An Oppressive System in the Handmaid’s Tale

The person who once tweeted , “I have no limits”, was limited by a maximum of 140 characters. Language is helpful and restraining at the same time, for instance, when defining words. It is widely known that several aspects of life are too complex to express them into words, especially when regarding social constructs, such as femininity and masculinity. Femininity, specifically, has drawn the attention of various authors, such as Judith Butler, who dedicated her life mainly to expose her idea of femininity in pursuit to change the world that she so much disagreed with. Also Monique Wittig, who devoted the vast majority of her writings to express her opinion on femininity. Sigmund Freud and Margaret Atwood add to this list as well, although with very divergent points of view. While Sigmund Freud was more willing to explain how he believed women’s mindset and behavioral reactions work, Atwood materialized all her ideas and opinions of society’s perception of femininity in a marvelous literary work called The Handmaid’s Tale. Undoubtedly, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the novels that best describes how femininity has been portrayed by society throughout history. Nonetheless, what separates Atwood from the rest of the authors mentioned above is her inclination not only to express her ideas through her writings but also to criticize how society was depicting femininity. Atwood excoriates society’s perception of women in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, through her description of the system of the society where the story takes place. Atwood creates a dystopian society in a place called The Republic of Gilead, where women are massively restricted and hyperbolically protected due to their ability to conceive. Atwood’s ideas can be compared to the opinions of the before mentioned writers because all of them discuss femininity in one way or another, although with very different perspectives. Specifically, Freud’s psychological and Wittig’s radical definitions of femininity relate significantly with the scheming and oppressive way that the system in Gilead controls women. Even though they both are related to specific topics present in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, these theories are very different. Wittig’s theory touches specific points that are connected to the advantages that the system mentioned above presents, such as the eradication of knowledge acquisition to relieve the pain that women suffer due to the strictness of the rules. On the other hand, Freud’s theory touches some ideas that have a massive connection with the disadvantages that the Gilded system present, such as the limitations and restrictions that women are submitted due to their features and purposes within society. Even though at a certain point both theories seem to amalgamate, Wittig’s theory shows more modern and inclusive ideas that give her point of view a higher validity compared to Freud’s.

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Margaret Atwood was the only one of the aforementioned authors who decided to expose her opinion with extensive usage of metaphors and symbolism through her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. As it has been stated, the story that Atwood presents in the novel takes place in The Republic of Gilead. The importance of this place lies in how the system controls the population, specifically, the female population. The most remarkable characteristic of this system is its construction around the bible. During one of the innumerable ceremonies that take place in the novel, the narrator and protagonist of the story, Offred, listens attentively to the reading of a biblical passage. “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And so on and so forth. We had it read to us every breakfast, as we sat in the high school cafeteria, eating porridge with cream and brown sugar.’ (Atwood 88). This quote is vital to understand the importance of the bible within the society in Gilead. Two things can be easily deduced from this excerpt: the method of how ideas are imposed and what is the system based on. At the end of the quote, Offred describes how they (regarding her entire gender), had to listen to that phrase multiple times, in every breakfast and even in the moment when they are supposed to be resting or having fun. It is important to notice how she contrasts something enjoyable, such as to eat ice cream with something that sounds less interesting to her due to the tone that the entire quote has. The tone is depicted by phrases such as ‘and so on and so forth’, indicating tediousness and boredom. Offred is telling the reader openly that they (women) are not having fun anymore. The periods when they are trying to rest, they also have to fulfill their duty. Offred’s diction and tone describe this society not only as oppressive but also as inconsiderate due to the fact that it is taking out the apparently few enjoyable moments of their lives.

