conservatism, cleanliness, and a “spiritual purity,” referencing back to the image of the Virgin Mary dressed in her light blue garments. This ultimately illustrates how the Wives are seen as almost blessed and high up in Gilead’s society. The wives are no longer having children but have someone, the Handmaids, perform the task instead, but will ultimately receive the child in the end almost like how the Virgin Mary was given a blessed child by God but kept her holiness.
The aunts are below the wives in Gilead’s social hierarchy. The aunts are tasked with regulating any of the activities of the Handmaids. They are tasked with molding the minds of the of handmaids to fit Gilead’s standards and keeping these women on task with their one true duty: reproduce. The aunts are described as wearing “khaki [dresses]” (Atwood 113) and a predominantly “brown outfit” (Atwood 244). The color brown is used to represent conventional and orderly the aunts are and how they can easily blend into the background but still have a prominent figure in society. The aunts are reliable, stable, and solid. They are the only women in this society that is given power therefore they must use it wisely.
Next in line within Gilead’s hierarchy are the Handmaids. These are the only fertile women that are tasked with only one thing: to reproduce. They are sent from Commander’s house to Commander’s house in order to try and become impregnated since the wives are no longer fertile. The Handmaids wear “red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine [and] red gloves [and] everything except the wings [a headpiece] around [their faces was] red” (Atwood 8). The color red shows passion and lust. It is also the color of prostitution. Gilead’s society does not necessarily state that they are prostitutes but the idea resonates clearly. The Handmaids go from man to man, being provided shelter and food as a sort of payment. In addition, the red is also associated with their one duty of reproducing. The color is not only found on the Handmaids but Offred seems to be attracted to red objects such as “the tulips [in the garden were] red, a darker crimson towards the stem” (Atwood 12). This shows how fixated the handmaids have become with the idea of reproducing; they are thoroughly brainwashed into believing this is their one true task in life, an almost impossible task to accomplish.
Even below the Handmaids are the Marthas. The Marthas are practically the servants of Gilead, these women are tasked with performing household chores in a Commander’s household such as cooking, cleaning, etc. They wear the “usual Martha dress, which [was] dull green, like a surgeon’s gown. The dress was much like [the handmaids] in shape, long and concealing, but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the veil” (Atwood 9). The use of green is to symbolize health, good luck, renewal, generosity, and service. It is also seen as the color of fertility yet the Marthas are infertile, instead they help in making sure the Handmaids are fertile and healthy enough to produce a child.
The lowest of the Gilead hierarchy are the unwomen and those who stand against the Gilead government. These outcasts are sent away from the dystopia but instead sent to the colonies, where they will eventually die. All of the exiles, “[women and men wore] long dresses, like the ones at the Center, only gray” (Atwood 249). This grey represents nonexistence and shadows. The color suits them since the outcasts simply no longer exist in Gilead society; they are nonexistent, nonfunctional and do not partake in any duties the government has established. They are meant to be the shadows of those chosen or “blessed” to be part of Gilead’s society.
These colors play a prominent role since it creates clear divisions between people in Gilead’s society. By having one “class” all wear the same color, it diminishes the possibility of identity, the possibility of one person standing out from the crowd. The people of Gilead “don’t have different clothing [but] merely different [people]” (Atwood 237). The conformity allows for obedience and for all to remain on the duties Gilead’s government has tasked them with.
Other prominent archetypes are gardens and flowers. In Gilead, “many of the Wives [had] such gardens, it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for” (Atwood 12). These gardens would fill every household with bursts of color, lightness, and delicate smells. It creates a sense of paradise, almost like the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden was created by God in order to let Adam and Eve live in peace and to be able to reproduce. This archetype creates depth within the book, showing how Gilead allowed for the garden just how God allowed for the Garden of Eden. By creating a garden, there is a sense of tranquility, a worthy environment for humans to reproduce just like Adam and Eve. Furthermore, the garden is full of flowers, a symbol of fertility. Offred notices them so often, regarding them as the goal for many Handmaids by referring to them as “the swelling genitalia of the flowers, the fruiting body” (Atwood 153). Even beyond the flowers of the garden, there seems to be flowers everywhere for Offred from “the drapes [of Jezebel] are heavy flowered ones that [matching] the bedspread, orange poppies on royal blue” (Atwood 251) to the “watercolor picture of blue irises” (Atwood 7) in Offred’s room. Flowers serve as a reminder for Offred’s one duty of reproducing.
Besides colors or flowers, another pattern show throughout the book are the eyes. The emblem of Gilead is “[a] winged eye in white” (Atwood 22) which is seen plastered on various objects that are only owned for higher authoritative figures such as vehicles, uniforms, or government buildings. In addition, eyes can also refer to the numerous amount of spies the government employs. The eyes are the ones to arrest traitors and to “[crack down on any] underground espionage ring” (Atwood 83). The constant reference to eyes can be linked back to the archetypal symbol of truth and an all-powerful being. The government of Gilead plasters these images of eyes and names their spies as “eyes,” to create fear and be constant reminder of how powerful the government of Gilead is versus the people Gilead rules. It serves as a constant reminder that all under the eye are powerless and are constantly watched.
There are set patterns seen throughout multiple works of literature which help to enhance the progression and meaning of a story. Many works have followed the same, if not extremely similar, archetypes that The Handmaid’s Tale represents such as the use of a denied hero, the “quest for freedom,” certain colors, gardens, flowers, and eyes. Following Carl Joung’s belief, there will be no such thing as a “new” story since all human experiences are shared in a collective unconsciousness.
Can’t Buy Me Love: Romance in the Handmaid’s Tale
In the world of literature, it is all about your reputation.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an Orwellian romp into the near future lead by a female protagonist, received both the kiss of death and the gift of notoriety when it was labeled a “feminist dystopia.” Similar to when a celebrity “tweets” a comment that is remotely debatable, the conversation among literary critics erupted following this instance of labeling. However, the situation surrounding Atwood’s novel was slightly different from celebrity Twitter fodder because the author never actually labeled her book a feminist dystopia; others did it for her. In fact, Atwood has tended to resist the label others have given her work. When pressed about her own beliefs, she admitted that she is a feminist if the definition of feminism is a “belief in the rights of women… [as] equal human beings” adding that if “practical, hardline, anti-male feminists took over and became the government” she would “resist them.”
Nevertheless, critics continue to debate over whether or not The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist text. Of course, it is difficult to debate this topic objectively because, like Atwood, individuals have their own definitions of feminism ranging from Atwood’s perspective to definitions that necessitate solely blaming men for the oppression of women.
Luckily, some literary critics consider variables other than a maliciousness supposedly inherent in men to explain the gender relations present in this text. The existing critical conversation surrounding this novel has done a fine job of recognizing the relevance of the enhanced capitalism of the 1980s to the text. Karen Magro affirms the relationship between “unbridled capitalism” and gender, claiming that Margaret Atwood herself found the “gains” women had made in the later half of the twentieth century “precarious,” presumably because of the disenfranchisement of women in the midst of increased materialism and commodification (Magro 118). Likewise, Shirley Neuman posits that Atwood’s speculations are derived from the “early 1980s reactions to the successes of the women’s movement as well as the intersections of these reactions with some of the…excesses of the period” (Neuman 859). Though both of these critics mention the role of capitalism in regards to female oppression both in and outside of the novel, it is Kristen M. Billy who focuses on the ways in which capitalism in the form of gendered commodification functions in The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly the commodification of procreation. Still, even Billy portrays this behavior as a biological imperative of the male sex. Other critics, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, take a different approach, viewing the novel as a backlash against radical feminism, exemplified through the the role that heteronormative romance plays as the “only truly subversive force” in Gileadean society (Ehrenreich 34).
