“The Handmaid’s Tale”
By: Nora Uhrich
The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist science-fiction novel with the dystopian theme of extreme sexual coercion, describing the various ways that the female characters – the handmaids – attempt resistance in a male dominated society. Sexual coercion operates on two levels; it is both institutionalized and internalized. The reader enters a world where the patriarchal system has become entirely ingrained, to the point that its abuses are nearly invisible to the characters. Atwood uses the perspective of a first person narrator/protagonist who is one of the handmaids.
The handmaids’ primary duty is to become pregnant by the Commander. Essentially, becoming pregnant is their only source of power. One of the first hints as to the purpose of a handmaid is presented to us when Offred is in the grocery store and sees Ofwarren, another handmaid, who is very far along in her pregnancy. Offred thinks to herself, “She’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved” (Atwood 26). The need to become pregnant has been so programmed into her mind that she becomes envious of the other woman. The pressure is on Offred to become pregnant, and her hints at jealous language let us know how important her own pregnancy is and the level of desperation endured by a handmaid.
Later on in the story, we get a further glimpse of Offred’s desperate thoughts and stark reality, “Give me children, or else I die” (61). The text is highlighted in the passage indicating the cold, hard truth of being a handmaid in Gilead. Being a handmaid and not becoming pregnant is not only a shame, but it will eventually result in her literal death. The handmaids’ reproductive capabilities are the property of the state, meaning the sole purpose of their life is to make babies for the Commander and Commander Wives. The sexual coercion is institutionalized.
Women in Gilead are voiceless. They are unable to consent to sexual activity, specifically handmaids to the Commanders. When Offred reaches the most fertile time in her menstrual cycle, “The Ceremony” takes place. During “The Ceremony,” Offred must have very impersonal and unpleasurable/unwanted intercourse with the Commander as the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, sits behind her. Offred describes “The Ceremony” in this way:
“I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (94).
Offred states that this position of being a handmaid is “what she chose,” but the total lack of agency and consent in The Ceremony makes it hard not to think this is a rape scene. After all, if you can’t say no, you can’t say yes. The sexual coercion is now internalized, because Offred cannot admit that she is a victim of the most extreme sexual oppression imaginable – whether and when to bear a child.
The lack of sexual pleasure in Gilead goes on the same lines of sexual coercion. If it is one’s “duty” to have sex, how could there be pleasure involved? An insight from Offred at The Ceremony is as follows:
“It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with. It has nothing to do with sexual desire, at least for me, and certainly not for Serena. Arousal and orgasm are no longer thought necessary…” (94).
Sexual intercourse leading to the result of pregnancy is Offred’s job. Sex shouldn’t be a “job” for anyone. The way Offred describes The Ceremony and the complete lack of pleasure, is an indication of sexual slavery.
Later on, we learn that there is a range of sexual slavery in Gilead, and that women “unfit” to be handmaids or women who are being punished for rebellion are exiled to Jezebel’s, a nightclub, which serves as a place of sexual pleasure for the commanders. Women who have “chosen” this nightclub over the Colonies, act as prostitutes to fulfill the commanders’ sexual appetites. However, they are only paid with drinks and drugs (249), which serve to numb them and keep them in a subservient state that allows the sexual coercion to continue. The illusion of choice reinforces the internalized oppression that keeps society’s status quo.
Institutionalized oppression is supported by legal statutes and customs. In Gilead, there are many laws directed toward keeping women in line. The first law we are introduced to is women not being allowed to read or write. There is a certain basic freedom stripped from someone who is not allowed to read. Absorbing knowledge and expressing oneself is so important. It is critical to our internal worth as human beings. “I can spend minutes, tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print: FAITH. It’s the only thing they’ve given me to read. If I were caught doing it, would it count?” (57). The way Offred says, “would it count?” leads a reader to believe that the dangers and consequences of a woman found reading would be extreme punishment. Her reading the word “FAITH” on a pillow demonstrates her rebellion and desire for freedom. The law against women’s literacy, shows how absolute the control over women has become – the patriarchy demands body and mind.
