The Roles of Women in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

February 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

“Feminist readings often discuss the “jobs” that are traditionally assigned to women, such as tending a home, caring for a husband, and bearing children, and the ways in which these jobs are used to keep women in a powerless position. Female sexuality, and the way that a patriarchal system – a societal structure in which men are the authorities and control the power structure – controls that sexuality are also common themes in feminist criticism.”(Green 6). This quote is a central idea in both Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both novels, set in extremely patriarchal societies (despite the Gilead regime’s claims to the contrary), are extremely restrictive of female expression of any form. Specifically, any form of sexual expression or desire outside of the accepted norm is strictly forbidden and enforced. Kate Chopin’s setting for The Awakening is the socially restrictive late 19th century in the American Deep South – probably one of the least hospitable environments for feminism at the time. Offred’s twisted theocracy of Gilead, though, is far worse, “[Reducing] the handmaids to the slavery status of being mere ‘breeders'”(Malak 2). Although on the surface these two settings may seem totally alien to one another, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Both are extremely socially conservative, to the point of being reactionary (especially Gilead), and both Edna Pontellier and Offred initially appear to be completely helpless. However, by the end of both novels, the reader reaches a certain understanding and comprehension, if not agreement with, the feminist cause. Though The Awakening was written as a celebration of the potential rights that women could enjoy and The Handmaid’s Tale is a somber warning against the increasingly neo-conservative agenda of world politics, both serve as vehicles to provide literary support to the feminist cause. The dystopian “Republic” of Gilead in Atwood’s novel claims to be extremely supportive of the rights and freedoms of women. However, “‘There is more than one kind of freedom’, said Aunt Lydia. ‘Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of Anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it'” (Atwood 24). After all, in this setting, women are in high demand for purposes of reproduction, as the reproductive side effects of modern war have taken their toll. Nevertheless, despite Gilead’s claims, the immediate effects of Gilead’s caste structure is to classify all viable, or fertile, women as “Handmaids.” These “Handmaids” serve as little more than whores to their “Commanders”: high-ranking officers of Gilead’s military-religious complex. The “duty” of the Commanders is to impregnate their handmaids monthly. This act epitomizes the quote, as the handmaids literally serve no purpose other than to reproduce. They are completely dominated by the male Commanders, with no choice but to comply with their every desire. The handmaids – as well as the other women (“Marthas,” “Wives,” and “Unwomen,”) – are utterly powerless. The male leaders of Gilead control every single aspect of the sexual lives of women, down to the who, when, and where. Not only does the impersonal, patriarchal government command Offred and the other handmaids, but the more down-to-earth Commander also has Offred attend to his personal whims, even in the face of extreme risk to herself. The Commander unwittingly embodies the state’s staunch repression of females in his careless use of Offred for his own pleasures and his casual, almost mocking manner. He uses her to satisfy him with games of Scrabble, a game that enables him to flaunt his power. He drinks alcohol, smokes cigarettes, permits her to read (which is forbidden to women), and even dares occasionally to allow her to listen to snatches of Radio Free America, “to show me he can” (Atwood 209). When Offred requests that the Commander get her some lotion for her skin, he finds this amusing to the point that Offred becomes offended: “We use butter, I said. When we can get it. Or margarine. A lot of the time it’s margarine. Butter, he said, musing. That’s very clever. Butter. He laughed. I could have slapped him” (Atwood 158). Also, the very fact that the Commanders are male exemplifies the patriarchal, oppressive society of Gilead. Gilead was founded by men for men, regardless of whatever the pro-female rhetoric put out by the regime proclaimed. The Commander himself admits as much: “I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even” (Atwood 210). The men didn’t care about the women; they cared only about themselves. Despite the fact that women would be cast into terrible oppression, the state of Gilead was created. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” says the Commander (Atwood 211). This embodies the state’s feelings towards women – they must suffer for the good of the whole. Another illustration of the oppression of women in the novel is found in the extremist pseudo-religious government of Gilead. Although seemingly a devoutly Christian nation, the monotheocracy is actually a mere perversion of the faith. This is probably meant to be a parallel to the world events occurring at the time of Atwood’s writing. During the 1980s, world governments began a shift towards conservatism, backed by strong religious special-interest groups such as the Moral Majority. “The issues supported by the Moral Majority included the saying of prayers in publicly-funded schools, tax credits for schools that taught religious doctrine, and government opposition to pornography” (Historical Context), exactly the philosophy practiced by Gilead. However, in the novel the truly religious actively resist the Gilead regime. “‘They’ve defeated more of the rebels, since yesterday.’ ‘Praise be,’ I say. I don’t ask her how she knows. ‘What were they?’ ‘Baptists. They had a stronghold in the blue hills. They smoked them out'” (Atwood 19). The Gileadean regime is also at war with another religious nation, known as Libertheos (Atwood 25). The name combines the Latin word for “free” with the Greek word for “god”. The regime finds a religious corollary for nearly everything on its sacrilegious agenda, including the purpose of the handmaids. Even the term “Handmaid” is taken from the Bible, misconstrued as a prophecy from the book of Genesis, chapter 30 (the story of Jacob and Rachel). “Marthas,” “Whirlwinds,” “Behemoths,” “Chariots,” “Lilies of the Field,” “Milk and Honey,” “All Flesh,” all are derived from the Bible. However, the regime uses this false devotion only as a vehicle to disenfranchise women, banishing them to their traditional roles, crushing militant feminism, and finding religious justification for its – at best – questionable actions. Though not as foreboding as the religio-militant future regime of Gilead, the late-19th-century southern Creole environment Kate Chopin creates for her character is still a formidable obstacle. In this setting, the woman’s role in the household goes unquestioned: she is to tend the home and her husband, and bear children. Chopin’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, a twenty-something wife of a successful Creole businessman with two small sons in Louisiana, initially seems reluctant to move away from these accepted norms. The patriarchal system had always ruled, and it had never been challenged: to Leonce Pontellier, Edna was little more than a possession. “‘You are burnt beyond recognition,’ he added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage”(Chopin 4). Though Robert Lebrun can flirt with Edna, and she can reciprocate in kind, any sort of physical relationship would be an extreme violation of the Creoles’ strict code of chastity. The Creole society combines an odd mixture of free speech and restrained action, not entirely unlike that found in Gilead. Leonce Pontellier, Robert Lebrun, and Alcee Arobin all embody the patriarchal society of their time. Leonce sees his wife as property, expecting her to greet guests, mind the children, maintain the house, and have dinner ready for him when he returns from work. Mr. Pontellier finds it more amusing than threatening when his wife begins to question his authority. “She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women” (Chopin 129). Despite the extreme degree of control husbands exert over their wives in this setting, it was not considered unusual. In fact, Edna’s good friend Adele Ratignolle is a model of the Creole “mother-woman.” “Many of them were delicious in the role; one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture. Her name was Adele Ratignolle” (Chopin 15). Despite the rigors of being a mother, wife, housekeeper, and cook, Adele submits and thoroughly enjoys her role. Robert Lebrun also displays the patriarchal values of Creole society in his use of Mrs. Pontellier as mere personal amusement during the summer at the retreat cottages, and his neglect of the bond of love formed between them. Instead of staying and developing this bond, he casually leaves the country without caring to inform her. “As she seated herself and was about to begin to eat her soup, which had been served when she entered the room, several persons informed her simultaneously that Robert was going to Mexico. She laid her spoon down and looked about her bewildered” (Chopin 80). He later returns, but hardly gives Edna a second thought. Finally, her liason with Alcee Arobin is the personification of the dominance of man. Arobin uses her, all the while making no pretense of love, and presumably moves on after her death. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Awakening contain some remarkable parallels. Both are about oppressed women in patriarchal, dominating societies. The Gilead Regime and the late 19th century Creole south are both solidly rooted in the tradition of male domination, admittedly or not. Gilead directly makes its authority felt with strict laws governing the actions of women, but the conservative Creole society creates nearly the same level of restriction, without any significant repercussions. Each of these societies explicitly defines women’s roles – they are to serve exclusively as tools of the patriarchal command structure. In Gilead, women are viewed as birthing machines (“handmaids”) and cooks/maids (“marthas”). In Louisiana, they are “mother-women,” maintaining their homes while mindlessly doting upon their children and husbands, essentially serving the same purpose. Even Kate Chopin herself struggled with this oppression, being the obedient wife of a Creole and bearing him six children before she reached the age of thirty. The patriarchal society descended on her in reality in the way it did in her novel – “The Awakening became popular, but the critical comments were so savage that Mrs. Chopin was compelled to issue a statement saying she did not identify herself with Mrs. Pontellier, and did not mean that she approved of the conduct of her character” (Cantwell). Only the strongest of these women can do anything to resist their obligations, but they remain, inwardly, in turmoil. “At a very early period she apprehended instinctively the dual life – the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” (Chopin 27). Though some attempted to openly resist, as evidenced by Moira’s escape plots and Edna’s social irresponsibility, they were inevitably foiled. In essence, these novels exemplified the quote that “Feminist readings often discuss the ‘jobs’ that are traditionally assigned to women”, as each one was an exploration of those jobs as commanded by a male-dominated society. In short, both novels are excellent demonstrations of the central quote. Both of these works are unquestionably influenced by feminism, and each deals extensively, if not exclusively, with the domestic roles of women extensively. The women in these novels are (mostly against their will) mothers, wives, and nannys, holding no real power, just as their patriarchal societies desire. The Gileadean government and the complex Creole social order were very similar in their agenda of the (perhaps unwitting) oppression of women and elevation of men to the highest social strata. Although the novels were written in different time periods, with different cultures and motives, each illustrate the quote’s central theme. BibliographyAtwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.Green, Suzanne D., “Overview of The Awakening,” in Exploring Novels, Gale, 1998. EXPLORING Novels. Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. Thomson Gale. 31 May 2005. Malak, Amin. “Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the Dystopian Tradition.” Canadian Literature. 1987: 9-16. Infotrac. 30 May 2005.Cantwell, Robert. “The Awakening by Kate Chopin.” The Georgia Review. 1956: 489-494. Discovering Collection. 30 May 2005.Historical Context: The Handmaid’s Tale. Novels for Students, Vol. 4, 1998.

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