While I do not think that this novel engages in an “anti-male” agenda like Billy, I am unable to ignore the presence of certain men at the center of Gileadean systems of oppression, particularly wealthy men who control the means of production. Moreover, I intend to combine the wisdom of these critics in order to demonstrate how capitalism and love are interconnected in this text. Initially, I plan to briefly establish the realistic origins of this text that stem from 1980s economic ideology and evince Atwood’s negativity toward these ideals through textual evidence. Then, my intention is to demonstrate the relationship between capitalism and gender. Finally, I will posit love as Atwood’s response to the gendered problems derived from capitalism. Ultimately, I aim to prove that this novel portrays Reagan era capitalism and materialism as the patriarchal force that transforms men into oppressors, leading to the eventual subjugation of the female sex. Nevertheless, Atwood champions men as individuals when she evinces heteronormative love as Gilead’s rarest and most important resource.
Atwood herself claimed that there is “nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened”and that “all the things described in the book, people have already done to one another” (Magro 118). Perhaps that is why this text seems so familiar to the reader, as if leaving echoes of a nightmare they may have already had. In order to understand Gilead we must first understand the societal parameters that made Gilead a reality. For the purposes of this novel and this essay, it is important to remember the socio-economic environment that existed while Atwood was writing, conditions that are then exaggerated in Offred’s descriptions of pre-Gileadean America. Atwood’s discourse often reveals an aversion to Reaganomics and the materialistic mentality of the 1980s. This perspective on the era is affirmed by economist and journalist Jim Collins who recalls the “Wall Street” culture of this decade, that celebrated “the twin propositions that ‘greed is good’ and that ‘more is better’” (Collins 1).
Initially, Gilead subjugates its citizens by class in addition to gender. The commanders, for example, are wealthy men who hold the highest rank in society. They also seem to flaunt their wealth and Atwood’s diction reveals that she does not approve of this practice. When Offred is describing the Commander’s “very expensive” car, she claims that it is “ much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth,” and elaborates on its black color when she likens it to “the color of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek” (Atwood 20). Though Offred’s description is sincere, Atwood’s intentions are slightly different. First, labeling the fancy car as “much better” than the practical option has a sarcastic connotation that connotes the author’s negativity toward materialism. In addition, comparing the car to a “hearse” equates this material luxury with death. Furthermore, Atwood uses economic language while describing facets of life that seemingly do not hold material value. For instance, Offred labels sanity as a “valuable possession” (Atwood 109). This quote further emphasises my claim that this novel is about commodification in its most extreme form because Offred’s tendency to view the intangible concept of sanity in economic terms shows how saturated the society is with capitalist ideology . Offred agrees, speculating that Gileadean society is not about “control” but about “who can own whom,” using the concept of ownership, which typically is applied to items instead of people, to affirm the connection between interpersonal relationships and economy (Atwood 135).
Still, how does this negative focus on capitalism relate to gender?
First, we would be remiss to assume that Atwood spontaneously generated a connection between gender and economy. In fact, keeping in mind her quote about the realistic genesis of this book, we can prove that this socioeconomic relationship is far from a fictional invention. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, “women made up an increasing percentage of those in the lowest-paid occupations, and they made no gains or lost ground in the better-paid trades and professions” (Neuman). This was likely the result of increased competition for jobs in an economy that was beginning to globalize. Incidentally, the general consensus is that capitalism also creates a feeling of entitlement among the elites who are, in Western society, historically wealthy, white, property owning men. It is not outlandish to understand how this sense of material entitlement could be extended toward people, possibly making these men feel as though they are just as entitled to do what they please to women as they are to their impractical and fancy cars.
Kristen Billy cites Azizah Al-Hibri who claims that “men need to dominate women in order to exclude them from production” explaining that “patriarchy results from men’s desire for immortality” and feelings of “inadequacy” that result from their inability to carry children (Billy 24). However, in the sociological article “Capitalism and the Oppression of Women”, Martha Gimenez argues against the idea that patriarchy is a biological imperative of men, insisting that gender inequality is a “structural characteristic of capitalist social formations” that is not sufficiently explained through “microfoundations” such as “men’s or women’s intentions” and biology because gender inequality is “the structural effect of a complex network of macro-level processes through which production and reproduction are inextricably connected” (Gimenez 24). This explanation coincides with the novel’s portrayal of capitalism as an agent of oppression. Furthermore, the article argues that since a capitalist system is unable to provide “full employment and pay to all workers…male and female workers are forced to compete with each other for scarce jobs” (Gimenez 30). This system, in turn, creates two spheres of occupation. Women are allocated to the “sphere of reproductive labor” because men are unable to reproduce in the same fashion while property owning men are given the scarce paid jobs. Essentially, Gimenez is suggesting that in a perfect world in which everyone could obtain employment, gender inequality would vanish.
It is impossible to discern from just one work of literature whether or not Atwood herself is anti-capitalist or anti-materialist however, she indisputably recognized some of the problems that these economic practices created for women. This understanding is exemplified in the novel, in which women’s bodies are commodified for procreative purposes. According to the text, this began, presumably, with the commodification of sexual pleasure in pre-Gileadean society, showcased by the presence of places like “Porno-Marts.” Moreover, in the scenario Atwood presents, fertility has become a scarce resource perhaps as a result of these commodified sexual practices or environmental degradation. Whatever the cause, infertility grew rampant, giving the Gileadean regime the impetus to seize power. Since men control the means of production, fertility becomes another resource that they have dominion over. However, although the conservative regime sought to end the less moral sexual excess of contemporary America, they still commodify sex, further subjugating women. Childbearing in Gilead is “rationalized, made vastly more efficient, and becomes more and more public—part of an integrated social network” (Billy 19). When procreation is industrialized, the sex/gender system of Gilead is reduced to one official function: reproduction.
In the time before the fertility epidemic, similar to the 1980s, women were becoming a more integral part of the workforce and using reproductive technologies to reproduce without men, which potentially excluded men from both the productive and reproductive spheres. This problem is alluded to in one of Offred’s Scrabble conversations with the Commander:
“The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore.
“Nothing?” I say. But they had . . .
“There was nothing for them to do”, he says.
“They could make money”, I say, a little nastily…
“It’s not enough”, he says. “It’s too abstract. I mean there was nothing for them to do with women.” (Atwood 210)
Therefore, widespread infertility provided men with a way to relegate women to the reproductive sphere, giving the men “something to do” with them, and effectively eliminating their competition for success in the capitalist system.
Using this logic, it would seem as though Atwood is suggesting that, under capitalism, the only way to achieve equilibrium is to subjugate half of the population. In this fashion, the novel reveals sexism as a necessary component of capitalism, a radical and frightening notion, considering the fact that her audience is composed of people entrenched in similar- albeit far less extreme- capitalist societies.