In addition to the revelation of the system’s methods, Offred’s words serve to give the reader a clue about which are the system priorities and how it is constructed. As Offred said, she is listening to a quote read by a third person, a quote that she has listened to multiple times throughout her life. The fact that this phrase has been repeated multiple times, inherently entails that it is very important for the system in question. Unlike many other quotes in the bible, this one cannot be taken out of context, indeed, this is a very specific quote. It is narrating a story, a story that cannot be used for anything else that does not carry childbearing or maternity as an inherent factor of the equation. In this case, the word ‘maid’ is the keyword to find the thorough meaning of the quote. While the second part of the quote touches the topic of maternity and the action of conceiving, the first part describes the difference between classes. The fact that it is the handmaid is the one that is being requested to do the action, entails that she is socially less than the person who is sending her to do what that person wants her to do. In addition, the fact that the maid does not refuse this order is what assures the reader that there exists a huge gap between these two persons. With this in mind, the reader can infer openly that the system is based on class distinction and maternity, led by the fact that a quote so specific like the aforementioned it is repeated multiple times not to one, but to a group of people. In the following pages of the novel Atwood starts giving more nuances to the story and introducing new ideas. For instance, she starts developing more the concept of the ‘Aunts’ that she has introduced in previous pages and giving to these characters the role of tutors or trainers. “They didn’t care what they did to your feet or your hands, even if it was permanent.

Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes, your feet and your hands are not essential.” (Atwood 91). Unlike the previous quote, this excerpt openly describes Gilead as an oppressive system. Aunt Lydia extirpates any human characteristic from women in the exact moment when she suggests that extremities are not necessary for them because they are not related to the purpose that she wants them to fulfill. She is transforming women into objects that serve a singular purpose, and at this point is where Atwood wants the reader to start thinking about that purpose. Considering all the previous points, and the fact that the extremities (which are vital tools for any being to perform a task) have been metaphorically extracted by Aunt Lydia, there is nothing that women can do besides having childs. These words from Aunt Lydia not only help to reinforce the idea that women in this society are just valued for their capacity to conceive but also to show that this system is cruel enough to reduce women to beings so abysmally replaceable that end up dehumanizing them.

The idea of describing and dehumanizing women for being a single-tasking being is in itself contradictory because one of the most observable characteristics of the system in Gilead is the over-protection of women because of that specific feature of having kids. “All flesh is weak. All flesh is grass, I corrected her in my head. They [men] can’t help it, she said, God made them that way but He did not make you [women] that way. He made you different. It’s up to you to set the boundaries.” (Atwood 45). This quote is massively important, not only to explain to what extent women are being squeezed and how overprotected they are in this society but also to explain how the system controls women so easily.

Not pleased with looking down upon women and taking her times of joy from them, the head of this society also wants to overcharge women with responsibilities imposed arbitrarily. The quote finishes with the phrase ‘it’s up to you to set the boundaries’, suggesting that if something happens, it would be their [women] fault, no matter what. According to this logic, women have to take care of themselves and to take care of other people, specifically men. Men definitely play a huge role in this quote, they are the subject that gives women that sense of being protected, not for them, but from them. As Aunt Lydia suggests, men cannot help to be savage, men cannot help breaking the laws, therefore, women, as wise and self-controlled capable beings, have to protect themselves from the innocent and clumsy men. At this point is where the inconsistency of the system starts to emerge and the contradictions present in this idea start to appear: At the same time, the Aunt is telling women they just serve for a single purpose, she is also treating them as pretended superior beings that have to be able to look after her and to look after what other people do to her. Not only the contradictions within the quote are important to be remarked, but also the sentence ‘He made you different’ has vital importance within the novel and within Atwood’s opinion represented through the story. The fact that women are ‘different’ is the explanation of the system of why they are being so strict on them, and why women have to be so ‘protected’. The system is giving women a sense of false superiority.

By using phrases such as ‘he made you different’, the Aunt is doing nothing more than giving them [women] a false and empty motivation that restrain them from being subversive. Moreover, this society washes women’s brains deliberately, making them feel they are being taken into account as humans when women really are taken into account as tools. As a replaceable tool that can be mistreated and which extremities they can amputate because they do not fulfill a specific purpose imposed by the system in this society. Here is when Atwood’s opinion initiates to emerge from the recondite abyss of metaphors and fiction that she has created. The system only looks for their benefit, they want women to do what they want them to do. As Aunt Lydia openly said, the system does not care about how capable women can be, they do not need their strength or their abilities, they only need their womb. In fact, the system uses the Aunts as intermediaries to create a fictional reality into women’s minds where they are special, where they are different. Although, what the system really does is to crush every tiny piece of hope that women can have to be something more than a vagina or a container.

