Through distinctive characters and haunting plotlines, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, aims to expose the complex atrocities that emerge from sexual politics and hierarchies. The book leads the reader through a scattered story, narrated by a woman who struggles daily to feel human after being taken against her will and forced into a society where men rule and women obey. Even though moments of optimism are scarce in this story, characters discover ways to leak through the cracks in the system and gain a sense of control.
In Gilead (a fairly new society that emerges from a post-chaotic America), women are taught that they are the sole cause of any sexually negative action that transpires in their lives. Men are faultless, pure; women produce their own misfortune. If a woman cannot have children, or miscarries, it is not because of any sterility or medicinal issues---it is because the woman is contaminated and full of sin (Atwood 61). The most frightening aspect surrounding this notion is that the majority of the handmaids of Gilead accept it as truth; these women succumb to the constant lies they are fed and develop contempt towards those who do not---brainwashing at its best. The handmaids surrender their power with no apparent remorse, or consciousness.
A moment that unleashes the horrid effects of this brainwashing is during a routine event called, “Testifying.” A woman named Janine tells the girls that she was raped at fourteen; instead of offering her sympathy, the girls are roused by Aunt Helen to chant atrocities at Janine:
“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson (Atwood 72).”
Janine taunted the men, leading her to be raped, and in turn, she learned a lesson from God. After rape, when all senses of control and pride seem lost, the victim can acquire new strength from acknowledging that it was not his/her fault, and realizing that there are many others who have been/or are in that situation. In Gilead, all hope for, “coming to terms,” with sexual violence is stripped away; the power of being a victim is gone. The women are not allowed to grieve for stolen dignity because they are taught that they have none to begin with. They are instructed to be empty, selfless vessels, and to relinquish their lives for the purposes of God and men.
In this hierarchical system, women are pitted against women, each struggling for more power over the other. Sisterhood ceases to exist, and relationships are forbidden. To make the chain of command utterly obvious, all citizens of Gilead wear the color that corresponds to their status: Red for Handmaids, Green for Marthas, Blue for Wives, and Black for Commanders (Atwood 8-9). Upon meeting someone new, certain stigmas and pre-judgments are attached to the other, without the two parties having acquaintance, resembling a type of racism.
Individual identity is also non-existent because of the enforced color-coding. Offred, after noticing a mirror, remarks that, “[I can see] myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger” (Atwood 9). In this statement, Offred admits that her reflection is merely a lie; the face that looks back is no longer recognizable. Instead, she has been replaced by an emotion-less, power-less being, who lives each day as if in a coma.
The spectrum of women in this story is fascinating, and also unsettling. One would think that in a society where men are placed on a pedestal and given the most authority, it would be most desirable for women to bond together, overcome oppression, and attempt to reorganize power---and yet, just the opposite unfolds in Gilead. Although they are women themselves, the Aunts and the Wives show no remorse for the treatment of the other women; in fact, they relish in it, finding enjoyment out of, “reconstructing,” these women’s lives (Atwood 134).
A moment of hope ensues when the Commander summons Offred to his chambers, without the consent of the Aunts or his wife, and requests that she engage in a game of Scrabble with him. Being that reading was completely forbidden for women, Offred was initially wary of the request. However, it does not take long for her to realize that it is an extraordinary indulgence for her to be able to spell and read without punishment. “I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it…what a luxury” (Atwood 139). The Commander allows her to feel human again, even through an insignificant game such as Scrabble. During this scene, the pecking order is not enacted, and as the relationship between the two strengthens, the walls come down and power becomes ambiguous. Offred begins to speak freely with the Commander, letting her opinions erupt from her aggravated core.
After Offred and the Commander’s lives become secretly interwoven, the Ceremony is never the same again. Offred remarks, “But that night, the first since the beginning of whatever this new arrangement was between us…I felt shy….[it] had become for me indecorous, an embarrassing breach of propriety, which it hadn’t been before. He was no longer a thing to me. That was the problem…it complicates” (Atwood 161). Offred is not the only one who notices this new snag, the Commander comments on how the Ceremony is impersonal and robotic, they merely go through the motions without any personal interaction. Shame, and breach of privacy now come into the picture. What both of them touch upon, but never fully disclose, is that the power between the two of them has been equally distributed. Offred has been shown how to feel again, how to interact with someone, and then she is whisked right back into the Ceremony where all humanity is lost. The Ceremony was no longer a routine event, where the two engaging in intercourse could write the other off as an object…it had become a sick game that they could not withdraw from.
During one of their secret rendezvous, the Commander admits to Offred that even though they hold the most power, men had increasingly turned into beings without purpose. “The problem wasn’t only with the women…the main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them to do anymore…I’m not talking about sex…the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for” (Atwood 210). What the Commander says is true; life is handed to the men of Gilead on a silver spoon…nothing feels earned. However, this dejected aura stems not only from feeling bored and superfluous, but also because these men (without full recognition or admittance), desire one thing that they are forbidden to posses: love. Love makes life worthwhile, purposeful. It is essential for human beings to be able to relay emotions, form connections, and care about others. Without love, as one can see in Gilead, life is lived in a robotic trance, where people are dispensable.
By and large, the Handmaids boast no power, save for one event: Particicution. This special occasion allows the Handmaids to purify the land of Gilead by eliminating the, “garbage;” in laymen’s terms: to beat a person to death, without a trial, by a stampede of enraged Handmaids. Offred recounts, “The air is bright with adrenaline, we are permitted anything, and this is freedom, in my body also, I’m reeling, red spreads everywhere”…(Atwood 279). It is quite strange that the women are allowed this one, murderous instance of control, especially being such a, “religious,” group of people. The Handmaids are not allowed to use lotion, bathe on their own, or even have friends…but beating someone to death is acceptable, with permission, of course. This bizarre form of power might possibly be permitted because the people living in Gilead are seen as objects to begin with, therefore, they have no right to a trial, nor is there any consequence of objects killing objects, especially, “sinful objects.” Particicution might also be a form of punishment (not freedom) towards the Handmaids by only allowing them the right to take life away, instead of raising, and loving it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story that encapsulates perverted and exaggerated situations that seek to inform the reader of the dangers of abused, warped hierarchies, and sex oppression. While the plot and characters of this tale are fiction, one must keep in mind that without proper attention and care, it would not take much to tip the scale of sanity and create a world where all senses of humanity, and love, is lost. Offred’s character symbolizes the importance of questioning the fallacious, and maintaining a benevolent philosophy, both of which lead towards an ideal world. She holds onto the ideals that make life meaningful: equality, friendship, and love.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.