3.4- The Handmaids Tale
Literature tends to represent our flawed past and acts as a warning to us in a futuristic context.
When writing “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Margaret Atwood said, “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist”. In “The Handmaid’s Tale”, written by Margaret Atwood, a controlling government part of a Totalitarian regime is shown through the oppression of women. Though the male powered society Atwood portrays seems far-fetched at first, it tends to highlight problems we have had and continue to have in society by magnifying them with the intention of a futuristic, unrealistic world. Atwood’s purpose is to illustrate female oppression through the removal of individuality, and the way fear drives women’s outcomes. These circumstances are evident in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, but also in our history suggesting literature tends to represent our flawed past and acts as a warning to us in a futuristic context. Almost everything in the book has taken place in a totalitarian and religious state, a military regime, a religious cult and even in our Western Society. Serving as a warning that anything is capable of happening again.
Atwoods purpose of women in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, is to be womb slaves. Given to families to be impregnated by their commander to bear children they will never be able to raise. Offred quotes, “we are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” this quote can be directly referenced to our flawed past in parallel with Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn program. A method to increase birth rates and produce a superior Aryan master race. As Offred said, “They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying of too much choice”, just like women part of the Lebensborn program, it is made out that women have a choice. However, in both Gilead and Nazi Germany in order to have a stable place in society women must serve as a national reproductive resource. I feel this dehumanizes women especially when Offred compares herself to a cloud, “a cloud, congealed around a central object, which is hard and more real than I am.”. I believe the Handmaids role in society represents our flawed past as it has literally taken place in history. Offred says, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping”. This quote comes as a warning to me, Offred is trying to say who she was within, no longer matters anymore only her “central object” referring to her womb. I believe Offred has internalized Gilead’s attitude towards women, that she has come to terms with society accepting her for the object she is rather than an individual. To me, Atwood’s purpose of showing Offred coming to terms with Gilead’s society is to show if you don’t speak up when you are mistreated you risk being forever silenced. Offred said herself, “Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.”, suggesting it is too late for her to speak up because if she does she will be killed and therefore her voice will remain silent.
Atwood allows women to become physiologically manipulated and oppressed, losing their identities and having to adopt “Of” to the man they are assigned to. “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden… I tell myself it doesn’t matter… but what I tell myself is wrong…it does matter”. Atwood’s purpose I believe is to show women relinquishing their birth names and taking on a man’s isn’t unfamiliar in our Western society. Traditionally women have taken on their father’s last names, and her husbands when she marries. Atwood’s purpose may be to represent our past and also present in terms of questioning the inherent quirk of this tradition and custom, challenging the reader to seek an alternative as a warning in terms of withholding your identity. Because if you really think about this concept, it does make me question why is it that women take a mans name? Why do women lose their birth names, the name they have had all their life, that has shaped the person they are? It arises the idea of equality between women and men in our society. We must ask these hard questions even if it is the normal for women to take on a mans surname.“All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.”, this quote may represent women who marry and feel obliged to take on their husband’s name. However, the importance of challenging “the normal” is served as a warning, because as Offred says, “you merely have different women.”, if women cannot own their identity.
Fear is the main social and political authority in Gilead. A dominant fear for Handmaids is failing to get pregnant as this secures their place in society. Infertile women are sent to “The Colonies”, known for “the toxic dump and the radiation spills. They figure you’ve got three years maximum at those before your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves”, becoming known as un women amongst lesbians, feminists, and nuns, ultimately people that don’t fit Gilead’s society. Atwoods purpose of “The Colonies”, is to show the influence fear has on our actions, Offred says, “No women in their right mind these days would seek to prevent a birth”, showing handmaids will do whatever they can to avoid being sent to the Colonies, no matter how extreme it may be. This can be referenced in connection with the Holocaust, yet again proving this has taken place in history. Adolf Hitler’s objective to create the Aryan race where he went to extreme lengths to eliminate Jews, the handicapped, disabled, the old and homosexuals sending them to concentration camps of harsh conditions. This being similar to Gilead in which “unwomen” are sent to the colonies as they are unwanted in society. However German citizens were willing to hand in their neighbors and friends who were unwanted in response to the fear of being rejected in Nazi society most likely meaning death just like the handmaid’s if they failed to conceive. This to me is an example of the power fear can have over our actions and outcomes, as Offred said, “Control is a powerful stimulant”.Atwood’s link to this historic event serves the reader with the warning of being conscious of the effect fear can have on an individual and then ultimately society as a whole. “Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations”, this quote an example of how these extremities become a normal way of life, which is seen both in Gilead and Nazi Germany. The response to fear drives people to do horrible things to one another as long as there is some kind of secure compensation as Offred said. In Gilead and Germany’s case, the compensation is withholding a safe place in society. Atwoods purpose to show how fear can change an individual through their actions, also to show the dominance Gilead has on women’s lives, they have no choice, they are driven by fear.
Atwood’s deception of a near-future dystopia is to highlight events of our flawed past and make it apparent to the reader that what has taken place can happen again. I have explored multiple events that have taken place in our history in parallel to “The Handmaids Tale” and have discovered Atwood’s purpose in creating a society with magnified problems. It has become apparent to me that “The Handmaids Tale” holds many warnings in a futuristic context, most dominantly in terms of speaking up for what is right or risking to be silenced forever once it is too late. But also the importance of standing up for what is right despite the control of fear or what everyone else is doing. I believe history is full of warnings, it’s as basic as realizing continuity is essential for progress, we must remember what we have done in the past in order to do better in the future. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.