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The Handmaid's Tale - English Literature



Analyse and Discuss the Strange and Horrific World of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids


Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, is a strange and disturbing dystopian novel about the complete subjugation of women under the rule of Christian fundamentalists. The dystopia is misogynistic and totally devoid of spirituality and compassion. The totalitarian theocracy of Gilead is named after a mountain in the Book of Genesis. There is no alternative political party, no democracy, illusory or otherwise. Gilead prescribes a pattern of life based on conformity, corruption, frugality, fear and terror. It has a complete shortage of children due to environmental and atmospheric pollution which occurred in the previous liberal society. The pollution resulted in the malformation and death of babies and developing foetuses. Fertility rates have become very low especially among the Caucasian population. The Gileadean handmaids have viable ovaries and are made to bear children for elite couples comprising 'Commanders of the Faithful' and their infertile wives but the danger of deformity remains high and nobody knows exactly what happens to the malformed or the unbabies as the Gileadeans refer to them. The commanders dress in black. Borrowing a phrase from Sylvia Plath, they are men in black with a Mein Kampf look. 


The handmaid’s original names are history. Their allocated Gileadean names consist of the word ‘Of’ followed by the name of her particular patriarchal commander: Ofglen, Ofwarren... The commanders’ wives organise periodical sexual intercourse for the handmaids. If they comply, they earn the right to an existence. If they do not comply, they are banished to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste.The handmaids are trained and re-educated in the 'Rachel and Leah Centre' [informally called The Red Centre.] They are not allowed to socialise with each other. Any superficial snippets of discourse take place on the walks and assume the form of the women being passive recipients of Gileadean ideology, "The war is going well I hear," says Ofglen. "Praise be," replies Offred. They must wear long dresses of red. They wear head-gear with white wings. Like blinkers, the wings prevent them from seeing anything except straight ahead. The women’s bodies are instruments of political control. They cannot vote, cannot read, cannot write and cannot have jobs. They are only allowed out to go shopping for groceries and must be in pairs. The doors to their rooms must always be left ajar. Similar to George Orwell’s Big Brother in his novel, 1984, the Eyes [intelligence and surveillance] watch every move. The handmaids are de-sexed and dehumanized. They are nothing more than a set of ovaries and a womb:

We are all for breeding purposes: We aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary, everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is nothing entertaining about us... We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices. [ chapter 23.p. 146 in Vintage Books.]

Other categories of women in the novel include Aunts, Marthas, Econowives and Unwomen. The function of the Aunts is to indoctrinate the handmaids into accepting their subservient roles. They are essentially sex-slave instructors at the Red Centre. The Marthas are infertile women who are willing to attend to food preparation and to serve the Commanders and their wives as an alternative to being sent to clean up radioactive waste in the Colonies. The Econowives are the wives of Lesser men. The ‘Unwomen’ are those who deviate from the norm in that in the previous society, they may have been lesbians, deliberate single-parents, radicals, terminators of pregnancies, feminists or simply women who are currently unable to conceive after ‘three tries’ in Gilead. Some of the Unwomen become Marthas, some are sent to the Colonies or to Jezebels where they are used as prostitutes by the commanders. Some of the commanders are also infertile but it is against the law to mention it.

The narrator and heroin of the tale is Offred. She slips in and out of flashbacks.The language, as in any society, real or imaginary, determines the sphere of thought. The categorisation of women is achieved by naming and labelling. Dystopian novels about the dangers of totalitarianism tend to explore the connection between a State’s repression of its subjects and its perversions of language. Consider Brave New World and Newspeak in 1984 for example.The Handmaid's Tale contains a great deal of biblical terminology, references and images. The police are the Guardians of the Faith, the soldiers are Angels.  Even the food stores have biblical references like Loaves and FishesAll FleshMilk and Honey. Political authoritarianism is smoothed over with pious language which gives it a sinister feel. The language and tone of the narrator are important. The shock factor is sometimes used to convey just how accustomed Offred has become to the brutality. For example, in chapter 42 she describes the Salvaging where a woman is about to be hanged. She is,

..helped onto a high stool as if she’s being helped up the stairs of a bus…the noose adjusted delicately around the neck, like a vestment.

The juxtaposition of tenderness and holiness with brutal repression alerts the reader to realise the ease with which Gilead is achieving its aims. Offred’s tone possesses an existential detachment. It is matter-of-fact, devoid of emotion. She suppresses her emotions and expresses herself in this way to preserve her sanity. In Chapter 42, she mentions that reading would be punished by only having a hand cut off [own Italics]. We know that Offred feels emotion because she often tells us about her husband, Luke, and their little daughter in her previous life. She has no idea where they are. But she has to cut off her thoughts. She dare not think about it too deeply. She sometimes focuses on small details which help to alleviate her confinement and boredom. At other times she focuses on macabre details. For example, she compares the red of Serena Joy's tulips with the blood where the mouths should be on the bagged heads of the corpses at the salvagings. Again, note the juxtaposition of the beauty of a flower and the gruesome image of the blood on the bagged heads. She is detached. She feels she has to test herself in order to retain her sanity: 

I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are tests and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it so I will have enough when the time comes.