Thankfully, Atwood provides her readers with some reassurance. Return for a moment, to the excerpted conversation between the Commander and Offred. The Commander wants “something to do” with women, not to them or against them. Buried beneath the more prominent elements of the novel, Atwood posits a possible solution to this problem; love. In The Handmaid’s Tale, love is the force able to connect men and women independently of production and reproduction. Moreover, love is the only force with the potential to subvert the system of capitalist subjugation because it is the only resource that cannot be controlled or purchased.
In chapter nineteen, Aunt Lydia says that “A thing is valued…only if it is rare and hard to get.” This astute observation is the principle that governs economic and interpersonal relations in the novel. In Gilead, love is the only resource rarer than fertility and therefore vehemently sought after. Offred herself ruminates on “falling in love”, observing that the more “difficult” love was the more powerful it seemed, and acknowledging love as a word so powerful that it “made flesh” (Atwood 225). Here, the protagonist is recognizing the power the concept of love has over the human psyche.
This theme is shown primarily through Offred’s relationship with both the Commander and her possibly deceased husband. The Commander is a man of the highest rank who enjoys the fruits of capitalism that Gilead has to offer, such as his previously described car and his access to rare items such as hand lotion and magazines. He even has access to non-procreative sex, as evinced during Offred’s trip to Jezebel’s. However, though the Commander has all that he could purchase, he still longs for love. This is revealed during his meetings with Offred which are ultimately about emotional companionship as opposed to the lewd alternatives that Offred imagines. Rather than asking Offred to perform sexual acts the Commander asks her to play Scrabble with him and to kiss him as if she “meant it” (Atwood 140). Though she finds it peculiar at first, Offred uses love as a subversive tool, exploiting the Commander’s desire in exchange for small conveniences like hand lotion and prohibited information about Gilead.
However, the Commander is not the only character suffering from the absence of love. Offred often longs for the love she experienced with her husband Luke. In one of her late night introspections she admits that she wants “to be held” and told her name. She wants to “be valued” in ways that she is not, to be “more than valuable” (Atwood 97). Technically, Offred is already the most valued commodity in Gileadean society because she is a fertile woman, but this quote implies that Offred wants more than to be valued as a rare commodity; she wants to be loved.
It may seem peculiar that Atwood spends a significant portion of her novel describing Offred’s relationship with Luke, a character that never actually appears. However, when juxtaposed with descriptions of Offred’s relationship with the Commander, it evinces the difference between real love and the type of love that can be bought. The Commander attempts to find love with Offred through an economic exchange, but the type of love he’s looking for, the type that Offred had with Luke, is invaluable. This is further emphasised in a particular description of Offred and Luke’s relationship:
Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the Children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays.
Such freedom now seems almost weightless.
Gimenez insists that men and women need each other for purposes of procreation, and this potential is controlled by economic factors. Though it “wasn’t too likely” that Offred and Luke could afford the material markers of a family unit, ie: (a big house, “swings for the children”) their economic inabilities do not infringe on their happiness and do not lessen their bond. Moreover, it is important to give attention to the connotation of the word “weightless.” Perhaps Atwood uses this word to describe Offred’s freedom because her freedom is intangible, especially when compared with her discussion of the tangible items she and Luke could not afford. This connotes to the reader that it is not the material luxuries that Offred values even though they were the subject of her conversation with Luke. Instead, she values the freedom of discussion and the intimacy she shared with her husband. Furthermore, they do eventually have a child despite these economic difficulties, showing that the desire to procreate out of love supersedes economic boundaries.
Still, one could argue that even Offred’s relationship with Luke is affected by economic factors and that Offred intimates that her husband shares the traits of other repressive men. In this case, their relationship would not represent the pure, unsullied love that I have been describing. This alternative view of Offred’s relationship with Luke is best presented when Offred loses her job. Luke attempts to comfort Offred, saying that “it’s only a job” and that he will “always take care” of her. Initially, Offred thinks that he is patronizing her but then changes her mind, acknowledging that she is “starting to get paranoid” (Atwood 179). Nevertheless, this example does reveal a possible issue with argument this discourse has presented in favor of true love. Moreover, if Luke exhibits behavior that perpetuates the ideals of a “patriarchy”, this example dissembles claims that Atwood is not blaming men as a gender for creating and enabling this horrific society. However, when reading the above excerpt, it is prudent to keep in mind the novel’s mantra, “context is all.” Luke’s behavior seems patriarchal in the context of the sexist capitalist system that has rendered his wife jobless. Under different circumstances, his promise to “take care of” his wife would not have such a negative connotation and Offred herself realizes this when she recognizes her own paranoia.
In a hyper-capitalist society like Gilead, that which cannot be commodified retains the most value and in this case that is love, specifically the love shared between a man and a woman. Atwood portrays heterosexual love as humanity’s most benevolent and simultaneously subversive asset. For this reason, it is impossible to say that Atwood “blames” the biological imperatives of men for her dystopian vision because she includes them as a necessary part of the solution. This book is much more concerned with presenting a society in which capitalism has run amuck and human beings are commodified than it is with the “patriarchy.” Thus we return to the original question of critics and readers alike:
Is The Handmaid’s Tale a feminist text?
According to the author’s own definition the answer is affirmative. This text promotes a belief in the “rights of women”, particularly women disadvantaged by the sexism inherent in capitalism and it does so without “blaming” or excluding the male gender. It promotes the rights women have to think, to learn, to live, and especially to love both themselves and the male receivers of their affection. Perhaps this is the most feminist claim a person could make; to advocate for a future in which a woman does not need a man for survival or social utility but still retains the privilege to love be loved in return and to not feel entitled to anybody but each other.
Billy, Kristen. ““I AM A NATURAL RESOURCE”: THE ECONOMY OF COMMODIFICATION IN ATWOOD’S THE HANDMAID’S TALE.” TCNJ Journal of Student Scholarship 13 (2011): 1-6. The College of New Jersey. Web.
Ehrenreich, Barabara. “Feminism’s Phantoms.” The New Republic 194.11 (1986): 33. Print.
Collins, Jim. “Built to Flip.” Jim Collins. 1 Mar. 2000. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Magro, Karen. “Gender Matters: Revisiting Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad through the Lens of Social Justice.” Notes On American Literature 22 (2013): 20-28. Print.
Neuman, S. C. (Shirley C.). “‘Just A Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism, And The Handmaid’s Tale.” University of Toronto Quarterly 75.3 (2006): 857-68. University of Toronto Press. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Gimenez, Martha E. “Capitalism And The Oppression Of Women: Marx Revisited.” Science & Society 69.1 (2005): 11-32. Guilford Publications. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
The Role of Kindness: The Life of a Handmaid
Kindness, when given out, is habitually expected to be returned. More often than not it is seen that kindness, in fact, is given so that something else of value may be returned. Kindness is often exchanged for similar invaluable things like favouritism and prosperity, making the giver of such manners manipulative. When one contains the hidden motive to receive something in return for expected kindness, one has the ability to control not only the relationships around them, but their own singular destiny as well. For example, the character Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale treats her masters Serena Joy and The Commander, as well as her only friend Ofglen, with kindness merely to achieve a sure confirmation of her own well-being. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred uses kindness to mask her inner thoughts and feelings in order to ensure her survival and her believed destiny as a handmaid.
