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Analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2022

The literary work selected for analysis is a famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This novel was written in 1985, and its movie adaptation appeared in 1990. The Handmaid’s Tale is characterized as a feminist dystopia written in direct reaction to the growing political power of the American religious right in the 1980s. This novel projects a future in which such forces have established control of the government (Dodson 66). Through rebel resistance, the United States has been replaced by the Republic of Gilead, in which the ideology of religious fundamentalism is imposed by brute force on a stupefied populace.

Atwood portrays that Gilead is a police state, with the movements and activities of its citizens closely monitored and controlled. But the new government also attempts to gain the “voluntary” loyalty of its subjects through a variety of measures that are reminiscent both of religious tradition and of the reinscriptions of religion in dystopian classics. This is a feminist text where sexuality is a principal focus for the exercise of religious totalitarianism in Gilead. In the Christian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead, marriage is promoted as a social goal, though it is only available to those who have reached a certain social status in this strongly stratified society (Howells 52). Wives are “issued” to successful males as rewards for loyal service to the community, demonstrating the thorough commodification of women in Gilead. Women in this society exist not as individuals but as members of well-defined groups, corresponding almost to brand names. Among the upper classes, women function principally either as wives (who serve as domestic managers), domestic servants (“Marthas”), or handmaids (sexual surrogates). In the lower classes, “Econowives” have to play all of these roles (Howells 62). There are also “Aunts” (who serve to train and discipline the handmaids) and “Jezebels” (officially, though covertly, sanctioned prostitutes used to service foreign dignitaries and important government officials). Woman who cannot or will not play one of these roles are labeled “Unwomen” and are exiled to the “colonies,” where they are used for hazardous duties like cleaning up toxic waste (Dodson 68). Following Klarer (1995): All these formal features of orality and literacy are in direct exchange with ideological issues, which can generally be dealt with under the wider term of “abstraction” and its restriction to the male leading class” (129).

Atwood’s book focuses on the handmaids, who are assigned to important men (“Commanders”) whose wives have proved unable to bear children so that those men might still have an opportunity to procreate (Howells 88). The narrator and title character of The Handmaid’s Tale is labeled “Offred,” indicating her service to a Commander named “Fred,”. She succinctly describes her role as handmaid (authorized by the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Bilhah): But ” Offred’s” secret liaisons with the Commander are conducted strictly under his orders, and she remains a tool of his power. Similarly, her relationship with Nick is authorized by Serena Joy.

The ending of The Handmaid’s Tale is not optimistic. Atwood gives hope in Offred’s continual attempts to resist the overwhelming oppression to which she is exposed. In particular, Atwood depicts language as an aspect of both patriarchal tradition and feminine resistance (Feuer 84). The very fact that Offred records her diary indicates her insistence on her own articulateness and refusal to accept the official Gileadean line that women are inferior to men in their linguistic abilities. “Offred,” refuses passively to accept this domination. She continually muses on her real name, and her narration is liberally spiced with wordplay and other demonstrations of her dexterity with language. “Offred” is thus able to maintain an identity of her own, apart from the one prescribed for her in this ultimate patriarchal society. But the overall tone of Atwood’s book remains dark, and her book stands as one of the most striking dystopian visions of recent years (Dodson 69).

The movie adaptation was directed by V. Schlondorff. The movie follows the book with some exceptions. It is possible to say that the movie and its director grasps the spirit of the book and skillfully follows ideas and ideology created by Atwood. Similar to the book, the movie portrays that the handmaids in Gilead have no identity except as potential childbearers; they are even stripped of their original names, which are replaced with possessive nominations like “Ofglen,” “Ofwayne,” or “Ofwarren,” indicating their status as mere property of their Commanders (“Glen,” or “Fred,” or “Warren”). Despite this emphasis on impersonality, a private connection develops between “Offred” and her Commander when he induces her to start meeting with him privately. In these sessions they enact various minor transgressions like playing Scrabble, a game forbidden to women because it promotes literacy ((Howells 163). Meanwhile, the Commander’s wife (a former gospel singer) suspects the Commander of being sterile, so she recruits “Offred” to engage in convert sexual relations with the chauffeur Nick in the hope that the handmaid will thereby become pregnant and bring increased status to the family. As the handmaid “Offred” explains, “The Bible is kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn’t steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it? We can be read to from it, by him, but we cannot read” (Atwood 112). “Offred” herself then becomes emotionally attached to Nick, and the couple secretly begin their own private series of sexual liaisons in addition to those arranged by Serena Joy. Sexual energies that are ostensibly transgressive thus circulate rather freely in the text, despite the repressive environment.

It is possible to say that the movie adds sexuality to the narration and emphasizes gender relations. Sexuality in The Handmaid’s Tale is very much a question of political power. Indeed, despite the decidedly figuration of the handmaid’s role in this Puritanical society, even exotic sexual pleasure is secretly endorsed by the powers that be in Gilead, in the form of the authorized brothels where the Jezebels ply their trade under strict government control and where the wildest fantasies of the clientele can be realized (Howells 167). Lesbian relationships between the Jezebels are openly condoned, though the society at large is homophobic (Feuer 85). When the Commander takes “Offred” to one of these brothels in order to have sexual intercourse with her outside the bounds of the impersonal handmaid ceremony, she submits not out of private loyalty or feeling, but merely out of her firm understanding of the workings of power that are involved. Even the relationship between Nick and “Offred” turns out to be highly political; he is apparently an agent of the “Mayday” underground, and his interest in “Offred” may be largely due to his understanding that she is in a position to extract useful information from her Commander (Dodson 69).

