Imagine waking up to the President and Congress being gunned down and the United States run by radical "Christian fundamentalist" (Beauchamp). In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, this terrible scenario is not a dream, but a reality. Atwood admitted in an interview with Mervyn Rothstien of New York Times, "I delayed writing it for about three years after I got the idea because I felt it was too crazy." The dystopian society of the Republic of Gilead, once the United States, is a very chilling thought but raises questions on the treatment of women in today's society. The Handmaids Tale is a futuristic science fiction novel told by a Handmaid, a woman who sole purpose is to conceive children, named Ofglen. The Canadian writer is known for the hints of feminism in her novels but The Handmaid's Tale strays away from slight feminism to radical feminism. Feminism is an ideology that favors women's equality to men and it has been an issue for centuries. In the United States, women did not get the right to vote until the 1920's and women were also not accepted into the workforce until around the 1960's (Loveday). Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale depicts feminism in an antifeminist environment through, point of view, restrictions on women, and male power.
Because of the increasing infertility rates, the Republic decided to enforce the use of Handmaids. The idea of the Handmaids came from the Bible, "Now Sarai, Abraham's wife, bore him no children: and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian girl name Hagar" (The Hebrew-Greek Bible, Genesis 16:1). Abraham's wife, Sarai could not bear children, so Hagar was appointed to bear children in Sarai's place. Atwood was clever using Ofglen, a Handmaid, as the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale because she had no right to her body. Ofglen watched documentary of a liberal feminist group holding a sign that read, "Freedom to choose. Every baby a wanted baby. Recapture our bodies" (Atwood 120). The Handmaids purpose opposed the views of the liberal feminist. The Handmaids had no freedom to their bodies. Ofglen proves that she has no right to her body in Gilead by her thoughts of the past, "I use to think of my body as an instrument of pleasure, a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will" (Atwood 73). Ofglen's memories were a sense of longing and she even expressed her desire for the past to return, "I want everything back, the way it was" (Atwood 122). Ofglen's desires of the past show that she supports freedom of women and because Atwood purposely wrote The Handmaid's Tale in this point of view, one could infer she was also for women's rights.
Yet, if the point of view would have been that of a Wife, or an Aunt, the reader would have seen views in favor of the Republic of Gilead's actions. Though Wives did not have the privileges like the men, they still had many benefits. Wives could visit other Wives, work on their gardens and knit when they pleased. Wives also still held on to something most women did not have, their husband. Serena Joy, Ofglen's Commander's wife, was infinitely happy that she was married to her husband, "'It's one of the things we fought forâ€¦she was looking down at her knuckled, diamond studded handâ€¦" (Atwood 16). Wives had the most freedoms of all the women in Gilead, thus if Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale from a Wife's point of view, the Wife would more likely be more accepting of their environment.
The Aunt's roles in Gilead were to push the Handmaid's into believing that the "old days" (Atwood 121) were bad and the new world of Gilead was giving more respect toward women. During Ofglen's time in the Red Center (education center for Handmaid's) a documentary was shown to the Handmaid's of "Women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks...women being raped, beaten up, or killed" (Atwood 118). The documents were used to persuade the Handmaids that the Republic of Gilead was better than the past. Aunt Lydia said after a documentary, "Consider the alternativesâ€¦ You see what things used to be like?" (Atwood 118). The Aunts were already for the revolution and changes of women's rights in Gilead, they were for antifeminist values. Therefore if the point of view were of that an Aunt, the reader would have seen actions and thoughts in favor of women having no rights. Yet no matter the point of view, every woman had restrictions.
Handmaids had more restrictions than any other group of women in The Handmaid's Tale. Speaking publicly was limited among Handmaids. When meeting another Handmaid, Ofglen responded robotically, "'Blessed be the fruit.' she said to me, the accepted greeting among us. 'May the Lord open', I answer, the accepted response." (Atwood 19). And those who were Handmaid's could not even use their birth names, 'Ofglen' and 'Ofwarren' were taken by these women upon their entry into a household of a specific commander (Atwood 306). Not having jobs or owning property was a restriction on every woman in Gilead. Ofglen recalls the day when she could no longer work, "'I have to let you go', [the director] said. 'It's the lawâ€¦'" (Atwood 176). Reading and writing were strictly forbidden among women also. In the novel, Ofglen came in contact with a pillow that read: FAITH. Just by reading those letters, fear rose in Ofglen, "If I were to be caught reading it, would it count?" (Atwood 57). Books and magazines were not even allowed in Gilead. During a visit to the Commander's room, he offered Ofglen a magazine. Though Ofglen ached for the magazine she replied, "It is not permitted" (Atwood 157). And nothing in Gilead was purposefully labeled by writing but depicted by a picture. Like many of the restrictions "the ban of reading and writing in The Handmaid's Tale is one of the measures to prevent the 'privilege' of objectivity from getting into the hands of women" (Klarer). Men believed they were superior and deserved the privileges that women were restricted. The male's ego is what lead women to lose their freedom.
Men's power reigns throughout The Handmaid's Tale. The advantages of a highly developed text-processing culture give the men of Gilead an advantage over women (Klarer). Because women could only view signs and not text is a mean of documenting the men's ownership and power (Klarer). Yet the man did not have to hold a special position in society to have power over the women. During an exam to the doctor, Ofglen rejected the doctor's offer of sex and worried of the consequences, "He could fake the test, report me for cancerâ€¦have me shipped off to the colonies, with the Unwomenâ€¦but the knowledge of his power hangs nevertheless in the airâ€¦"(Atwood 61). Antifeminist believe all men are superior and women should be slaves of men, which is the reason Atwood made the dominance a major role. The Wives are enslaved to their husband and the Handmaid's are enslaved to their Commander's. But no women in Gilead can escape a particular enslavement, which is the government, ran solely by men.
Margaret Atwood uses point of view, restrictions and men's power to show favor toward feminist values. By using Ofglen as the narrator, Atwood was able to present a women not being in control of her own body. The restrictions of every woman in Gilead represent the freedom each woman does not have. Lastly, the men's power shows the hierarchy of men over women. The Handmaid's Tale questions the treatment of women in any era in hopes that women will be treated equally to men and it is up to the reader to answer.
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