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The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid's Tale: Feminist Literature or Critique of Feminism?


The Handmaid's Tale can be interpreted both as feminist literature and a critique of feminism. Margaret Atwood's novel critiques casual attitudes about women by depicting a dystopian society where these attitudes are taken to extremes. While it highlights the dangers of complacency in feminist progress, it also underscores the severe consequences of a theocratic regime that oppresses women, making it a complex feminist work.

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Is "The Handmaid's Tale" a feminist work of literature or a critique of feminism?

"The Handmaid's Tale" is a feminist work by Margaret Atwood, who is famously liberal.  But the book does contain a critique of feminism.  In an interview with Randomhouse, Atwood states, "This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions."  It emphasizes how far we have come as women and how easily we could lose it all. 

Not only is this book about what can happen if we become too complacent (there's your critique of feminism), it makes the point that societies like Gilead exist and we're not so far removed from them.  In a letter to her readers, Atwood shares her concerns: "I found myself increasingly alarmed by statements made frequently by religious leaders in the United States; and then a variety of events from around the world could not be ignored, particularly the rising fanaticism of the Iranian monotheocracy... There is nothing new about the society depicted in [the book] except the time and place."

Atwood shares that there are those in the US who would welcome a Gilead-like theocracy: "If you were going to take over the United States, how would you do it?  ...You would ... say, 'I have the word from God and this is the way we should run things.' That probably would have ... a chance of working, and in fact there are a number of movements in the States saying just that, and getting lots of dollars and influence."

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Is "The Handmaid's Tale" a feminist work of literature or a critique of feminism?

You can argue either way on this one.  Offred does mention a couple times in the novel that the society that they have is all a result of a freakishly overdone attempt to respect women and give them their rights back.  It does go a bit astray, but at least women are respected, protected, and not treated like mere objects to satisfy one's desire.  Since feminism advocates female power and the ultimate respect of women, this awful society could be seen as an extreme case of that; in that sense, it is a critique.  The torture and killing of any male that does go against the strict moral codes towards women also is an extreme and twisted offset of giving women the respect they deserve.

However, if you want to look at it from the other angle, there is evidence to support and argue that it is a feminist work.  In the beginning, before the takeover of the Gilead society, women were constantly violated, brutalized, raped and disrespected--this was not good, and pointed out frequently in the novel.  That is a travesty that the feminist movement fights against.  Also, bevore, men held the power, and in the Gilead society, men still held the power.  Women were used as pawns either for breeding or for hard labor.  It was a tricky sort of subversion though; men too were condemned and tortured, and women were supposedly given more respect and power.  Offred sees through this though, and realizes how little freedom they actually have, and the only power that they do have is through their bodies, which are hidden and repressed to the point of driving both males and females insane.  In trying to control the power of sexuality in the female body, they only made it even more powerful and dangerous for men.  This suppression of female nature and beauty is anti-feminist, and what their society was about.   The fact that women couldn't read and held no true positions of power also supports the idea that this was a feminist work.

I hope that those thoughts help to get you started; good luck!

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Is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale a feminist novel or a critique of feminism?

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has received a variety of interpretations, and while some critics call it a feminist novel, others point out how it criticizes feminism. Your job is to consider both positions and decide which one is more convincing, then create an essay explaining your chosen interpretation. Let's do some brainstorming to get you started.

First, you must make sure you know exactly what you mean by “feminism.” On the most basic level, feminism refers to women having equal opportunities and rights in the social, political, and economic realms. There are, however, different varieties of feminism that take varying stances on a number of issues. These variations may account for differences in opinion about the novel.

Now think about which side of the argument seems most convincing to you. You might decide that the novel's portrayal of the oppression of women is decidedly feminist, for it shows what happens when women lose their rights and are treated in unequal and highly discriminatory ways. The horrors involved reveal what happens when feminism fails, and the characters in the novel have lost both their rights and their dignity. They must assert a new kind of feminism in their efforts to rebel against the regime.

On the other hand, though, there is some evidence that the novel critiques feminism. Since the story is set in the future, the feminism of the present has failed to assert and protect women's rights and equality. Something has gone dreadfully wrong. Feminism has not worked, and the women of the future, like Offred, are suffering for it.

As you prepare your essay, you will need to develop a thesis statement that presents your position on whether the novel is essentially feminist or a critique of feminism. Throughout the essay, you should provide evidence from the novel to support your claim, analyzing it as we began to do above.

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