The movie emphasizes that sexual relations in the Republic of Gilead is a matter not of emotion or biology, but of pure political power. It seems that the novel pays more attention to political ideology using sexual relations only as a frame of this ideology. Similarly, the religious emphasis that centrally informs the society is concerned not with spiritual salvation but with political domination. Television programming in Gilead consists primarily of religious programs and of biased news reports that are little more than official propaganda. Literature is strictly censored and controlled. Most women are not allowed to read at all; the signs in stores consist of pictorial symbols so that shopping will not require reading. Even the Bible is considered highly dangerous–as it was, in fact, in the Middle Ages. In family groups like the one around which A Handmaid’s Tale is centered, the Bible can be read only by the Commander, though he does sometimes read passages aloud to his wife and female servants, for their group edification. The difference is that, according to the novel, Nick stays to help political organization while in the movie he escapes with ‘Offred’ (Dodson 66). In the novel, Atwood leaves to readers to decide the destiny and further actions of the min heroes, while the movie portrays that ‘Offred’ is pregnant and is waiting Nick somewhere in the mountains.

While Atwood’s book is a vague about the way by which the theocracy of Gilead actually managed to supplant the United States government, her vision does gain a great deal of energy from the fact that the seeds of her dystopia clearly do exist in the contemporary efforts of the American religious right to enforce its beliefs through political power. Of course, an element of religious fundamentalism has always been present in American culture. Indeed, the numerous parallels between the practices of the Republic of Gilead and those of the medieval Inquisition suggest that the oppressive religious energies that inform Atwood’s dystopia have been present in Western civilization for centuries (Howells 170). That a resurgence of these energies like that embodied in the Republic of Gilead could occur thus bespeaks an inability of Western society to learn the lessons of history. Indeed, the regime in Gilead, like so many dystopian regimes, works hard to prevent its subjects from learning such lessons, and one of the central strategies of the Republic of Gilead for stabilizing its power is to attempt to efface all memory of the recent past in which women enjoyed a more liberated existence. In the new film version, I would follow the ending of the book.

In the new version, I would avoid sexuality and emphasize religious and political ideas of the novel. This is important because the official policies of Gilead are invariably justified by Biblical precedent, but since no one but the leaders of the “republic” has access to the Bible they are able to claim Biblical precedent for almost anything they want. The Gileadeans have in fact imported a number of bits of spurious Christian ideology, as when the distribution of women as sexual objects among men in the society is justified by a perversion of Marx that is claimed to come from St. Paul himself, in Acts: “Biblical” slogans evoke not spiritual elevation but political obedience.

I would pay more attention to religious ceremonies which reflect Christian rituals. One such ceremony is the “Salvaging,” the name of which carries hints of Christian salvation of those who have strayed, but which is in reality nothing more than a public hanging of groups of subversives, who serve as a focus for mass hatred. This hatred surfaces most violently in the ritual of “Particicution,” a chilling reinscription of medieval public executions in which groups of women servants act not as spectators but as executioners; they are whipped to a frenzy by incendiary rhetoric, then turned loose on some transgressor against society and encouraged savagely to beat the victim to death, thus gaining their full complicity in the enforcement of the rules of the State. I suppose that these scenes are important because they reflect true ideology and social relations when “sinners” who are not publicly executed have their bodies put on public display, hanging for days from hooks set in a wall as an abject reminder of the fate that awaits such sinners. Klarer underlines that: “The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes this seemingly inherent simultaneity of literacy and Christianity in the description of ritual gatherings during which the Commander reads a passage from the Bible to the members of the household” (129). The official fear that “love” will develop between Commander and handmaid shows that sexual relationships lead to loyalties that might supersede communal ones, just as the use of the handmaids for breeding purposes while seeking to prevent any emotional contact (Feuer 84).

I would include the last scene of the book with an epilogue in which a group of historians in the year 2195 discuss “Offred’s” manuscript in a way that makes it clear that the Republic of Gilead has long since passed from the face of history. This is an important part of the narration because it adds a hope to the end of the book, especially since the symposium of historians described in the epilogue is chaired by a woman, indicating significant social and professional advancement for women since the demise of Gilead.

Works Cited

  1. Atwood Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Fawcett, 1986
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale (1990). Dir. by V. Schlondorff. MGM (Video & DVD), 2001.
  3. Dodson, D. J. “We Lived in the Blank White Spaces”: Rewriting the Paradigm of Denial in Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale. Utopian Studies 8, (1997), 66-77.
  4. Feuer, L. The Calculus of Love and Nightmare: the Handmaid’s Tale and the Dystopian Tradition. Critique 38, (1997), 83-95.
  5. Howells, C. A. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  6. Klarer, M. Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale. Mosaic (Winnipeg) 28 (1995), 129-145.
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