The Handmaid’s Tale Example #2
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In The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, freedom and oppression are juxtaposing themes designed to warn the reader of the dangers of the country being governed according to religious ideology. The novel takes place in Gilead, a Christian totalitarian and theocratic state, governed by martial law which has replaced the United States of America. Aunt Lydia’s statement, ‘There is more than one type of freedom, freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.
Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it’ is typical of the way in which the new world controls society under the pretence of protection. Society has been divided and everyone is identified by their title, their military rank, if male, or their gender role as Wife, Martha or Handmaid if they are female. The main character and narrator, Offred, is a Handmaid, and her purpose is to produce offspring for the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, who previously campaigned for traditional female roles.
Gilead is governed by a group of male elite known as the Commanders, who enforce their rule through paramilitary groups known as “Guardians of the Faith”, and secret police called “Eyes”. Every aspect of Offred’s life is strictly monitored and controlled, and the only freedom she can create is through daydreams and memories. She is only allowed out during the day for a short period of time to shop for the family that the state has assigned her to when accompanied by another Handmaid, stating that ‘she is my spy and I am hers’. This suggests that people no longer trust each other.
She must wear a uniform, luxuries such as moisturiser are forbidden and the playing of scrabble is likened to drugs, as all remnants of the old world have been banned. Her real name, which the authorities have replaced with Offred, is never revealed and she is not permitted to use it. This conveys her loss of identity as a new one has been imposed upon her by the state. This status is also defining her in relation to the commander and thus the overarching patriarchal system as the prefix ‘Of’ is followed by the name of her Commander, suggesting that she is owned by him.
Just as the state removes their name it also removes their power to communicate as the Handmaids are only allowed to communicate in set phrases, usually religious, in order to prevent conspiracy and expression of unorthodox ideas. Knowledge is restricted as women do not read, even shop names are in symbol form. All books including the Bible are banned except from those in authority who interpret it as they please.
Offred states that, ‘The Bible is an incendiary device: who knows what we’d make of it if we got our hands on it? The term ‘incendiary’ suggests that the trouble it could potentially cause would be as great as fire. She later refers to the Bible saying, ‘I know they made that up, I know it was wrong…. but there was no way of checking’, suggesting that she is aware that the country’s leaders are manipulating the text in order to control its citizens. Offred realises that restricting the knowledge of its citizens is key to preserving the Totalitarian regime in Gilead, commenting that ‘knowing was a temptation’ and ‘what you don’t know won’t tempt you’.
As she is part of the transitional generation she has knowledge from the past that she must control, which is made possible through fear. Future generations, however, will not have this awareness, which acts as a warning to the reader. The citizens of Gilead are controlled through fear, and those who are unorthodox are hung on The Wall as a warning to others. The Wall itself is described in a threatening and sinister manner, most notably the ‘ugly new floodlights’, ‘barbed wire’ and ‘broken glass set in concrete’ creating an oppressive atmosphere.
The portrayal of the prisoners hung upon the wall is even more disturbing, as Offred likens them to ‘snowmen, with the coal eyes and carrot noses cut out’ and ‘dolls on which faces have not yet been painted’. The childlike imagery is Offred’s way of taming and understanding the disturbing scene. The women are made to observe executions, known as ‘salvaging’, which is ironic as the term is juxtaposed with the act, as another way of controlling them through fear.
The ‘particution’ is another violent practice which involves the Handmaid’s forming a circle around a former Guardian and alleged rapist, brutally attacking him until dead despite his protests that he is innocent. The Handmaids are likened to a ‘crowd at a rock concert’, suggesting that they are loud and uncontrollable and Offred disturbingly comments that ‘we are permitted anything and this is freedom’, as their sadistic pleasure allows them to be further manipulated by the state. Offred later learns from Ofglen that ‘he wasn’t a rapist at all, he was a political’.
Violent practices are key to maintaining order within Gilead, with Aunt Lydia saying to Offred after Moira was beaten, ‘For our purposes, your feet and your hands are not essential’. This demonstrates how individual rights and identities have been sacrificed for the regime. This oppressive environment is contrasted to the old world through frequent flashbacks to Offred’s old life and her family. The fragmented narrative and non-chronological structure conveys her confused state of mind and uncertainty. However, it is apparent that the old world will not always be remembered, as Aunt Lydia says, ‘Ordinary is what you are used to.
This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary’. The new world is further contrasted when Offred meets some Japanese tourists and states that ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that are short on women’, describing them as ‘nearly naked’ despite the fact that most would consider them modestly dressed as ‘their skirts reach just below their knee’. The fact that the way she used to dress now shocks her demonstrates the significance of the impact that the regime has had.
Offred nostalgically comments that, ‘I used to dress like that. That was freedom’. She also states that, ‘It has taken so little time to change our minds about things like this”, again disturbing the reader and warning them that they would become accustomed to being without basic rights. At the Red Centre when the other Handmaid’s are convinced that Janine was to blame for her gang rape, pregnancy and subsequent abortion chanting, ‘Her fault! Her fault! ‘, demonstrating how the Handmaids’ morals have been altered.
Arguably the most disturbing example of oppression in the novel is when Offred has intercourse with the commander under the supervision of Serena Joy in order to produce offspring for them. Offred survives the ordeal by distancing herself from it and detatching her emotions, stating ‘one detatches oneself, one describes’. The way in which she refers to the intercourse as ‘the ceremony’, ‘the process’ and ‘fucking’ suggests that she is trying to alienate herself from the experience and she states that ‘making love…. is not what he is doing…. nor does rape cover it’.
Kissing is forbidden which ‘makes it bearable’ and Offred states that she ‘wishes he would hurry up’, again demonstrating the detatchment of emotions. Serena Joy is distant towards her afterwards, ordering her to ‘get out’ without giving her the recommended resting time causing Offred to question, ‘Who is it worse for, her or me? ‘. This degrading and inhumane experience shows that Offred has no real choice or rights and causes her to hate her body, stating that she ‘doesn’t want to look at something that defines her so completely’. The freedoms the citizens of Gilead have are few but make their lives bearable.
Offred comments that, for the Marthas, ‘bits of petty gossip give them an opportunity for pride’. Her own experiences with the Commander and her relationship with Nick cause her to become so content that she has become ‘lazy’. She says that, ‘I have made a life for myself, of a sort’ and remembers her mother’s comment that ‘humanity is so adaptable’. The presentation of oppression in The Handmaid’s Tale influences the reader’s understanding of the novel as it expresses what could happen if extreme religious ideology is followed as a solution to social problems.
Atwood condemns not only the misogynistic ideas and religious fanaticism presented in the novel, but also the complacency of the women involved as they endure oppression without complaint provided that they receive some slight power or freedom. Offred’s own mother states that it is ‘truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations’. Many consider the novel to be a criticism of the Fundamentalist protestants in America as at the time of writing, during the Raegan era, political and religious conservatism was rising.