Though Offred’s gentleness and quite nature are expected in her ranking as a Handmaid, Offred’s treatment towards Serena Joy differs from her attitude. Having known Serena Joy previously to be an enthusiastic pioneer of the new Gilead regime, Offred works dutifully to live up to her mater’s expectations. Understanding that ” it was best not to speak unless [asked] a direct question”, Offred secures her status in the household in her silence and servitude, though inside she holds the belief that as long as she presents herself well, she will eventually be rewarded. This inner belief results in Offred’s small acts of rebellion; although she speaks and acts as she should, Offred still identifies herself as an independent and free thinking woman, her only rebellion. This discrepancy between her inner non-conformity and her outward manners toward Serena Joy is what Offred believes will ultimately bring her some amount of freedom. By operating under the guise of servitude, Offred can eventually gain small amounts of independence, at the will of Serena Joy. Offred does achieve this soon enough in the form of a cigarette and match given to her by Serena Joy, demonstrating that in order to truly manipulate someone, one must be truly kind and hide their inner motives.
Offred’s kindness to her only friend Ofglen originally is performed to ensure her social status among the other Handmaids, but quickly Offred learns that in order to gain information from her partner, she must act accordingly. Ofglen reveals herself as a veritable source of rebellion, and if Offred is to share this rebellion, she needs to show her willingness. Offred does this by kindly greeting Ofglen with the forbidden greeting of “Hello” and by mocking the Gilead enthusiasts with “I thought you were a true believer.” By acting in this “old fashioned” way and speaking their minds, both Offred and Ofglen are ensuring their friendship and stating their superficial commitment to each other. Though Offred only complies to gain information of the underground resistance, it is this behaviour that associates Offred with no one. She displays kindness to Ofglen only to manipulate her, conveying to the reader that though Offred does not identify with the traditional Gilead regime, she doesn’t identify with the resistance movement either. Here it is displayed that though Offred possesses the traits of rebellion and kindness, she only does so to secure the survival of only herself.
Towards her ultimate master, The Commander, Offred is kind and almost invisible, in this way securing her destiny as a Handmaid. Offred recalls the story of a Nazi guard who “was not a monster”, at least not to his wife. By comparing the wife’s situation to her own, Offred realizes that although the Commander is the agent of her oppression, she can use his affection to her advantage. By displaying kindness towards the Commander and complying to his wishes to see her after acceptable hours, Offred secures her relationship with him. Offred, succeeding in gaining the Commander’s kindness, now uses it to gain whatever she wishes. Magazines and moisturizer among her rewards, Offred’s kindness has secured her destiny, at least for the time being. For while she is living in the house of the Commander and Serena Joy, even if she is failing to produce offspring Offred can be sure that her survival is guaranteed because of the relationship she has with the Commander. Her kindness is her only weapon, and here it is seen that Offred uses it to her every advantage in winning the affection of the Commander.
Kindness is often expected, and no saying is more true than in the life of the Handmaid Offred. Offred uses her kindness in exchange for possessions such as cigarettes and magazines, but also in exchange for intangible things such as information, affection, and control. For it is seen that when one can receive power when they display kindness, said person can achieve ultimate subsistence. As seen in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred ensures her survival and control of her own destiny through her behaviour in her relationships, thereby allowing her the ability to achieve ultimate freedom, if she so chooses.
Identity: Fighting Dystopia’s Cookie-Cutter Molds
Dystopian governments often work hard to erase identity through specific social constructs; they work to force the people they govern into a “cookie-cutter” mold. In literature, this molding is often fought by a person within the society, and that fight leads at least one person to become a more extreme individual as V in V for Vendetta, Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I-330 in WE all did. In older dystopian novels, the narrator is often not that individual but someone close to the person fighting the mold. In novels that have an audience more centered on young adults and teens, the main character becomes the character fighting against the government-restricted identity. Finding the fight for individualism and freedom in identity is a theme held in common within The Handmaid’s Tale, WE, and V for Vendetta.
Governmental control of women’s rights and identities in The Handmaid’s Tale, along with Moira’s extreme defiance of this control, gives the reader the idea that identity is a key concept within the dystopia that Moira calls home. The Republic of Gilead’s government is continuously trying to take the women’s “old” identities away and give them “new” identities. By changing their names, giving them jobs or titles, assigning them colors that correlate to these jobs, and taking away their rights, the Republic of Gilead is brainwashing and forcing these women into a frame of identity that are established and controlled. In her life before Gilead, the main character’s name was June, but while in The Republic of Gilead, she is Offred. With this name, the government has essentially named her as the property of Fred (the Commander). The Republic of Gilead started to remove women’s rights after the suspension of the Constitution. Once they gained control, women lost the right to have money, to hold a job, and eventually they lost the right to read or write. Through losing these rights, women also lost a sense of character because they could no longer identify themselves through their success, intelligence, and financial security. Though there were several subtle declarations that the government made, the forced change of identity did not become apparent until the jobs or titles and the colors of these titles were put in place. Giving the women titles such as Handmaid, Martha, Wife, and Econowife forces them into the idea that these are their identities; the colors red, green, blue, and multi-colored are a part of that new identity. Women become Handmaids when they are still fertile. Once their fertility ceases, they become Unwomen and live in the “colonies.” The Marthas are women who cook and clean in the homes and the Wives are the women who seem to have been in some sort of power or married to a man of power before the Republic of Gilead took over. The Econowives are often looked down upon, almost as second class women as they “are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can” (Atwood, page 24). These titles and roles are basically the only identification for these women in the Republic of Gilead. The shaping of identity in the Republic of Gilead causes many women to be uncomfortable, but no one seems more angry than Moira, Offred’s friend. Moira is the citizen in Gilead society who cannot, and will not, fit the government’s mold of identity.
The Republic of Gilead adheres to an extremist form of fundamental Christianity, in which homosexuality is a sin. Moira is not the “ideal” women from the very beginning, since Moira is a lesbian. Because she is still fertile and can have children, she is forced to be a Handmaid because being a lesbian in this society is impossible. Moira is taken to the Red Center where the “Aunts” continually try to brainwash all of the fertile women into feeling that these roles and this society is the best. By brainwashing these women, the government was able to take control of their identities and shape them because “thoughts mold identities more than looks…” (Eisiminger 4). The Aunts would show pornographic videos so the Handmaids could see “what they [men] thought of women, then” along with Unwoman protest documentaries in which the women were “wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful” (Atwood 118). After arriving at the Red Center, Moira tries to escape. The first time she is unsuccessful and is subsequently tortured. The second time, Moira succeeded by taking apart a toilet, capturing and threatening an Aunt, stealing her uniform, and simply walking out of the Red Center like she knew what she was doing. This escape, and the unknown possibility of success outside of the Red Center, leaves hope for Offred to have courage, and to remember her life before. Moira’s ability to retain some of her identity from before, despite her becoming a prostitute at Jezebel’s, tells the reader that some identity is better than none.
