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Essay: Is Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ purely a feminist novel?

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  • Published: 15 July 2022*
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Imagine a society where the only use of women is to repopulate society, where a woman’s worth is essentially determined by her ovaries. This frightening scenario is a reality in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in response to the hostile political climate of the 1980s. The book portrays women being forced to conform with traditional ideas about themselves which leads to their mentality being heavily constrained by gender roles. The constraints that women encounter are utilized by the bourgeoisie for their benefit. These ideas are portrayed in the novel through the means of women being given limited freedom of expression, the credibility of these women depending on their fertility and appearance, and finally, the women’s role as the proletariat. Standing in stark contrast to the ideas of feminism, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of Margaret Atwood’s most successful work.

At first glance, The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be a call for feminine unity. However, among closer analyzation, it becomes evident that Margaret Atwood’s aim was not to conform with feminist ideologies but to hint at how society has dramatically failed to protect its women. This point becomes evident when light is shed upon the amount of scrutiny that the handmaids in the novel are subjected to. Society, more specifically men, under the label of ‘protection’ have forbidden women from many tasks that the men themselves can openly occupy themselves with. A prime example of how freedom of expression is limited can be examined through a passage that is narrated by Offred. She claims, “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marathas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men” (24). This passage by Offred outlines the fact that women are recognized by the colour of their dress. Essentially, society in Gilead has mandated that women of different classes must succumb to wearing the colours that are associated with who they belong to. Those who are handmaids must wear the colour red, and those who belong to poor men must associate themselves with dresses that are red, blue, green, cheap and skimp. This goes on to highlight that women in The Handmaid’s Tale are restricted from practicing something as common as choosing their own clothes and to conform with societal norms, the clothing that women wear must affiliate them with their class. It is also important to note that the clothing restrictions are not imposed upon the men of society. Instead, it is the women of the men who must wear the specified types of clothes. Additionally, it falls within the ideologies of the Republic of Gilead that women must keep to themselves unless it is necessary for them to interact with society. This concept is demonstrated by a quote that is stated by Aunt Lydia, Offred’s mentor. Aunt Lydia warns Offred that she must protect herself from society by stating, “Modesty is invisibility. To be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated” (28). This quote by Aunt Lydia signifies the lack of freedom presented to women. This exists to the point where women must protect themselves from being seen in society without reason because if caught, they will be punished. This outlines the fact that women must comply with societal expectations. Otherwise, they may have to deal with difficult consequences. Subsequently, although unapparent, the name given to the handmaids also stands for something. The handmaids, who are only used to bear children, have no name and are only identifiable by being ‘of’ the commander. As the names suggest, Offred and Ofglen are prime examples of this concept as both their names start with an ‘of’. Overall, it is safe to infer that the conditions women experience in the novel conform with the traditional ideas laid out for women.

Subsequently, women in The Handmaid’s Tale are oppressed in a variety of ways, most notably through the confiscation of their reproductive rights. These women are judged based upon their fertility and how appealing they seem to society. As mentioned earlier, the whole point of the handmaids in Gilead is to repopulate society. For this to work, it is imperative that the handmaids must be fertile, otherwise, they are of no use. Offred validates this claim by stating, “As we wait in our double line, the door opens, and two more women come in. Both in the red dresses and white wings of the Handmaids. One of them is vastly pregnant; her belly, under her loose garment, swells triumphantly. There is shifting in the room, a murmur, as escape of breath; despite ourselves, we turn our heads, blatantly, to see better; our fingers itch to touch her. She’s a magical presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her” (26). In this quote, Offred refers to the pregnant handmaid as a magical presence who lights up the room as soon as she walks in. This goes on to show that a pregnant handmaid is the best handmaid since this implies that she has fulfilled her purpose in society, which is to reproduce. Offred, and all other handmaids present in the room almost envy her presence which implies that fertility is what determines the worth of women in society. Additionally, The Handmaid’s Tale lends itself to the idea that women are under extreme oppression and the standards that women are expected to meet puts them in self-doubt. Offred claims, “My nakedness is strange to me already. Did I really wear bathing suits, at the beach? I did, without thought, among men, without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and back were on display, could be seen. Shameful, immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely” (63). This passage highlights that women in the Republic of Gilead are extremely unhappy with their body as society has enforced that women must be modest and appear a certain way. Offred also claims that she does not want to look at her body since her appearance is essentially what determines her. This outlines the need for women to appear a regulated way in order to be accepted by society. Comprehensively, one can infer that the societal expectations set out for women in the Handmaid’s Tale stand for everything that is against the commandments of feminism and essentially, conform with traditional ideas about them.

Additionally, when analyzing The Handmaid’s Tale, it is common to focus on the feminist ideas that Atwood has based this novel upon. However, subtly enough, she has also embedded aspects that conform with Karl Marx’s communist manifesto. It is evident that the Republic of Gilead functions upon the class distinctions that are prevalent within society. Those who associate with the higher class have the luxury of enjoying unlimited freedom whereas those who belong to the lower class pursue a very limited life. Through this, one can infer that the handmaids symbolize the proletariat who are utilized by the bourgeoisie as they are harshly indoctrinated by being denied their basic freedoms. Additionally, in the novel, the classes are divided along gender lines. The men act as the commanders who possess total control over society. Their wives, although women, are given special privileges due to their relationship with the commanders. The rest of the women make up the subordinate class. The relationship between men and lower-class women conforms with Marxist ideas as pregnancy is controlled by the ‘commander’ who, in the novel, represent the bourgeoisie. The women will cease to survive and essentially have no purpose if they fail to reproduce. This resembles Marxism in the sense that the commanders ‘control the means of production’ and can exploit any handmaid at choice by claiming that it is to repopulate society. The women must let the commander ‘use’ them as they need the commander to survive. To validate the class distinctions even further, Offred states, “There is the commander’s [umbrella], which is black, his wife’s, which is blue, and mine, which is red” (13). Although this comment may seem insignificant, it highlights the idea that there exist class distinctions as they are outlined by a physical and tangible object such as the umbrella. The color black, of the commander’s umbrella represents dominance whereas Offred’s umbrella is a red which is an emotionally intense color used to increase her sexual worth. Furthermore, it is evident that class distinctions exist within the novel as the commander uses Offred as a footrest which symbolizes the complete degradation of Offred and every other handmaid’s status. In essence, one can conclude that the society in The Handmaid’s Tale operates on the exploitation of the proletariat.

Though many would claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is purely a feminist novel affirming traditional ideas about women, it also incorporates within itself some ideas of Marxism. The novel showcases how the handmaids serve the role of the proletariat as their exploitation is sanctioned by society. This is demonstrated by the ideas that women are restricted freedom, ranked based on their fertility, and exploited through class systems. Through The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood aims to warn society about the negative consequences that may arise if traditional ideas about women are taken to their logical conclusions.


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