Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Atwood’s central intention is to provide a warning about the danger of turning back the clock to a time when women were wives and mothers and no more. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she has constructed a fable which shows how dangerous it would be to deny women the opportunities for independence which have come in the last few centuries: gainful occupations, free choice in love and other personal matters, and political and economic power. To remove these rights for the sake of a religious ideal would be to depersonalize women.
Atwood points out that such a change could be accomplished only with the cooperation of a large number of women. The “Aunts” and the officials’ wives are essential to the new order. They accept their roles because to refuse them would mean torture and death. Yet their acceptance means that those in charge need not worry about a concerted resistance by women to these changes. Like all dictators, the officials use force, but they also use members of oppressed groups to control others in those groups.
The society depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale is most immediately menacing to women, but Atwood makes it clear that the threat is not limited to women. Any group in a society can be effectively controlled only if the entire society is subject to strictly applied rules. Men in this society may seem to have more freedom than women, but in fact they, too, have been deprived of virtually all the rights and...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
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By making her protagonist a woman of child-bearing age, Atwood foregrounds gender as the central dichotomizing agent within Gilead, illuminating the degree to which misogynist hostility toward female sexuality and envy of women's procreative capacities can lead to their systematic subordination. Atwood creates a nightmarish society which forbids women virtually all access to power, be it financial, educational, political, or familial. At its inception Gilead denies women money and credit, eliminates their jobs, and outlaws female literacy. Later policies group women into segregated categories: Handmaids, whose apparent fertility has been commandeered by the state to "breed" offspring for childless white male Commanders and their wives; Aunts, who serve as the government's indoctrination agents of other women; Marthas, whose function is that of asexual workers in the homes of the elite; Econowives, who marry lower-echelon males and serve in multiple capacities as wives, mothers, and laborers; and Unwomen, whose "unfitness" politically or biologically has relegated them to certain death cleaning up toxic waste sites. Such stratifications pit the women of different groups against one another, illustrating an important component of Gilead's systematic misogyny: the exploitation of hostilities women direct against one another. While such tensions are frequently the result of the power structures that control their lives, the women of Gilead operate in complicity with them...
(The entire section is 352 words.)
The roles that are assigned to the two genders in this novel are exaggerations of the roles traditionally played: women here are responsible for domestic duties and men in Gilead run the government functions (since this is a totalitarian state, business and military concerns are part of the government). To most of the people of Gilead, the strict assignment of these roles seems reasonable, a natural outcome of the physical traits that define males and females.
Industrial pollution has caused sterility in ninety-nine percent of the female population and countless numbers of the males, creating a crisis for the ability of the human race to survive into the future. From this the government had claimed the right to require any fertile females to participate in government-supervised child-bearing programs. This has caused a need to keep all non-fertile females in structured domestic roles, in order to assure the passivity and cooperation of the fertile females; and this in turn has caused the requirement that males make political decisions and enforce them with military rule. All of these steps require more than a social policy; they require an almost religious faith in order to assure the participation of the greatest number of people. Training centers like the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center become necessary.
To the social planners of Gilead, this system might seem a reasonable response to the threat of extinction. To...
(The entire section is 2111 words.)