A Hint of Feminism in The Handmaids Tale, a Novel by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a widely popular novel based in the not so distant future where dictatorship rules and the United States of America is thrust under the weight of a theological leadership based on the laws given by God in the Old Testament and twisted in ways that bend women to the will of the government. Though it may be pretty obvious that Atwood is conveying a feminist message in this novel, it is interesting to dissect and analyze the different ways critics review and interpret this message as displayed in the novel.

“Margaret Atwood’s popular dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale explores a broad range of issues relating to power, gender, and religious politics. After a staged terrorist attack kills the President and most of Congress, the government is deposed and taken over by the oppressive and all controlling Republic of Gilead. Offred, now a Handmaid serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife, can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Despite the danger, Offred learns to navigate the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules in hopes of ending this oppression.” – Amazon

In following the pattern of any dystopian novel worth reading, Atwood’s novel is sprinkled with truths and is a possible future outcome of America. The societal issues that are brought up in this novel are still relevant to our own societal issues discussed today. The handmaid’s in novel are given three chances to conceive a child. If they succeed, they are praised and held in high honor in society, but if they fail they are either exiled to a place that will lead to death or immediate death (The Handmaid’s). Gilead, the theological dictatorship that has taken over America, has demonized the woman’s choice to have sex for any reason other than procreation, abstinence from sex if the woman is fertile, and abortion of a much needed child.

The population has declined and infertility and genetic disease are everywhere so when Offred attends a birth it is celebrated like a holiday and enjoyed as a miracle (The Handmaid’s).

This is similar to the issues we have today with the Republican’s fighting against abortion clinics to take the choice for a woman to have control of her own body away from her. Whether a woman decides to have sex for pleasure, have sex to reproduce or get an abortion, what happens to a woman’s body is her choice. To take away that choice is to violate a woman’s human rights which Atwood is clearly stating are in possible danger if this is a possible future scenario (The Handmaid’s).

The Handmaid’s Tale was claimed by the publisher to be a foreshadowing of what is to come in the very near future. Basically, America and Russia will go to war with each other while America is ruled by religious fanatics who claim to be doing God’s work though they take His commands out of context and the gender roles are evolve backwards so that men are again the warriors while the women find their place in various forms of the home, not allowed to hold any other “job.”

The world created in The Handmaid’s Tale, though run by men, is a woman’s world that is entirely domestic and women are divided by color and jobs: green for the housemaids, blue for the wives, red and blue and green stripes for the econwives, red for the handmaids, brown for the aunts (McCarthy). The handmaids are required to take the male head of household’s name preceded by the word “of” to show that though the handmaid’s are prized for the fertile wombs, they are nothing more than a rare and desired possession at the time (McCarthy).

Even with this assumed power of the men, they are actually powerless in the household as their only job is to impregnate the handmaid while she lays between the wife’s thighs to stimulate the idea that the husband and wife are procreating through the womb of this handmaid.

This is based off of the Old testament story where Rachel, Jacob’s wife was barren so she gave her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob so she could conceive and Rachel could claim the child (McCarthy).

Atwood is known for her feminist views, but instead of shoving those views down the throats of her readers, she writes the novel in such a way that it raises more questions. Offred states, “If Moira thought she could create a Utopia by shutting herself up in a woman only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away.” As women are viewed as the ultimate victims in this novel then the logical assumption would be that men are the enemy (Gender). This is not necessarily true, however, because the women are their own worst enemy. While the men enforce the laws, the women seem to make them and hold them close. The women turn against each other when they disagree and there will always be a constant war between the handmaids’ and the wives’ because they will always covet what the other has: the handmaid’s have their fertile wombs while the wives’ have their families and “freedom.”

Atwood’s intentions for this book are mostly left up to the imagination. Her comments on the book are vague and she actually denies having a political agenda to promote through the book (McCarthy). She says, “Anyone who wants power will try to manipulate you by appealing to your desires and fears, and sometimes your best instincts. Women have to be a little cautious about that kind of appeal to them. What are we being asked to give up?” Nations cannot start new regimes if the foundations of the idea are not already laid out. All of Atwood’s events in this book including the forced childbearing, group hangings and castes defined by clothing are based on events seen throughout history. This government that she “created” is based on the old testament “Christian” foundations American was built on and the elite always ends up with the desired and valuable asset which in this case is reproductive control. Reproduction is highly endorsed by the old testament (Atwood).

Atwood uses three main types of women in her novel to get her feminist theme across. The first is Janine. Janine is a pathetic, conformist woman who is ultimately broken down by the resurfacing of her repressed past. She throws herself willingly and enthusiastically into the prayers and ceremonies of the Gilead government assuming the role of the perfect victim who thinks that every bad thing that happens to her is her fault and God is gracious to forgive her. The wives pity her and the handmaids hate her (Bowman). Offred describes her as having “a red face and a dripping nose.

Her hair dilution blonde, her eyelashes so light they seem not there, the lost eyelashes of someone who’s been in a fire. Burned eyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newborn mouse. None of us wanted to look like that, ever.” Janine’s end When Janine’s baby is found to be dead, she self-destructs which shows that in this society any woman who fails at childbearing ceases to exist all together. Janine is the Moral Majority, or the woman as a child bearer (Bowman).

Moira is the exact opposite of Janine. She is a badass, hyper masculine, self-power hungry woman who views men as a social disease and is possibly homosexual. Moira represents a woman who wants to be free and does everything to be free but cannot obtain the right type of freedom. When she escapes and is then caught again, she has a choice in being exiled to the colonies or working for Jezebel’s. She chooses Jezebel’s claiming it is a type of freedom she is given everything she wants without being burden by marriage, children, or obligations. The problem is this is not actually freedom. It is a prison. Moira sells her true freedom (death in the colonies) for a false freedom (employment in Jezebel’s). Moira is the “essential woman of second-wave separatist feminism” (Bowman).

The third woman type is, of course, Offred. Offred represents the enlightened woman.

She desires a future that is like the past. She considers her past to be what is normal and the Gilead regime to be what is abnormal. She longs for her past-future yet does not have the courage to take action like her friend, Moira. As the novel progresses, however, she is only an external follower whereas, unlike Janine, she never loses her inner self (Bowman). She wins small internal victories such as when she envisions herself as seductress or how she redefines words like “God” which are essential to the Gilead regime. Each of these internal victories is a symbol of Offred defiance of the new laws. She may be too frightened to self-externalize but these internal interludes help build her self-confidence. She is the only one who gains her true freedom and grasps the concept which is the freedom of self-definition and externalization which she achieves when she tells Nick her true name, thereby defining herself as her true self and not her Gilead self (Bowman).

Margaret Atwood clearly shows off her feminist views in The Handmaid’s Tale while still evoking questions of how this is possible, why it is possible, and why is it possible in the near future? This dystopia novel stimulates the brain in wondering who is the real power, who is the real victim, and what is true freedom in this novel and in life.

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