In the dystopian novel We, Yevgeny Zamyatin made the government mostly successful in removing individual identity, except in one cipher, Cipher I-330. Within Cipher D-503’s diary, the reader begins to see the unfolding of a society in which the government has removed all ideas of individuality and identity. In this society of the One State, D-503 explains perfectly what the One States goals are as he talks with a new cipher, I-330. D-503 seems to believe entirely in the idea and goal of the One State, that “…No one is ever ‘one’, but always ‘one of’. We are so identical…” (WE, page 8). By removing all individual identity and giving them the same mechanical identity as the government, the One State makes ciphers believe that the government’s mechanization of identity is theirs and they do not have their own. The One State and the Benefactor instigate the Table of Hours to prevent growth of the imagination, which may develop and foster the mechanical identity. Preventing the progress of imagination within the society becomes a key to stunting the growth of identity. Yang Jianfang finds that, “…the more central an identity is to an individual, the more likely this identity is to impact cognitions, feelings, and actions…” (Jianfang 167). These feelings, cognitions, and actions all relate to imagination, since imagination is found to sometimes create these feelings and cognitions which influence actions. Within the Table of Hours there are two personal hours, leaving everything else in day scheduled. D-503 hopes for the removal of these Personal Hours. He “believe[s] that sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place in the general formula for these hours too, one day all of the 86,400 seconds will be accounted for in the Table of Hours.”(We page 13). By removing these two hours, the government would remove all freedom. Within these Personal Hours, a cipher is allowed to draw, write, meet with another cipher, walk, or run where they please. Ciphers are also allowed to lower the blinds in their rooms in order to have sex with another during these two Personal Hours; these are the only times the blinds can be lowered, and both ciphers must have a permission from the One State. If a cipher is doing anything other than having sex, the blinds may not be lowered.
This obvious lack of privacy encourages a sense of unity but a lack of identity. These ciphers have nothing that is their own, nothing that they can hide from other ciphers as something personal. By giving ciphers a name of combined letters and numbers, the government has also found another way to succeed in removing individual identity. Skip Eisiminger states that “… all names are intrinsic parts of their bearers’ identity and deserve respect” (Eisminger 2). Indeed, the government’s lack of respect towards the ciphers’ names and identities exemplifies the negative sentiments of the government regarding the idea of individual identity. D-503 identifies more as a machine than as a human because he is given the name of a machine. The sense of identity is still engrained into the subconscious of these ciphers as D-503 shows even as he finds identity and individualism to be unsettling. Many of the female ciphers that D-503 comes into contact with are described by D-503 using their names. D-503 describes O-90 as having soft edges, a roundness, and a half moon as a mouth. These adjectives are correlated to her name in which the letter “O” is circular and round. D-503 also gives I-330 characteristics that are sharp, angled, and harsh as the letter “I” in her name. As little as these identifying characteristics are, they show that even a cipher as brainwashed as D-503 still has a sense of identity within his subconscious. These successes in removing identity by the One State are thwarted by cipher I-330 in various ways. Many of her choices are self-harming and seem very small, but her use of D-503 shows that her goal is to get rid of the One State, thereby restoring the individual sense of identity. D-503 is always told to meet I-330 at the Ancient House, often during times when he is supposed to be somewhere else according to the Table of Hours. During his time there, D-503 sees I-330 put on the clothes of the Ancients and drink and smoke as the Ancients did. In making her own choices, I-330 identifies herself as a rebel. Her goal to use D-503 to break down the One State is a fight that, though unsuccessful, keeps I-330 going and makes her an individual with an identity and an imagination.
Within V for Vendetta, the government’s control over identity is far less strict than within We, but it still amounts to control over individualism and identity. The government control through concentration camps and the regulations and controls outside of the concentration camp restricts the amount of individuality and identity that the futuristic British are allowed. The majority of the men and women taken to these concentration camps are homosexuals and radicals that opposed the government. The threat of the concentration camps cause many people to be the government’s ideal citizens. To help keep people within this “ideal” mold of distinctiveness, the government began instituting controls through the use of the eye, the ear, the mouth, and curfews. By enforcing curfews, the government could control the whereabouts and activities of the population. Moreover, the government used the news to help keep the knowledge to the citizens limited. The “mouth” of the government, or television, was used to give only the knowledge that they felt the citizens needed to hear. By changing the bombing of the houses of Parliament into a “scheduled demolition undertaken at night to avoid traffic congestion…[and the fireworks] a freak effect of the blast” (Moore and Lloyd 17) the government could keep tabs and compress any ideas of revolution or revolt. Using the mouth and television to give the citizens approved information, the government can alter identities to be more of the mold that they are gearing towards. The “ear” of the government placed microphones in homes of citizens and bugged telephones. Based on what was said, the government could come in and “black bag,” or kidnap, the citizen.
By reducing the expression of self-identification and cultural differences, the government made the idea of autonomy less and less prominent within this society. Lack of freedom of speech keeps citizens from identifying themselves through agreeing or disagreeing with topics and discussions. Answering these extreme methods with extreme measures of his own, V stages his fight for freedom to expresses identity as an extreme, almost terroristic fight. V spent time in one of the concentration camps. His entire identity — name, demeanor, goals, characteristics — are based on that concentration camp and the room he was forced to stay in. His room number, five, was written in Roman Numerals as a V, creating an entire new persona. After destroying the camp, he set out to find those who made him become this. V also conveys his harsh experience to Evey in a simulation, to break her and create a new person. He claims that he is setting her free from “happiness…the most insidious prison of all” (Moore and Lloyd 168) but in reality, she is gaining a new identity which becomes clear when she becomes V’s successor by the same name. Through his fight, V shows how much the government has control over identities using these regulations. He fights to end this control and give the people their own chances at freedom, individuality, and their own chosen identity.
The amount of effort that dystopian governments put into forcing people to become something they are not and to have an identity that is not theirs is somehow always thwarted in a typical novel’s pages. Among Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale, I-330 in We, and V in V for Vendetta, there will always be a character to prove that having one’s own identity is a better and brighter choice. To these protagonists, fighting the government for the freedom to express individualism is worth the battle, beatings, torture, and even death.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print. Eisiminger, Skip. “With Respect To The Name: Names And Identity.” Vocabula Review 15.10 (2013): 1-6. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2014 Jianfeng, Yang. “Linking Proactive Personality to Moral Imagination: Moral Identity as a Moderator”. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 41.1 (2013):165- 175. SPORTDiscuss with Full Text. Web. 4 Dec. 2014. Moore, Alan, David Lloyd, Steve Whitaker, Siobhan Dodds, Jeannie O’Connor, Steve Craddock, Elitta Fell, and Tony Weare. V for Vendetta. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2005. Print. Zamyatin, Yevgeny, and Natasha Randall. We. New York: Modern Library, 2006. Print.
Narrative Techniques as Exploration of Society in The Handmaid’s Tale
In Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a range of narrative techniques are used to reveal the severity of life in Gilead, a dystopia foreshadowing the corrupt future of American society under a fundamentalist Christian regime. Published in 1986 whereby the ‘Religious Right’ had gained influence, there were fears of the reversal of women’s equality and the degeneration back to submissiveness in the future. Atwood’s narrator Offred acts as a vessel, both for bearing a child for the high-society Wives in Gilead and as a window to many of its aspects of life.
