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“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood Essay

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Updated: Jan 8th, 2022

This is an analysis of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ book focusing mainly on a combination of interpretation and evaluation of the book. In interpreting the book, the main area of discussion will be supporting the meanings of the work whereas in evaluating the book, the focus will be coming up with the literary merit of the book based on the criteria for evaluating literature books. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a dystopia book because it displays tentative fiction. The set of the book is in the future somewhere lying within the current boundaries of the United States. The book reveals several universal truths that surround the lives of women about their relationships with men. Some of these truths revealed in the book include male chauvinism, the perception of women as tools of sex and procreation, and the view of women-only restricted to work in the house.

Offred is the protagonist in this piece of literature. She is a handmaid to the commander, Fred, meaning that she belongs to the commander as a concubine (Atwood, 30). The name Offred comes about because she is of Fred. At the beginning of the story, an attack by terrorists kills the US president and causes chaos in the country. A military coup staged by a group known as ‘the sons of Jacob’ (Atwood, 24), succeeds. It takes over the government and removes institutions such as Congress. It forms a new government that is theocratic and dictatorial known as the Republic of Gilead. From this, it is clear that the story touches a bit on some of the current issues going on in the US. Because it is a superpower and also taking into account its position on Islamic extremists, it draws serious oppositions to itself. This might be the reason for the terror attack at the beginning of the story.

Offred then tells of the moment when she and some other women, to be taken in as handmaids, had to ‘sleep on army cots. They were forbidden to speak aloud and were under tight security. The men guarding were called ‘angels’. They patrolled outside the former football gymnasium that they were held. She narrates how they were forced to try and use their bodies to strike a deal with the Angels but they were under strict orders not to look at the girls. This is where the oppression of women began. They were treated with disrespect and stripped of their powers. According to the US constitution, minorities and women are given a lot of consideration and power. Women have equal rights as men and most of them are independent of men. But when the republic of Gilead came to be, the constitution was suspended. This was followed by freezing the accounts of all the women in Gilead.

Racism and social class are other issues depicted clearly in the story. Black people are called children of Ham. Jews are referred to as ‘sons of Jacob’. They are the ruling party of the republic of Gilead. This has some implication of the characteristics and nature of Jews. They are portrayed as male chauvinist, racists, and tribalistic. In the Jewish community, during the biblical periods, women were never allowed to do anything outside the home. The society was divided into different classes and men were considered superior to women with more rights. It was a custom for men to have several concubines and wives.

In the book conflict has been clearly exhibited. There is conflict of person with person and conflict of persons with the society. Offred and her fellow handmaids are seeking for freedom from the oppression by men. They join the mayday resistance, group that rebels against the ruling class. Offred was introduced in this group by Nick, the commander’s chauffer. Nick was given the task to have sex with Offred so as to make her pregnant and avoid being sent to the colonies. This was the punishment given to those who were traitors of gender or homosexuals, sterile women and rebels of the ruling class. In the colonies, they were exposed to radioactive radiations and eventually died a slow death. The other punishment given mainly to women was being given the option to turn into a prostitute at a brothel that is run by the state. Moira, a friend to Offred from their college days and a fellow handmaid got into the red center with Offred at the same time but later on managed to escape. When she is caught she is given the choise of either going to the colonies or turning herself into a prostitute at the brothel.

The accuracy of the book seems to be quite correct. Though the book is a fiction based on speculation, it correctly represents the cultural aspects of a diverse society. Ethnicity is stated clearly in the story line where there exist Jews, White Americans and Black Americans. The whites are preferred to almost everything compared to the other, for example, ‘white women have more reproductive capacity than black women’. In the book, the current present is past. This is correctly represented as issues in the American society are clearly put across. For instance before the Gilead Republic rose, Offred used to have a husband, Luke, and a daughter. Luke had divorced his former wife to marry Offred. There is also the issue of terrorism where the story begins with a terror attack that kills the president.

Being a woman who has been through these societal issues affecting women, makes the narrator and the author of the book have sufficient prerequisite knowledge to tell the story. Living in Canada, a country neighboring the US and at the same time living in a globalised society, the author must have been fully aware of the current affairs of the US. The problem with this piece of literature is that it brings out clearly stereotypes of various cultural groups represented in the book. The minorities are portrayed as not equal in the Gilead society. There is subordination of women to the ruling elite. Women are not allowed to receive any formal education and girls a re not allowed to go to school.

The book has universal themes that clearly display the purpose for using a specific setting. The characters represented help in bringing out the themes. Women are used in the book to bring out the theme of sex for procreation and not for pleasure. It is only men permitted to have sex for pleasure as they would visit the brothel to have sex with prostitutes. The narrator says on page 94 “My red skirt is hitched up to the waist, though no higher. Below it the commander is fucking…I do not say making love because this is not what he is doing” (Atwood , 94). As a handmaid, the narrator does this just bear a child for Serena Joy, the commander’s wife. Once she gets pregnant and the baby has no defects, “not unbaby”, then it is given to Serena Joy to take care of as her own. The babies who had defect were considered unbabies and the made to disappear.

The book is an interesting fiction that uses symbolism to touch and speak on societal issues that were the norm during the period of feminism in the US. It reveals several truths that are discussed in this paper. Most of the truths touch on the social perception of women and there relationship to men.

Work Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

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