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.
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