Atwood’s use of language with biblical connotations is paramount in revealing the puritanical belief upon which Gilead was founded. The reader gets an immediate sense of the distortion of religion in Gilead in Chapter One with the reference to ‘the Angels’ who ‘were objects of fear to us’. The unsettling juxtaposition of a symbol of protection with ‘fear’ suggests that religion has been distorted to make the people of Gilead believe that their devotion to God ensures their survival in the repressive state where infidels are obliterated. Atwood makes use of religious diction to reveal the need for religious conformity when distorting the biblical reference to ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ when said, ‘Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the Meek, Blessed are the Silent’. The latter has been added by the Gilead officials to make sure the handmaid’s are seen and not heard- they have only one role. This archaic view is not typically associated with modern western society but is akin to that of hundreds of years ago where women were expected to fulfill their duties to their home and husbands alone. This idea of women’s respective duties can be seen in ‘A Godly Forme of Householde Gouernment’ by John Dod and Robert Cleaver in 1614 who wrote that a wife should ‘Talk with few’ and ‘Boast of Silence’. Atwood’s emphasis on distorting religion can be largely attributed to the fear in 1980’s America of the drift from secularism. Ronald Reagan gained presidency in 1980 and was a strong advocate of the Church and frequently referenced his faith in politics. The Cold War was seen as a battle between the Good Christians of America and the Atheist Communists of the USSR. In one of his speeches, Reagan said, ‘If we ever forget that we are One Nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under’, a view similarly shared by Thatcher in Britain.
Atwood’s use of ‘silence’ and subservience in the novel are mirrored by the structure which is consciously guarded. The novel is split into two parts- ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ whereby the style of narrative changes to reflect Offred’s level of freedom. In the day, Offred cannot freely express her thoughts on the repressive regime, reflected by Atwood’s use of language that abides by the laws of Gilead such as ‘Blessed be the fruit’ and ‘May the Lord Open’(pg.29). However, at night, the language appears more lyrical when said ‘The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet’ (pg. 47). Arguably, her thoughts at night are the only thing she has complete control over and so she relishes in them. Through the self-conscious narration whereby Atwood deliberately withholds some information, the reader is given a sense of Offred’s power when said, ‘I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling…If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…It isn’t a story I’m telling’(pg. 49). The reader in turn cannot easily follow Offred’s train of thought, which we later learn in the historical notes is due the fact that her story is in fact a series of tapes.
Atwood uses shifts in time to convey Offred’s sense of feeling which leaves the reader disorientated and left to piece together some information. The first flashback occurs in Chapter Three where Offred briefly references to Luke. The flashbacks act as an outlet for Offred to think freely about her previous life as a wife and mother, before it was taken from her. In saying this, Offred does not idealize her past, but by remembering it briefly escapes her present- ‘we thought we had such problems’ (pg. 61). However, Atwood’s use of shifts in time add a greater significance to the narrative in the Historical Notes on page 311. Taking place in 2195, Professor Pieixoto lectures students on the early Gileadian society and through a satirical and light tone reveals Atwood’s message about the ease at which societies are quick to see themselves as superior to the ones before. The approach to this lecture is analytical and contrasts to the dark tone of Offred’s suffering, to which the reader sympathizes with. The light tone is conveyed by Atwood when said on page 312, ‘I expect none of us wants to miss lunch, as happened yesterday. (Laughter). The reader gains a sense of the insensitivity in the lecture towards Offred and Gilead- which in turn makes the reader aware of the importance of the issues such as sexism and religious extremism.
Apart from exercising power over the reader, the disjointed structure of the narrative reveals Offred’s uncertain and traumatized state of mind as her thoughts run wild in a life she is restricted in. The narrative becomes suspicious in Chapter Seven when said, ‘A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous’. The emphasis on the importance of the ‘name’ reveals the impersonal element of Gilead whereby everybody in society, from the Commanders, to the Wives and the Martha’s fulfill a role. Atwood deliberately alludes her use of impersonal labels to Chaucer, whose characters in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ have titles representing their roles in society. In doing so, Atwood has adopted archaic traditional values which abolish individuality. Offred heightens this idea by saying ‘we are for breading purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, concubines…we are two legged wombs, that’s all, sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices’. From listing the various submissive roles women have had in the past in different societies reveals Atwood’s dark message that the role of the handmaid is not dissimilar to that of roles in past society. This idea can be summarized in saying, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Mankind has and always will objectify women, perhaps to lesser degrees to that of Gilead, but at its core the belief is the same.
Atwood’s use of nameless handmaids and their unsettling comparison to ‘two legged wombs’ reveal the feminist nature of her writing and her envisioning the possibility of an anti-woman future. The severity of restrictions in Gilead and the unsettling nature of ‘the ceremony’ are understood by the reader through Atwood’s use of dark imagery. Atwood takes a fairly ordinary image and distorts it. Due to her role in society and ‘the ceremony’ in which Offred is impregnated by the Commander in the presence of his wife, her outlook on life and its daily occurrences is shown by Atwood’s us of dark imagery. In chapter Six, the ‘white fluffy clouds’ are likened to ‘headless sheep’ (pg 40), Offred’s outlook on life is conditioned by submissive role in Gilead. Other language likening woman to animals is demonstrated throughout the novel, again to emphasize their exploitation. On page 58, Atwood describes the preparation of chicken for supper and parallels this with Offred’s ‘Bath Day’- she too has to be prepared alike for her consumption in The Ceremony.
In conclusion, Atwood effectively uses different narrative technique in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ when exploring the dangers of religious extremism and the submissive role of women in society. Her use of shifts in time successfully highlight how these themes are ever prevalent in society and will continue to manifest themselves while man sees himself superior over women.
 Reynolds, M. Noakes, J, Margarat Atwood- the essential guide pg 64
 Potts, Robert (2003-04-26). “Light in the wilderness”. The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
The Illusion of Power in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Humans can only experience life subjectively: each of us is rooted in our own individual positions that cause us to perceive differing shades of reality. An awareness of this universal condition permeates Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as June, the protagonist, constantly hints at the discrepancy between what society recognizes and what the individual perceives. Such awareness of this distinction allows June to subvert societal norms that ensnare her in conditions in which all semblances of power are placed out of her reach. She realizes that she can never overtly exert power, but can still subtly rebel against the system that oppresses her. In ironic displays of defiance, June takes advantage of her oppressed position to manipulate individuals who have more social power than she does.
June’s perception of the illusion of power is evidenced by her observation of the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, knitting elaborate scarves for the Angels. Such an activity is a common pastime for the wives of Commanders, even though June “can hardly believe the Angels have a need for such scarves” (Atwood 13). Nevertheless, June recognizes that knitting is satisfying in that it creates easily attainable goals for Serena Joy. The act of completing a scarf allows Serena Joy to experience a semblance of power: there is satisfaction in the idea that one is able to make some kind of difference in the world. However, June hypothesizes that “these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in their turn. Maybe it’s something to keep the Wives busy, to give them a sense of purpose” (13). Thus, the discrepancy between power and reality is revealed: though it seems like the Wives are able to utilize their exquisite abilities in making needed scarves for the Angels suffering at the front lines of battle, knitting is very likely meant to be merely a form of distraction to keep them busy. From the standpoint of the knitters, such an idea is not obvious, as they have no reason to question an activity that gives them a sense of fulfillment. Thus, the utter extent to which women are deprived of power is demonstrated: even the small success of being able to knit a scarf for someone else is snatched from them without their knowledge.
