lllustration of six women wearing long, loose red dresses

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Handmaid's Tale Analysis

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The Handmaid’s Tale is a political fable whose purpose is to act as a cautionary tale for women. Dedicated to Perry Miller, the foremost authority on the Puritans and their influence in American history, and to Mary Webster, an ancestor of the Atwood family hanged as a witch in Connecticut, the catalyst for Atwood’s concern was the self-proclaimed triumph of the religious Fundamentalists in elections held in the early 1980’s. Like the Puritans of Colonial America, who hoped to create the model city upon the hill, the Religious Right hoped to create a moral, utopian society where their interpretation of the Bible prescribed the proper behavior and societal roles for men and women. Atwood uses science fiction to extend the logical outcome of such a society if the Fundamentalists held power; a woman must conform or be declared a threat, a witch.

The concept of the Handmaid is based upon the biblical story of Rachel and Jacob: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go into her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 1-3). Thus the Handmaid’s sole function in the Republic of Gilead is as a procreation device for the Commander and his sterile wife. The individual autonomy of the Handmaid is stripped away, beginning with her name. The Handmaids are provided new names that reflect their subservient status, patronymics: names composed of the possessive preposition and the Commander’s first name, such as Ofglen, Ofwarren, or the central character in the novel, Offred.

Clothed in long red gowns, their faces hidden from view by veils and wimples, the Handmaids resemble a religious sect who have just emerged from a convent. Their daily rituals resemble the rules of a strict medieval order. Cloistered in a bedroom within the Commander’s house, the Handmaid is not permitted any reading or writing materials, nor are objects that might assist suicide permitted. To suppress her identity further, not even a mirror is allowed in the room. Thus like a cloistered nun whose sole daily function is reflection and preparation for her relationship with God, the Handmaid is limited to one function, procreation, in order to ensure the future of the republic.

Despite the religious trappings of the Republic of Gilead, the purpose of the new order is not to protect women but to suppress them. Thus, Atwood’s depiction of Serena Joy is a warning to the women supporters of the Religious Right that they must be careful what they wish for, for they might one day get it. Serena Joy, once a woman of some independence and social importance as a television evangelist, has been reduced to being an extension of someone else. She is the Commander’s wife, and her world is his house and her roles as wife and mother. Unable to perform the latter role, Serena Joy must bear the presence of the Handmaid and the ugliness of procreation sex between her husband and this stranger who is a constant reminder that she is now wife in name only.

Atwood’s tale also acts as a cautionary note for men who might support the phallocentric Republic of Gilead. Just as women are reduced to limited roles and role-playing, so too are the men. The full range of human sexuality becomes limited to the asexual procreation process—no joy, only duty. The pressure on men to be all things—father, husband, leader, and provider—creates an anxiety between Serena Joy and the Commander that makes their marriage a legal relationship but not a human one. The only interesting relationship that exists for the Commander is the one he establishes with Offred. The relationship is not equal, however, and thus not fulfilling for either participant. Each uses the other: The Commander hopes for an intimate sexual relationship, while Offred receives material items otherwise denied her. The unequal relationship is doomed when Offred, a slave, is reminded of her identity as the Commander’s property when she is put on display at the underground brothel.

One woman in the novel remains admirable from the opening pages. Offred’s old college friend, Moira, fights against the republic during the revolution, refuses to cooperate with the republic after its triumph, and even in captivity retains a personal identity by reversing the goal of her capturers and using her sex as a means to empower herself. Regardless of her situation, she maintains a level of integrity and becomes a catalyst for Offred’s decision to chance escape.

The narrative force of the novel is the transformation of Offred from victim to hero, from passive to active. Throughout the novel, Offred reminds the reader that she is recording her Handmaid’s tale in order to warn others that they must always be attentive and must realize that a time will come when they must act. As she declares in her tape recorder, “I intend to last.”

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