She makes many references to macabre images which convey her depression and unsurprisingly, concerns about stultification, fear, death and hopelessness in the authoritarian regime. For example, the plaster rose in the centre of the ceiling of her room is in the shape of a wreath. The blank space in its centre reminds her of “the place in a face where the eye has been taken out.” In chapter 8, she describes a convex mirror that bulges outward “like an eye under pressure." In chapter 19, she describes the curtains in her room as "hanging like drowned white hair". In chapter 32, she observes Rita cutting radishes and they remind her of the way the Aztecs cut out the hearts of their sacrificial victims. Offred’s tone conveys that she is cut adrift from herself, from her soul and her fellow humankind. She is on the brink; out of kilter yet sane; as if on barren, alien terrain, which of course, she is. She is terribly alone. She remembers a song her mother used to play: I feel so lonely baby, I feel so lonely baby, I feel so lonely I could die.[chapter 10 -64]. Offred takes a little comfort from the words, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum which she finds scratched in the closet in her room. She assumes that it was written as a secret sign of hope by a previous 'inmate'. The phrase is not correct Latin so it does not make much sense to translate it literally but it is intended to mean, "Don't let the bastards wear you down."

Many men are ritualistically murdered, particularly those who were in the medical profession in the previous society and were instrumental in organising or performing terminations. In chapter 43, Offred describes the beaten face of the tortured man at the Particicution. His face is so damaged that it is “like an unknown vegetable, a mangled bulb or a tuber.” The handmaids become increasingly de-sensitized. When Offred encounters the dead bodies of doctors and scientists hanging from meat hooks on the wall she states with an air of nonchalance :


There must have been a Men's Salvaging early this morning. I didn't hear the bells. Perhaps I've become used to them. [chptr 6]

And then:


It's the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men look like dolls on which faces have not yet been painted, like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare.........Or as if their heads are sacks stuffed with some undifferentiated material, like flour or dough. It's the obvious heaviness of the heads, their vacancy, the way gravity pulls them down and there's no life any more to hold them up. The heads are zeros.

[chptr 6]


Gilead is a regime which enforces obedience by the imposition of brutal punishments. Moira is a rebel. For trying to escape, her hands and feet are beaten to a pulp. “For our purposes your hands and feet are not essential.” All women must attend the public hangings of other women. Homosexuality is regarded as gender treachery. The penalty is also death by hanging. The dead bodies of the ‘wrongdoers’ are publicly displayed along the Wall which Offred and Ofglen encounter on their shopping walks. Females must not be educated. They must be covered from head to foot. Beatings and murder are often the ultimate punishments for disobedience of patriarchal laws. The novel reveals Margaret Atwood’s awareness of how easy it is to indoctrinate human beings; to create and accept subjugation of a gender, a race, a class, a creed, and to accept punishments and laws as justifiable and legitimate, irrespective of the fact that they are nothing more than inherited, intergenerationally perpetuated ideologies. Subsequent generations of Gileadeans will accept the regime as perfectly normal. Ideologies have no meaning in themselves - only the meanings human beings attribute . Atwood is also aware of how easily a given society’s security could, at any time, be horrifically transformed by fundamentalism. 

Correlatively, Margaret Atwood also reveals her awareness of how easy it is to socialise females to comply with male ideology no matter what that ideology may be. The corroboration of women against women is anathema to the reader of The Handmaid’s Tale. Consider for example the deliberate humiliation of Janine. Janine had been gang raped in the previous society but in the Red Centre, Aunt Helena encourages the others to chant that it was to “to teach her a lesson.” “ 'But whose fault was it?'”.....'Her fault, her fault!’…we shout in unison.” 

As long ago as 1949, the philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, wrote, The Second Sex. She borrowed the Hegelian notion of Other to apply to how women are treated as Other in relation to man. He is first; she is secondary. He is the absolute; she is the appendage. She is "culturally positioned as the negative form of man". In varying degrees, this is as true today, as it was in bygone eras and as it is in The Handmaid’s Tale. The feelings of superiority; of the notion "that women, their bodies, their wombs, their social roles, do not belong to themselves but to the male of the species and they want to define them in any given time." Again, it is nothing more than an ideology built up by a desire to control. Some critics state, "It must certainly beg the question of what would the male of the species do if the majority of women really did become infertile in our own society?"

The novel is not really 'likeable' in that its content is so utterly disturbing.The ending is unexpected. On one level it is quite annoying because the reader would like to be certain that Offred escaped to safety and happiness and was reunited with her husband and child, if they are still alive. We do not learn what happened to Offred. However, the ending and historical notes are meant to stimulate the reader into pondering multiple possible endings and whether an account by Offred is less viable than one that could have been recorded in salvaged government documents. Is an historical ‘objective’ account written by a government regime more reliable than an individual’s personal narrative? The ending also ponders the philosophical question of moral or cultural relativism which emphasises that we should not judge past or present societies by our own cultural standards but should consider the conditions and events under which a given population, or more specifically, a government, applies measures to situations in its own particular era [!].

Dominic Fairfax


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