In comparison to the Wives, June and other handmaids possess an amount of autonomy that is even more minuscule. June is fully aware of how society is deliberately structured to deprive her of freedoms. She obediently walks to the market with Ofglen, cloaked in her heavy red dress, her face shielded by the white wings attached to her hood in a perfect demonstration of meek submission. However, at the same time, her mind is racing with musings about rebellion. As she passes the Guardians one day, she recognizes that, in the present, they have no outlet for their lusty desires. Thus, she gives her hips a small shake, fully aware of the effect such an action will have on the men, and thinks to herself, “I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously” (22). June understands that in her position in society, she is essentially the property of the Commander. Her recognition of this designated position allows her to exploit it: she takes advantage of the fact that she is untouchable in order to torture the young men. To an outsider, she seems to be passively accepting her fate by obediently going to the market with her fellow Handmaid, vulnerable to the guns of the Guardians, but in that instant, she is the one with the greatest power.
The men in the novel are presented with realities that seem much more promising than the ones women face. June recognizes that the Guardians dream “of being allowed possibly to marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own” (22). However, it is revealed later on in the novel that even men as powerful as the Commander are unsatisfied with their lives. This is quite ironic insofar as the Commander is one of the individuals who played a role in formulating the laws that govern Gilead. June begins to manifest semblances of power over the Commander after they begin meeting secretly at night. She is the only one aware of his vulnerability: a craving for companionship. Only she is able to present him with the thrill and secrecy of intimacy that he desires. Because of her weak position in society, any complaints she might make against him would only ensure her death. Thus, she is the only one he can trust to keep quiet about his violation of the law. When she hints at wanting to put a stop to their nightly meetings, he seems nervous and June observes how he stares at her “with intent bright eyes. If I didn’t know better I would think it was fear” (187). Obviously, the Commander does not fear June because she does not have any power over him that would threaten his life. However, his desire for her company makes the thought of her absence uncomfortable. He is ready to submit to her demands in order to erase that discomfort. June’s recognition of this willingness grants her bargaining power with the Commander: she has the ability to coerce the man into giving into her requests. As a result, she is able to convince him to tell her information about Gilead that previously had been concealed from her.
Though societies like Gilead rob women of the ability to exert power in obvious ways, June is able to strain against the confines society has attempted to place upon her. A Handmaid is seen as a helpless figure in Gilead in comparison to a Commander, but no one individual is firmly in power over the other. What society perceives to be true could differ drastically from what the individual perceives. At the end of the novel, June recognizes that other individuals may also be subverting the system in their own subtle ways. She realizes that her observation of the Commander’s Wife could have been wrong: knitting may not be a method of submission, but a sign of stubbornness, as June muses, “I see those evergreen trees and geometric boys and girls in a different light: evidence of her stubbornness, and not altogether despicable” (203). Even if June can never truly know why the Commander’s Wife is so bent on knitting those scarves, she recognizes the possibility that they serve as a mechanism of demonstrating the Commander’s Wife’s willpower in a world in which she is deprived of the ability to strive for much else. Women in Gilead cannot exert power in traditionally obvious ways, but they find ways to do so covertly, in ways that go overlooked by society, but remain obvious to themselves.
Context of Production: The Handmaid’s Tale as a Work of Its Time
Texts are, by nature, cultural artefacts, intrinsically influenced by the societys from which they emerge. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) offers a “twist of today’s society” – the phallocentric Gileadean dictatorship, as seen through the eyes of narrator Offred. Set in a totalitarian and repressive theocracy, Atwood warns of the danger of fundamentalist religion ideology – likely influenced by the global resurgence of totalitarianism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She offers a warning, particularly to female readers, of the need for feminism – due to the subversive nature of the patriarchy (written in the shadow of the 1980s anti-feminist backlash), as well as the need for women to work together rather than against each other. With the founding of the UN Environment Program in 1972, as well as the publication of Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, global concern over environmental degradation was evident during the 1980s – influencing Atwood’s dystopian warning of the need to preserve our environment. Hence Atwood’s contextual concerns arise in the novel.
The 1980s featured environmental concerns, influencing The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian depiction of a ravaged environment, and its suggestion of the need to preserve our environment ‘before it is too late’. 1980’s environmental concerns were evident from the 1983 UN World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report), the founding of the UN Environment Program and the Union Carbide Bhopal gas leak disaster India – which sparked immense protest and worldwide rage. Offred describes “an Unbaby, with a pinhead, or two body’s, or a snout…or webbed feet”. This disturbing dystopic image evokes Greek notions of half-man half-beast creatures – implying a need to avoid this scenario of environmental destruction. On numerous occasions, Offred observes the character of Serena Joy in the garden “positioning her shears” “like a kamikaze intent on the seedpods”. The seedpods are a plants reproductive organs, so on a figurative level, this could be read as humankind, ‘suicide bombers’ destroying the future of the planet and killing ourselves in doing so. Writing from the vanguard of the 1980s environmental movement, Atwood emphasises the importance of environmental preservation.
Atwood submits an indictment against fundamentalist religion, likely influenced by her fears surrounding the resurgence of the American New Right such as the 1979 Moral Majority, figures such as Pat Robertson, as well as the rise of the 1979 Iran theocracy and Sharia law under Ayatollah Khomeini. The Gileadean regime forces its ‘Handmaids’ to undertake daily prayer. Offred states that “what we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with self-denial, semen and babies”. This highly sardonic, yet humorous, statement highlights the emptiness and hypocrisy of the regime -perverting what should be a meaningful religious act. Offred also humorously states that “the Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up”. To a modern reader, the concept of locking tea up seems absurd, and through the juxtaposition of these two actions Atwood highlights the absurd extent to which the regime has perverted religious worship. This is also seen in the Gileadean slogan that “God is a national resource” as well as the purchase of ‘prayers’– highlighting the regimes commercialisation and bastardisation of worship, and in turn discouraging fundamentalist religion.
Atwood criticises a world in which females are complicit in their own subjugation, emphasising the need for feminism. The character of Serena Joy acts as the regimes mouthpiece for anti-feminism – “her speeches were about…how women should stay home”, drawing a parallel with 1980s Christian televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker’s similar speeches. However, Offred’s extremely unsavoury portrayal of Serena perhaps indicates Atwood’s disapproval of the actions of female anti-feminists. For example, Offred introduces Serena with a ring on her finger “like an ironic smile” “like something mocking her”, depicting her actions as hypocritical. “Her lips were thin”, her chin is “clenched like a fist” and “her eyes flat hostile blue” – evocative of Serena’s unhappiness and ‘fury’ at having been “taken at her word”. The increasingly popularity during the 1980s of televangelists, in particular the “Praise the Lord Club” with 13 million viewers, likely influenced Atwood’s concern surrounding women who have a role in oppressing other women. After the second wave of feminism of the 1960s-1980s, pioneered by figures such as Germaine Greer, a conservative backlash was evident in America – for example, the 1982 failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (granting equal rights for women) to pass Congress – likely influencing Atwood’s portrayal of the inevitability of the filtration of patriarchal ideology into society, and the need for feminism. The society which follows Gilead in the ‘historical notes’ appears to have progressed with regard to gender equality– with a female “Professor Maryann Crescent Moon” chairing a historical convention. However, Professor Pieixoto then states that they are ‘enjoying’ the female chair “in two distinct senses, precluding, of course, the obsolete third” (sexual enjoyment). This is met with audience “laughter” – showing their acceptance of his belittlement of the chair. He regards her in terms of her sexuality, not her intellectual ability – drawing sharp parallels with the overtly patriarchal antecedent Gileadean society, and warning a reader of underlying patriarchal ideologies.
