In the Republic of Gilead, a new society overthrows their government, taking charge of what used to be the United States of America. The novel revolves around Offred, the protagonist, who gives a first person narration about the experiences that she encounters in this new society. Among the many problems plaguing Gilead is becoming low in reproduction rate. During the revolt, citizens were exposed to a toxic chemical that caused majority of men and women to become sterile. Offred is a woman whose ovaries are still “jumping” and is capable of producing children. Thus, she is enslaved to become a handmaid, a woman who is used as a tool for reproduction purposes only. Stripped away from her husband and child, Offred discloses her fears in living in this new society where women are not allowed to read, write, or communicate with each other. Margret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, creates a dystopic world of female oppression by stressing various factors that lead to the lack of women unity in Gilead. These strategic and intentional stressors are represented by the social division between women, religious and personal dissociation from the female being, and the dehumanizing portrayal of women in society.
The novel illustrates a social structural division from the very beginning when characters are introduced along with their statuses: the housewives, aunts, handmaids, econowives, marthas, and the unwomen. The highest ranking females are the house wives who are married to a commander. The handmaids are the fertile women and the aunts are the women who train the handmaids. Martha’s are old infertile women and econowives are married to low-ranking husbands. Lastly, unwomen are widows, lesbians, and nun. This structural division not only identifies women role and states their place in society, it also serves a bigger purpose. The dividing social roles cause tension and competition among the women in Gilead. Having different roles and titles for women, takes away the women’s power and oppresses them.
“She doesn’t turn her head. She doesn’t acknowledge my presence in any way, although she knows I’m there. I can tell she knows…It’s not the husbands you have to look out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Of course they will resent you” (Atwood 46).
This competition and tension between women is a foundation of oppression. Through this imposed social structure, women end up oppressing one another. Thus this social structure allows its creator to control women by keeping them divided. The house wives dislike the handmaids for sleeping with their husbands. The housewives can potentially torture the handmaids, even though the handmaids are just following orders of the new society created by the men. In return, the handmaids view the housewives as a potential threat to their safety. Since housewives are not able to identify with the handmaids, or vice versa, it will be hard for the women to unite and fight for their own equality. In the quote (Atwood, 46), Atwood uses the repetition of the word “she.” This demonstrates the women are aware that they belong to the same sex category. However, the housewife’s denial of Offred’s existence shows that the women in this society remains oppress because they don’t acknowledge that they are all victims of Gilead. The tension over the attention of men draws their attention away from the problem of oppression. Without realizing that by doing this, the women are empowering the men. The last sentence is suggesting that the women should try to relate to each other, but at the same time justifying that the handmaids should accept why they are being hated.
Instead of blaming the men who created the new policies in their society, the women blame each other and use religion as a form of justification. Atwood challenges how extreme usage of the biblical references, which were created by men, can cause women to oppress other women.
“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 god allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson” (Atwood 72).
Janine, a handmaid, shares her experience of being rape to the rest of the other handmaids. Their response to this tragic story is to blame Janine. No form of sympathy is shown towards Janine. Aunt Helena is pleased with the rest of the handmaid’s reaction. This lack of sympathy for another being of the same sex further demonstrates how women of Gilead cannot relate to each other. The emphasis on the repeated and italicized words such as “her,” “who,” “she,” and “lesson,” promotes the idea that women are train to believe that they do not share common experiences. Stating “her, who, and she” means that the women does not identify with Janines’ struggles and they individualize her when they should be uniting together. The word “lesson” references back to the biblical allusions that Janine had done wrong and she is receiving retribution for it. This causes the women to feel less sympathetic towards Janine’s situation. The women in Gilead are brainwash by the men of this society to turn against each other. In this dystopia, women start to believe these kinds of experiences are normal and do not attempt to combat them. The women remain oppressed when they cannot work together and blame each other for their downfalls.
The dystopic world of Gilead also oppresses women in that it dehumanizes them. In the novel, there is a ceremony once a month where the handmaids are to sleep with their assigned commanders in attempt to become pregnant.
“I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig. Sometime in the eighties they invented pig balls, for pigs who were being fattened in pens. Pig balls were large colored balls; the pigs rolled them around with their snouts. The pig marketer said this improved their muscle tone, the pigs were curious, they liked to have something to think” (Atwood 69).
Women are compared to prize pigs, which is a form of oppression because this dehumanizes them. Pigs are regarded as lazy, brainless, and helpless animals. By comparing Offred to a pig, Atwood depicts how men in Gilead view the women. The handmaids are locked in their room in their commander’s house and waits around for the day of the ceremony and for the men. They are taken care of very meticulously on the day of the ceremony as if they cannot take care of themselves. This shows that society views these women as clueless and helpless. They are to wait for the men; they need the men to provide for them just like how a farmer provides for their pigs. The “large colored balls” that gives the pigs to something to think about is a representation of the word “faith” that the commander left on Offred’s bed. This word gives Offred something to think endlessly about. By doing this, it demonstrates that men do not perceive women as someone who can actually think unless they give them something to think about. Furthermore, embracing one’s body should not be considered as a bad thing. However, in this new society women do not view their body or themselves as something valuable or that belongs to them. Rather the women, especially the handmaids, are manipulated to believe that their only existence is to reproduce.
“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping” (Atwood 95).
As Offred takes a bath, she views her naked body and believes what Gilead was teaching her. The handmaids are not human, but just a walking form of pleasure for the men. The words “instrument, pleasure, transportation, and accomplishment” are all words used to describe a non-tangible or non-living thing. Nonetheless, the handmaids are forced to associate these words with themselves. Through this depiction, Atwood illustrates how women are oppressing themselves when they start to view their own body as an object. The women are only important for reproducing children is what Offred means by saying “I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear”. It is her womb that Gilead cares about, not Offred. When women are forced to dehumanize and view themselves as a tool instead of a human being allows for them to oppress themselves and the men to further oppress them.
Margret Atwood is a writer who brings attention to women oppression and struggles in Gilead. Through her depiction of a dystopic world in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood uses the character Offred and other women in this society as a representation on how women are being oppressed due to their lack of unity. Dividing women into categories, creating dissociation from being female and dehumanizing women in society has caused a lack of union between the women in Gilead. If there is no union, women cannot combat the system that men created to keep the women oppressed. This novel is Atwood’s attempt to bring up these issues and to instead of seeing each other as competition they should unite and address the real problems, which is not each other. For being a female writer during her time Atwood may have experience and noticed that there were woman on woman oppression. This novel may be her attempt to reveal this to the public.
Atwood, Margret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: First Anchor Books Edition, 1986. Print.