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In the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, the republic of Gilead presents a different environment with different rules from those of the former order before the conflict and establishment of a new order. The new laws criminalize the women’s right to own property, have jobs, and even read by justifying it as a necessity to mitigate the effects of pollution that renders most women infertile and puts the society in danger of extinction.
One of the strategies that the government applies in mitigation of the population’s sterility is provision of handmaids to upper class citizens for reproduction purposes. The handmaids’ main duty is to conduct coital interactions with their commanders (male masters of their households) for reproductive purposes in an event that the people refer to as ‘the ceremony’. During the ceremony, men have sex with their handmaids while their wives watch. Most handmaids comply with their duties reluctantly mainly out of fear for their lives.
Offred copes with survival as a handmaid in Gilead by applying the use of calculated rebellion in her actions throughout her stay. The calculated rebellion entails keeping the old order memories alive, misbehaving intentionally during shopping, having a secret affair with the Commander outside the ‘Ceremony’ and sleeping with Nick, entertaining Ofglen’s proposal to spy on the Commander, and engaging in forbidden acts whilst visiting the Commander.
Offred’s acts of rebellion
It is important to note that Offred’s loss of her family owing to their attempt to escape from Gilead plays a significant role in the methods she chooses to apply in her rebellion. Offred, a handmaid who plays the protagonist in the story, finds several ways of coping with her new situation mainly through the application of calculated rebellion.
This assertion means that she weighs her actions in terms of pros and cons before implementing any rebellious act. Throughout the story, she voices her rejection of the objectification of women in the society, but chooses her moments carefully during her outward projections of such rebellion. Throughout the book, there is evidence of her rebellious nature, though the acts seem trivial in relation to the gravity of her situation, and thus they do not alter the society’s sense of normalcy.
One of the ways in which Offred uses calculated rebellion as a coping mechanism is evident when she goes shopping with Ofglen, a fellow handmaid. Although going shopping does not constitute rebellion, her behavior during the shopping trips does.
For instance, Offred sways her hips mimicking the way the Guardians move (Atwood 22). Acting in such a way is indicative of her rejection of the societal view of her as a lesser human being to the Guardians. Swaying her hips is her way of stating that she is more than just a ‘womb on legs’ and is just as feminine as the Guardians.
Additionally, Offred and Ofglen go beyond the wall where dead bodies of rebels hang. This aspect does not comply with the principle of absolute obedience that handmaids learn at the Re-education Center (Red Center). Additionally, going to the wall appears as an act of sympathy considering Ofglen’s affiliation with the Mayday rebel group. The government authorities do not favor actions that imply sympathy to the rebel group thus the two risk attracting punitive action from Gilead’s law enforcement authorities.
Secondly, although the main purpose for having handmaids in Gilead is for reproduction purposes, Offred takes her relationship with the Commander further by engaging him emotionally away from the commander wife’s watchful eye (Atwood 154).
Such a relationship also goes against the objective for the establishment of the Ceremony, which is to ensure that the wife has control over the handmaid’s interaction with her husband. Offred entertains her personal relationship with the Commander as a show of her rebellion, power, and to some extent obedience to her master. It is thus safe to say that she chooses this form of rebellion as it bears little potential for punishment.
A similar comparison to this type of rebellion is Offred’s rejection of the doctor’s offer to impregnate her and save her from her duty to the Commander. Although the doctor represents an authority figure, she has no qualms rejecting his offer. Another example indicative of Offred’s choice for calculated rebellion is her acceptance of Serena Joy’s offer to have sex with Nick and get pregnant in exchange for information about her daughter, who gets lost at the onset of the rebellion during their attempt to escape (Atwood 205).
Her choice to accept the offer and have sex with Nick represents her rebellion to authority as the rules outlaw such affairs. However, this move is a calculated show of rebellion because she weighs the rewards of her choice against possible disadvantages before accepting the offer. Since the offer affords her a chance to obtain information about her daughter and have sex with a different man without the possibility of punishment from Serena Joy, she jumps at the opportunity and embraces it gladly.
Additionally, Offred conducts her affair with Nick for a period longer than that which she agrees with Serena Joy and does so secretly. Her behavior then constitutes rebellion against her master’s orders and Gilead’s rules in general.
Offred’s recollection of memories greatly affects her perception of the new order and acts as a rebellious act against the formation of new ideologies and the government of Gilead’s efforts to instill new principles into the society. The government of Gilead goes to great lengths to ensure the enforcement of their perception of gender roles. However, the government also understands that voluntary compliance with the principles by individuals is crucial for a successful overhaul of principles that prevailed during the old order.
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For this reason, the authorities established the Re-education Center (Red Center) and staffed it with women in charge of instilling the new principles to women and especially for handmaids (Atwood 25). At the Red Center, the handmaids learn about what their masters expect of them and what constitute punishable offences.
However, Offred chooses to hold on to ideologies on the old other with regard to women, thus defeating the purpose of the entire re-education process and serving as a rebellious act against the new order. For instance, in one of her flashbacks, Offred thinks back at the amount of pride that she had for her body during the period when she was married to Luke. In her opinion, her body was for her pleasure as well as her husband’s own.
She compares the perspective with her new situation in which the government values her only for her fertility, which lies in the decision to make her a handmaid to a sterile couple. She states that due to the state’s perception, she feels like a ‘womb on legs’, which is a probable feeling for many handmaids in Gilead. Thus, in order to ensure she does not lose herself, she holds on to her memories of her old life and the previous regime.
Offred’s willful association with Ofglen after discovery that she is a member of the outlawed rebel group, Mayday, also constitutes an act of rebellion as the government discourages such behavior. Offred goes to the extent of entertaining Ofglen’s proposal to spy on the Commander (Atwood 169), even though she does not act on the thoughts, probably due to the potential consequences that spying would cause if the Commander or Serena Joy caught her.
The last calculated act of rebellion involves Offred’s choice of activities when she meets the Commander for their secret visits. Offred chooses to keep the power she wielded in her life before the new order by playing chess and scrabble (Atwood 139). Scrabble and Chess are both games that require a certain amount of intelligence.
Therefore, by choosing to play the said games with her master, Offred implies her superior status to other women, considering that the law forbids such behaviors. She also implies her equality with the Commander, who is a representation of the men in the society in that story.
During the visits, the Commander also lets Offred indulge in reading magazines (Atwood 157), a concept that the administration frowns on. As stated earlier, the government at Gilead makes fervent efforts to ensure that the female population in the new republic adheres to total submission, which the governance considers crucial in ensuring that every fertile female commits to re-establishing numbers in the currently dwindling population.
By reading magazines, Offred passively rebels against the perception of women as child-bearers by presenting women as intellectual beings with needs similar to those of men. It is important to note that the Commander, a senior member of the society, is present and encourages Offred’s behavior. Therefore, even as Offred indulges in her ‘guilty pleasures’, she does so with the knowledge that the likelihood of punishment is slight.
Offred favors calculated acts of rebellion to outright rebellion as they present lower risks of punitive action from her masters and the government’s law enforcement bodies.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale, New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.