Essays on The Handmaid's Tale

Essay About The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a thought-provoking dystopia that points out the subjugated condition of women under patriarchal dominance. Atwood stresses the “loss of female identity in a male-dominated society” (Sahu). The Handmaid’s Tale follows the journey of the protagonist, Offred, an inhabitant of the totalitarian society of Gilead. The future state is a totalitarian dictatorship in which women are oppressed and their status is determined by their reproductive capabilities. Thus, the novel portrays both the “emotional and physical marginalization of women” in a totalitarian regime (Sahu).

Many facets of marginalization are present within The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only is gender marginalization prevalent within the novel―that is, women subjugated by men―but, Atwood also discusses the intersection of marginalized identities. Women being disparaged by their own through social hierarchies, a notion often overlooked or neglected in society. Within The Handmaid’s Tale, language and social constructs are used to represent the plight of women’s marginalization or subjugation under male dominance, also portraying how handmaids are further oppressed within the female power dynamics in Gilead.

The most obvious example of the marginalization of women within the novel is the power imbalance between men and women. The social hierarchy between the genders is a vital element of the marginalization of women in Gilead. The hierarchy is constructed in such a way that power and dominance are ascribed to men, and women are marginalized as subordinates. Men are placed socially politically and economically above women. While they hold positions of power such as government officials, security, etc. The female characters are solely presented as child-bearers and laborers in Gilead.

Furthermore, the Commanders undoubtedly carry the largest amount of power in Gilead, and their wives’ power within the female dynamics in the novel only exists because of their connection to a Commander. While the Wife holds the most power in relation to other female positions in Gilead, a Commander’s Wife is only allowed to make decisions which her husband approves of, and can only exercise her power at home, thus, depicting that her power is relative to her husband’s position (Stein). Wives like most women in the novel are completely silenced within the governmental and political spheres of Gilead. Furthermore, the social hierarchy between men is more flexible than that of women. Men can move between ranks: from Guardian to Angel and may be able to obtain a wife. Women, in contrast, are fixed in their roles as Handmaids, Marthas, or Wives. Portraying how, even in gender-specific hierarchies, men are given more power and autonomy than women. Therefore the power dynamics between men and women depict how the rights and freedoms of females in Gilead are largely excluded.

Women are further marginalized within the society of Gilead through their lack of identity. Each women is defined by a specific biological, role that is associated with being a women. Furthermore colour coded clothing is used to differentiate between the social classes and by doing so women’s individuality in the novel is effaced. The handmaids wear long cloaks and everything except for white bonnets or wings is red. Similarly, Wives wear blue and Martha’s wear green (Atwood, 33). Lois Feuer refers to the “color-coded clothing as a ‘submersion of the self’ and thus the loss of identity is an ever present threat” (Kirkvik). This lack of individuality brought about by categorization, distinguishes the different “types” of woman from each other, in turn silencing their voices, restricting their identity and discouraging individuality.

Furthermore the less apparent form of marginalisation in the novel is within the hierarchy of women. The men of Gilead maintain control of power by pitting women against one another. In fact one could argue women in the novel police and silence each other more than men. In the earlier chapters we find Aunt Lydia explaining to the handmaids that “to be seen…is to be penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable” (Atwood 39). Aunt Lydia’s “modesty is invisibility” comment further adds to the idea of women marginalising or silencing other women within the text. Aunt Lydia perpetuates the notion that handmaids are sexual objects. Being seen is equated with “penetration” or being desirable, insinuating that women have the choice between being a sexual object for men or invisible altogether. The act of women oppressing and silencing other women works to uphold the patriarchy perpetuated by the men in the novel. Characters like Serena Joy illustrate how their experience of being marginalized also makes them the abuser of women in the social and economic classes beneath them. Turning a blind eye to the abuse of the commanders only works to further fuel the marginalization of women.

Lastly, other than the “unwomen” handmaids are the most silenced and excluded group within the text, lacking basic rights and freedoms. Handmaids cannot “write, read, have friends, ask questions, or be concerned with their appearance” (Kirkvik). Gilead reduces them to “containers”, “two legged wombs”, and “ambulatory chalices”, having no importance or relevance apart from their reproductive abilities. Offered perceives herself as completely isolated from the people around her. On a personal level, she feels alienated from those with whom she is intimately involved. On a public level, she feels marginalized and politically dispossessed. Part of this subjugation is born from a lack of identity, which Atwood portrays by leaving the protagonist unnamed (Callaway). Instead handmaids take on the names of their commanders. Further emphasizing that handmaids are reproductive objects and property of their commanders.

Throughout The Handmaid’s Tale the marginalization and silencing of women is prevalent not only due to the patriarchal society and the men within it but also due to other women. Gender roles and constructs perpetuated by society, the lack of female identity, objectification and the silencing of women all contribute such marginalization. 

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