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The Handmaid`s Tale: Women's Role in Society

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Societally speaking, literature has consistently been utilized throughout history as a means of commentary; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception. The classic novel outlines the dangers of misogyny and religious agendas during an American era of social liberties and monumental movements towards female equality. Margaret Atwood writes in a manner completely polarized from the sexual revolution of the 1970s: the emphasis she places on the role of men and their adaptation of the bible is expressed through the suffering that Offred, formerly June, endures. Themes of suicide, homicide and extreme oppression trickle through the novel, slowly transitioning into empowerment and ultimately uncovering a movement of women pitted against the society that constrains them. It is a journey of self-identification, empowerment, and unification of women: a culmination of the ideals feminism stands for. By stripping women of rights we today consider paramount, Margaret Atwood paradoxically emphasizes the need for feminism through consequence of patriarchal theocracy. In my essay, I want to cover the topic of ‘The Handmaid`s Tale’ and women’s role in society. 

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The foundation of the novel rests upon the socially just shoulders of one Margaret Atwood. Known explicitly for writing as a means of critiquing society’s lack of equality for women in particular, Atwood simply labels her novel a commentary on “social realism,” as she felt as if the term feminism has been debased and twisted into a derogatory term: “I always want to know what people mean by that word [feminism]. Some people mean it quite negatively, other people mean it very positively’. The significance of the feminist themes that provide critical structure for the novel is only magnified by the time period in which is was produced- the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. This time was critical for egalitarian movements throughout the country, giving women access to voting, abortion, and contraception, and effectively giving women necessary free reign over their own bodies. Throughout the novel, Offred reminisces over the rights she took for granted before her freedoms were ripped away from her- she indicates that she was slowly boiled by the water before she even noticed the heat- she was under the oppressive thumb of The Republic before anyone thought to protest. The flashbacks she experiences provide important juxtaposition between the two parallels she has experienced, thus illuminating the harsh transition from humanity and freedom to objectification and enslavement and emphasizing the importance of women’s rights by displaying the effects of their removal.

In tandem with the sexual enslavement and objectification of the nation’s women runs significant overtones of the use of religion to strengthen the patriarchal agenda that fuels the fear and oppression required to control these women. The gender norms enforced during this period are archaic, dictating that women serve no better purpose than to serve the man she belongs to and produce his offspring. If she isn’t capable of doing so, she will be sent to the Colonies or become a prostitute: all of these constituents are enforced by the manipulation of excerpts and concepts from what is usually considered to be the paragon of morality: The Bible.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is not only a commentary on the importance of feminism, but the misuse of religion to promote sexist agenda. The novel itself pivots around the concept of fertility and the growing economic need for women to produce more children. This need for reproduction closely parallels The Bible, which was written in a time in which the infant mortality rate was so high that babies were a treasured good- The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of more desperate and antiquated era in which women are reduced to their ability to procreate for the greater good of humanity. To further the concept of biblical enforcement, The Commander, Offred’s “owner,” uses the book of Genesis, reading an excerpt that states: “And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” It is stated in the novel that women unable to create life are exiled to the Colonies, where they starve, or forced into prostitution.

The concept of using religion to further an agenda is not a new concept. The novel is peppered with the consequential nature of actions like abortion, the legality of which is quickly revoked during the inception of Gilead. Doctors previously practicing abortion are hanged in a public and gruesome manner: during a mundane errand trip, Offred and Ofglen pass by the church:

We stop, as if on signal, and stand and look at the bodies. It doesn’t matter if we look. We’re supposed to look. It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be It’s the obvious heaviness of their heads, their vacancy, the way gravity pulls them down and there’s no life anymore to hold them up. The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors. Each has a placarded hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. Angel makers, they used to call them.

Margaret Atwood’s interweaving of biblical theocracy and misogyny are a strong commentary on the historical misuse of the Lord’s word towards women, also leaning into the nature of their sexualities. Anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts is deemed a “gender traitor,” as the nature of same-sex relationships threatens the efficacy of the dictatorial nature Gilead presents.

The concept of religion extends into the extreme puritanism that governs the society in which Offred exists. Margaret Atwood’s model of society closely resembles early colonial America, and for a reason: she is related to Mary Webster, who was hanged during the Salem witch trials. The treatment of women as reproductive objects closely mirrors The Republic of Gilead, as Margaret Atwood dictates in an article regarding the motives behind her writing: “Since the regime operates under the guise of a strict Puritanism, these women are not considered a harem, intended to provide delight as well as children. They are functional rather than decorative”. Atwood additionally dictates that much of her studies were fueled by her studies of seventeenth and eighteenth century America. Her use of historical events ties in the idea that though the novel is dystopian, as it is set in the future, the foundational aspects of an oppressive society such as Gilead already exist; the concept of a patriarchal theocracy are not as far-fetched as one might perceive. As a progressive society, the re-oppression of women seems unfathomable, however Margaret Atwood explores human deplorability and moral flexibility through her presentation of the future of mankind, calling for further progression towards gender equality.

The progression of Offred’s identity crisis outlines the detrimental psychological effects of the dystopian regime and the way fundamental alteration of her rights affects her image of herself and other women. Not only is she societally viewed as an object, but as a result, she is forced to view herself in a similar light. In chapter thirteen, she has a monumental introspective moment where she contrasts her past self with her present self; her mental presence and awareness of the psychological changes she has endured allows the reader to view the immense detriment her sexual enslavement has caused her:

“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping”. This quote emphasizes the fact that she now views her body as a means of reproduction just as her society does. The imagery used in this segment is a symbol of her uterus, while her body is simply a cloud, floating around her ability to procreate. This transition from self-actualization into objectification is a representation of Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of a society dissolved into its original power structure. This moment symbolizes the exact opposite of the sexual awakening that occurred during the time the novel was produced, and thus paradoxically emphasizes a human desire to feel autonomous.

In the first pages of The Handmaid’s Tale, women are defined by the way they are forced to dress, which is symbolic in the way they are represented to each other and to the society of men that surrounds them. The color of the Handmaid’s dresses, or habits, is red. The color red is typically associated with the concept of war and destruction, much like the war that has destroyed the society Offred speaks of in her recollections of a previous era. However, red is also thought to symbolize determination and fertility. The concept of fertility is worn internally and externally for the Handmaids, as their only purpose is to reproduce for wealthy caucasian officials. Red not only represents fertility but sexual sin, as represented in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman who is adulterous is forced to wear a scarlet “A” to represent her sexual wrongdoing. A biblical example is found in Isaiah: ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow”. The handmaids are constantly shamed by other women throughout the novel, as they represent a threat to a classic American home- their purpose is to conduct a sexual affair with a prominent male figure while their wife is present- the handmaids are often labeled “sluts.”

The significance of their clothing extends beyond their red habits, markedly to the white “wings” that shield their faces: “ The wings are to keep us from seeing, but also being seen”. The wings represent a barrier between the Handmaids and society. Because they cannot be seen by others, it solidifies that they are property to the few people that can see them without their wings; the commander and his wife. They can not see others, shielding them from the outside world and from each other, restricting them from communication and ultimately unification. The ironic aspect of this is that they are deeply perceptive to the happenings of the outside world, learning to read each other’s lips and trading secrets with other handmaids such as Ofglen. Their ability to adapt to such restrictive physical and social stratifications in order to form a rebellion shows the capability and strength of women that Margaret Atwood conveys throughout the novel.

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