As stated, femininity can be understood from different perspectives. Nonetheless, not everybody uses fictional stories and metaphors like Atwood to describe and express their opinion. For instance, Sigmund Freud, a brilliant neurologist felt the ineluctable desire to extrapolate his knowledge in the medical field to the field of sociology and ontology. A perfect example can be the edited version of his ideas by Elisabet Young-Bruehl, Freud on Women: A Reader. In this book, Young-Bruehl goes over the most controversial and important ideas of Freud regarding sexuality. “The auto-erotic activity of the erotogenic zones is, however, the same in both sexes, and owing to this uniformity there is no possibility of a distinction between the two sexes such as arises after puberty.” (Young-Bruehl 135). This quote shows how Freud’s ideas are extremely concise. He starts using biology to support his opinion, remarking the similarity between the erotogenic zones in both sexes. As can be seen, Freud starts placing both sexes at the same level stating that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other until they both reach puberty. In fact, puberty is one of the arguments where Freud’s theory is based on. Puberty under Freud’s perspective can be compared to the turning point of a novel. Puberty is when the female and the male bifurcate creating two beings psychologically different. Freud’s theory initiates to evolve when he starts talking about the masturbatory manifestations (widely known as auto pleasure acts), and how is the nature of these manifestations in each of the two sexes. “So far as the autoerotic and masturbatory manifestations of sexuality are concerned, we might lay it down that the sexuality of little girls is of a wholly masculine character.’ (Young-Bruehl 135). At this point is where the scale starts to tip to one side, the masculine. If puberty is one of the bases of Freud’s theory, the superiority of the male sex it is the spinal column of his opinion.

Freud uses biology and science to support his ideas and it is important to see the difference between the first quote and this second quote. In the first example, Freud based his opinion on the fact that both female and male are very similar if not identical before puberty regarding the erotogenic zones. In this quote, he uses the difference that puberty as a biological process generates between sexes to place the male as the character that “best defines’’ both sexes. It is inevitable for the reader to see the bias in Freud’s opinion in favor of the men, perhaps caused by how society was portrayed in 1905 or because of Freud’s character and personality in itself. This idea of portraying men as the dominant sex, or at the self-sufficient part, is what outlines the rest of Freud’s theory. For instance, in the paragraph that follows the previous quote, Freud opines, “Indeed, if we were able to give a more definite connotation to the concepts of ‘masculine and feminine’, it would even be possible to maintain that libido is invariably and necessarily of a masculine nature’ (Young-Bruehl 136).

In this quote, Freud does not leave room for misunderstandings. He is claiming openly that if there existed another definition for the terms masculine and feminine it would be possible to place the men in a higher step compared to women. The word ‘invariably’ in this quote has massive importance because it is a word that indicates absoluteness. Therefore, Freud believes that the libido (which is another word for sexual desire) is absolutely and definitely of a men’s nature. This idea has a tremendous connection with Gilead’s ideas of women in The Handmaid’s Tale. For instance, in a section of the novel when Offred is praying, she states the following, “What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen, and babies.” (Atwood 194). This quote clearly shows how the system in Gilead affected, or rather brainwashed women’s perception of themselves as human beings.

Considering the biblical background of the society in question, the nature of the words used by Offred can be considered as religious. Therefore, “love” as a virtue, does not connote self-love but love for others, such as the bible suggests. By the same fashion self-denial and grace do not take a self-centered connotation, but an unselfish one. With this in mind, a common factor between all the words mentioned by Offred appears. Women are not allowed to have pleasure, or to think about themselves. In this society created by Atwood, women have to pray to be able to please others, not to please their desires. This is the same idea that Freud suggests through the edited version of his words, Freud on Women: A Reader. Freud’s idea that libido is of a men’s nature and the idea that women have to be able to please others through their body can be compared because both ideas place women as a being that is not worthy of self- love or pleasure. Both ideas present women as single-tasking beings solely valued for their capacity to have children. 

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An Oppressive System In The Handmaid’s Tale. (2021, May 30). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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