As readers, we are isolated from Pieixoto’s thought process, positioning us against him immediately. However, his sexual puns, acting in jarring contrast to Offred’s first person and deeply personal narrative, alienate us from him even further – condemning the patriarchal values he embodies. Pieixoto refers to the “Underground Femaleroad” – a resistance organisation rescuing women – as “the Underground Frailroad” – espousing the patriarchal notion that this organisation, and women, were weak and ineffectual. This is again met with “laughter” –and implicit audience approval. He refers to the Commanders as “gentlemen” – a subtle indication of the esteem in which he holds them, despite their creation of a phallocentric system of institutionalised rape, conformity and terror. In the light of the anti-abortion riots (after the the 1973 Supreme Court Roe vs Wade judgement legalising abortion) and the anti-feminist backlash which could be said to have characterised the 1980s, Atwoods concern with the pervasiveness of patriarchal ideas, and hence the need for feminism, is made clear.
Texts cannot be separated from their time periods, and The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception to the rule. Fundamentalist religion during the 1980s saw rising popularity, influencing the novels key concern with this trend. Figures such as Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker, openly opposing feminism, emerged during the 1980s – an arrival Atwood discourages through her characterisation of Serena Joy. With the 1980s came a sentiment that feminism was ‘over’ and equality had been achieved – a sentiment arguably still existing today – a complacency which Atwood warns against – by depicting patriarchal systems as invasive and ever-present, thus an ever-present need for feminism. Another ‘zeitgeist’ of the period encapsulated by Atwood is that of environmental concern – seen through events such as UN actions and the Bhopal gas leak protests. Dystopias, by nature, extrapolate existing social trends to their worst possible circumstantial outcomes, indicating that they are fundamentally intertwined with their production context.
Social Commentary in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
This novel is an account of the near future, a dystopia, wherepollution and radiation has rendered countless women sterile, and the birthrates of North America are dangerously declining. A puritan theocracy nowcontrols the former United States called the Republic of Gilead andHandmaids are recruited to repopulate the state. This novel containsAtwood’s strong sense of social awareness, as seen in the use of satire tocomment on different social conditions in the novel. The Handmaid’sTale is a warning to young women of the ‘post-feminist’ 1980s and after,who began taking for granted the rights that had been secured for womenby the women before them.The environmental danger of pollution and radiation run off from powerplants is commented on in the novel. Atwood is voicing her concernsabout the destruction of the environment here, and warns us of thepossibilities if the destruction continues in our world. Her view is extremeof course, made to shock people into thinking about the potentialdanger. In the novel, pollution and radiation had overwhelmed thepopulation causing sterility in both men and women. Babies were often borndeformed, (these were called ‘Unbabies’) or died during pregnancy orshortly after birth. At one point in the novel, a funeral is described bythe main character Offred, she said “the first one is bereaved, themother; she carries a small black jar. From the size of the jar you cantell how old it was when it foundered, inside her, flowed to its death.Two or three months, too early to tell whether or not it was an Unbaby”(Atwood, 55). The infertile women, rebels and feminists were sent tothe ‘colonies’ to clean toxic waste, where of course they die of eitherdisease or radiation. Atwood incorporated the environmental disasterinto her novel as a warning, her point being that it could happen, andif it did, here is what might happen; mankind could go to an extreme,religious, totalitarian state: the Republic of Gilead.Gilead, the ultra religious military regime is a reaction to thedramatic drop in birth rate. In the novel, Aunt Lydia, one of the women incharge of the Red Centre where handmaids are trained described Gilead;she said “the republic of Gilead knows no bounds. Gilead is withinyou.” (Atwood, 29). Offred, replied inwardly “doctors lived here once,lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore, and theuniversity is closed” (Atwood, 29). Here, Offred’s comment says muchabout the social conditions in Gilead. Since the university is closed,secular learning is no longer allowed, the only studying is done on theBible, and not by women because they are forbidden to read and write. TheBible had a huge impact on Gilead’s policies. The idea of handmaidscame from the story of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob’s wife could notconceive, so Jacob and the servant had a child, which became Jacob andRachel’s. It is obvious that Gilead is a very repressive place. Later, inOffred’s taped recordings about Gilead she said “it’s also a story I’mtelling, in my head, as I go along. Tell rather than write because I havenothing to write with and writing in any case is forbidden (Atwood 50).It is the Handmaids who must do the daily grocery shopping, and sincethey are not permitted to read, the store names are pictures, a lambchop for All Flesh, the butcher shop, for example. The domination ofwomen is astonishing in this state. It is almost insulting for thesewomen, who used to have jobs, their own money, and freedom to do anythingthey wanted to have to stoop to this level. These women remember what itused to be like, and they want it to be like that again, but are afraidto rebel because of the wall, and the salvagings. The wall is whereOffred and her companion Ofglen pass every day. It is where they hangthe enemies of the state. Any people who are suspected of betrayal arekilled. When a man is accused of rape, or a similar crime against women,they are sent into a circle of angry Handmaids, who are expected totear him apart. In the novel, during the salvaging Ofglen appears toreact extremely violently towards an accused man, she ran up to him andkicked him in the head until he was unconscious. She explained later toOffred that he was no rapist, only a member of the undergroundrebellion. She wanted to end his suffering.Due to the lack open rebellion, Offred’s society is faced with thecomplete loss of freedom. Women are now forbidden any kind ofcommunication. They have to lead a life of servitude and are stripped of allpersonal possessions, of their families, and finally their identities. Theyare all replaceable, categorized objects, Handmaids who are deemedinfertile are sent to the colonies to die. The women are also made to wearuniforms and are named to be defined in their relation to men, forexample Offred serves Fred, and his wife is known only as Wife. Theuniforms in Gilead categorize each group by colour, this serves to segregatethem, like the Jews during World War II. The Wives, who are the higheston the list, wear only light blue. The Handmaids must wear red and theMarthas wear brown. The men all wear similar military uniforms. TheHandmaid’s uniform is reminiscent of women in the Middle East, becausethey are made to hide the women’s bodies and prevent them from beingseen:”I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in theirred shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The redgloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands,finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red:the colour of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle length, fulland gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleevesare full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they keep us fromseeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s notmy colour” (Atwood, 9).The bulky red dress is designed to hide the Handmaid’s bodies and thewings are made to keep the women from being seen. The women are taughtto bow their heads when they walk so that their faces can not be seen.This is a further example of the domination of women in this novel.Atwood’s point in demonstrating the oppression of women is not to beultra feminist or to put down men, but to show the dangers of such a regimeas Gilead, because it became such a patriarchal state, and in its wake,women were utterly repressed. It happened so fast, that women did nothave time to revolt, and after Gilead came to power, if women did speakup they would be sent to the colonies.Social commentary is rampant in this novel. Margaret Atwood purposelywrote this shocking and absurd tale to shock people into thinking aboutsuch problems as toxic waste, pollution and radiation. Not onlyenvironmental concerns were voiced in this novel, but social ills such asfemale repression and the dangers of a theocracy as well. Reading thisnovel was a wake up call, and I have since taken up recycling.Work CitedAtwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Seal Books: Canada, 1985