Another law in The Handmaid’s Tale includes the extreme statement, “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law” (61). The total lack of acknowledgement that men could be sterile shows just how oppressive Gilead is towards women. No matter what, the blame will always be on the women. The oppressor controls reality, allowing a silencing of the oppressed that is now complete.
Oppression functions best when there is uniformity. In real life, no two human beings are exactly alike. Gilead’s patriarchy is trying to make that possible. Within each class of women in Gilead, there is no individuality allowed.
“What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other” (192).
It’s as if there is no room for anyone’s true identity. Identity is not defined by one characteristic; it is many characteristics that create individualism. By keeping the “one and one and one and one” alone, it shows no one is acting on their true identity. The oppressed women have accepted it because it seems too far-fetched to imagine it any other way. The oppressor has fully and effectively ingrained a coercive norm on society.
Even a woman’s name has no distinction. Handmaids are renamed and defined by who their commander is. The names serve to show male ownership over the handmaids. Their names brand them into male ownership. For example, we are introduced to Offred, the narrator, Ofwarren, and Ofglen. The name after “Of” is the name of that handmaid’s commander. As readers, we are never told Offred’s real name, but are told the real names of some other handmaids. I think Atwood deliberately omitted Offred’s name because she is trying to demonstrate just how much of the handmaids’ identities have been stolen from them. They are not treated as anything but products with interchangeable identities.
Conformity is further reinforced by having all of the handmaids wear the same attire; a long red cloak-like dress and a white-winged hat to cover part of the face (9). The red symbolizes a female’s menstrual cycle and fertility. Again, they are being defined solely by their reproductive capabilities.
Despite their lifelong conditioning into a society with ingrained attitudes designed to keep women in their place, five of the female characters resist the oppressive patriarchy of Gilead through various efforts. First, Offred tells her story. She records her inner thoughts, but is cautious about her words.
“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off. It isn’t a story I’m telling. It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along” (39).
The wariness and hesitation in her words shows that she doesn’t want her story to be misunderstood. She has been taught to obey and please others and even though this is her personal story, she has been trained not to speak her mind. Dissension of any kind, even personal speech, is a huge risk.
Even Serena Joy, who is a woman of higher social status, is a victim of sexual oppression. She may benefit from certain privileges, but she still must accept the mistreatment from the men in society. Serena Joy’s tremendous unhappiness goes to show that even a higher position doesn’t promise happiness in a male-dominated society. Her acceptance seems to emotionally wear her down.
Another character, Ofwarren, or Janine, mentally checks out of reality. At the age of fourteen Janine was gang-raped and had an abortion. The Aunts lead a chant saying, “Whose fault was it? Her fault, her fault, her fault. Who led them on? She did. She did. She did” (72). Rape is never the victim’s fault, but in a society where men are always correct and set the rules, it is.
Moira can’t bear being a handmaid any longer and she attempts to escape and flee her oppressive situation. She doesn’t get very far, however, until she is put into Jezebel’s nightclub. Moira, an independent and very courageous woman, seems passive when Offred talks to her at the nightclub. The sense of hopelessness we get from Moira demonstrates that even the strongest-seeming women can eventually be coerced into submission.
Ofglen’s oppression is so excruciating that she seeks to escape by the most extreme route; she commits suicide. Her fears of torture and injustice became too great that she took her own life.
Margaret Atwood does not leave the reader with much hope that things will ever change in Gilead. Her novel portrays a female dystopia of the most extreme examples of institutionalized and internalized sexual coercion. We are shown how women’s oppression can become so ingrained in a society that the only real escape is death. It is a story meant to shock the reader into seeing how far the patriarchy is capable of going if it is left unchecked – in Gilead, women are reduced to their sexual functions and reproductive capabilities and exist solely to serve men.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1986. Print.