“The Handmaid’s Tale”: The Women In Subjugation

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopic and totalitarian society called Gilead, formed in response to the crisis caused by decreasing birthrates and, consequently, with one main goal: total control of reproduction. Therefore, the state intercepts the problem head-on by assuming complete control of women’s bodies through their politics supported by religious terms in a form of subjugation, since women are not allowed to vote, hold property or jobs, read or do anything else that might allow them to become independent. The main character, Offred, belongs to a class of fertile women whom are assign to produce children for the ruling class and are known as handmaids (based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah). Offred describes this society along with narrating her story, and contrasting her present day with flashbacks of her life before.

Offred narrates female subjugation to be present in every single aspect of her life after Gilead’s formation. This society segregates the different classes of women and their lives within the new regimen by color of clothing to signify social class and assigned position, ranked from highest to lowest. Color blue is for the Commander’s wives, red for the handmaids, green for Marthas (cooks and house cleaners), striped for all other women who generally do everything in the domestic sphere and white for unmarried girls. The name Offred is just to remind her position of being a possession of the Commander named Fred –so in that way she is “of Fred” meaning that she belongs to Fred-.  Offred’s freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely restricted. She cannot leave the house only on shopping trips, the door to her room should be partially open, and Gilead’s secret police, the Eyes of God, watch her every public movement. During those shopping trips –where she goes with another handmaid fellow, never alone- she is not allowed to touch, speak or even look to anyone else and vice versa; the red color of her clothes that cover every part of her body identifies her as what she refers to be a “twolegged womb”, an object status given by the society. The narration of the ceremony, where the handmaids are fertilized once a month, is quite representative of the women objectification while reduced to their reproductive functions. As Fisher and Silber claim in Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, “it depicts the dehumanization of both handmaid and wife, who are made to participate as passive objects and victims in a sex act robbed of sensuality, desire, and love.”

The reason of building Gilead is well explained and, at some point, justified in the novel; but why would a society agree with any type of subjugation and misogyny, breaking with doctrines of human rights? Moreover, why would some women would help to its development? The creators of Gilead claim to defend women from sexual violence in an era were feminism was rising as a protestant movement against some expressions of sexuality as prostitution, pornography and rape. As a response to this movement’s appeals and solving the decreased birthrate issue, arise an oppressive system that dictates all aspects of every woman life to the point of reduced her as what Offred refers as “a sack of flesh around a womb,” in exchange of a society where no man disrespects a female, that is to say, no man shout obscenities to a woman or touch her inappropriately. Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship, so power is imposed entirely from the top. There is no possibility of appeal, no method of legally protecting oneself from the government, and no hope that an outside power will intervene. However, as McCarthy states, “The new world of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is a woman’s world, even though governed, seemingly, and policed by men”. That is to say, every woman is a fundamental piece in Gilead, and this is better explained in the execution of the supposed rapist, where the handmaids have the power, and duty, to strike against the man in order to kill him.

Offred remembered when her mother, an active feminist, said, “Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations”. This can be applied to the paper played by the Aunts who act as willing agents of the Gileadean state, indoctrinating other women into the ruling ideology, keep a close eye out for rebellion, and generally serve the same function for Gilead that the Jewish police did under Nazi rule. In addition, a woman like Serena Joy, the wife of the Commander whom Offred serve as a handmaid, exercises authority within her own household and seems to delight in her tyranny over the handmaid. Even the same Offred at some point of the narration also succumb to complacency after she begins her relationship with Nick –with whom she is commanded by Serena to have sex and have a child that could be pass as the Commander’s. This allows her to reclaim the tiniest fragment of her former existence before Gilead. The physical affection and companionship become compensation that makes the restrictions almost bearable. Offred seems suddenly so content that she does not say yes when Ofglen –another handmaid- asks her to gather information about the Commander.

As a society that oppresses women, Gilead is completely patriarchal and with no separation between state and religion. As Pettersson states, “(…) all these different aspects of human life are controlled mainly by men, that they mainly work to be beneficial for men and that men use language, truth and action as means of maintaining the control all feminists strive to acquire.”