The Handmaid's Tale Through a Feminist Lens

The Handmaid's Tale: Through a Feminist Lens
Feminist Criticism
The only purpose of women in Gilead is to
reproduce
"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" (Atwood, 84)
Since Gilead created their own
interpretation of the bible, they
use it to justify what they do to
women
The handmaid's names are taken away and
are changed to "of", and the name of the
commander
Ownership of their belongings were given
to their closest male relative
They're not allowed to hold jobs and assets
The new Gilead regime removed women's
right to financial independence
Most women have very little contact with
men. Women are expected to support each
other in times of birth, death and sickness.
Women are not allowed to read or write
Atwood draws similarities to radical
feminists, such as Offred's mother. Offred
recalls a scene in which her mother and
other feminists burn porn magazines.
"I threw the magazine into the flames. It
riffled open in the wind of its burning; big
flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the
air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies,
turning to black ash, in the air, before my
eyes"(Atwood, 43)
These feminists ban expressions of sexuality
(such as porn magazines). Gilead also uses
the feminist rhetoric of female solidarity and
“sisterhood” to its own advantage to control
and "empower" women without the need of
men
Atwood's target of feminism was the
religious right; implying the dark side of
feminist rhetoric
Written/Media Connections
In today's media construct, there is a constant
struggle with showcasing women as objects of
desire. Having many inequalities between the
sexes, creates a lot of issues.
There has been too many cases where a
woman’s credibility or character has been
attacked in the wake of sexual assault in
todays society.
Connection to The Handmaid's Tale: Once a
month the male head of the household
performs a “ceremony” in which he
essentially rapes the handmaid in hopes that
she becomes pregnant. If she does, and has
a successful birth, the baby is then taken
from the handmaid and given to the couple
to raise as their own.
"It’s Janine, telling about how she was
gangraped at fourteen and had an
abortion" (Atwood, 81)
There are many countries, religions and
dress codes that force women to cover
themselves up so as to not “provoke” men.
Connection to The handmaids tale: Women
are divided into “categories” depending on
what they contribute to society. Wives wear
the puritan colour blue. Handmaids are in
red. Marthas, who do most of the cooking
and cleaning in the rich households, wear
green etc... and for the handmaids, eye
contact is completely forbidden.
There has been a heated debate around
abortion, women’s rights, and the U.S.
government’s role in all things fertility.
Whether that be IVF or surrogacy (which is
essentially a handmaid by different
standards)
Connection to The Handmaids Tale: Any
unmarried woman who is able to bear children is
trained to become a handmaid, a servant who is
sent to live in the home of a rich, barren couple in
power.
Motifs
Rape and Sexual Violence
Sexual violence, particularly against women, is very
prevalent in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Commander
and the Aunts claim that women are better
protected in Gilead, that they are treated with
respect and kept safe from violence.
The most important, sexual violence which
is apparent in the novel, is the ceremony
which compels Handmaids to have sex with
their Commanders.
In one scene, the Handmaids tear apart with
their bare hands a supposed rapist (actually
a member of the resistance). Gilead claims
to suppress sexual violence, but it actually
institutionalizes it.
Religion and Politics
Gilead is a theocracy (a government where
there is no separation between state and
religion). Gilead's official vocabulary
incorporates religious terminology and
biblical references.
Politics and religion sleep in the same bed in
Gilead, where the slogan “God is a National
Resource” dominates
Domestic servants are called “Marthas” in
reference to the New Testament; the local
police are “Guardians of the Faith”;
soldiers are “Angels”; and the
Commanders are “Commanders of the
Faithful.”
"There is something reassuring about the
toilets. Bodily functions at least remain
democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira
would say"(Atwood, 252)
"Replaced the serial polygamy common in
the pre-Gilead period with the older form of
simultaneous polygamy practiced in the Old
Testament times" (Atwood, 305)
All of the stores in Gilead have biblical
names: Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, Milk
and Honey. The automobiles also have
biblical names like Behemoth, Whirlwind,
and Chariot.
Characters
Offred
Offred is a great representative of women in
general before Gilead. She didn't consider
herself a feminist, and she feared feminism
would alienate her from men.
Now Offred understands that feminism only
forces women to recognize their natural
alienation from men.
Handmaid for The Commander
Her real name is unknown
Was previously married to a man named
Luke, and had one child
Moira
A close friend of Offred, and is strongly
opposed to Gilead
Moira is a dynamic character because she
was very independent and determined.
Whereas at the end of the novel she
transitioned to a prostitute in order to be
free
The Commander
Has a lot of power, but is careful not to
abuse it
His relationship with Offred goes from
powerful and overbearing to casual, and he
allows her to play scrabble with him (which
involves creating words) which is banned in
Gilead for many
Serena Joy
Bitter and selfish character throughout the
entire novel character doesn't change
much
She's jealous of Offred because she wants
The Commander all for herself
Ofglen
Walks with Offred everyday when they go
into town
Ofglen is a static character because she had
the same views as Offred, especially
concerning the resistance
Ofglen commits suicide because she
knew that the "eyes" were coming for
her
Thematic Connections
Restriction of Freedom
Freedom being achieved through
repression; "There is more than one kind of
freedom, said Aunt Lydia, Freedom to and
freedom from" (Atwood, 24).
Freedom to is negative while freedom from
is positive
The handmaid's are only allowed to wear
long red dresses and white bonnets
which conceal their body and face,
stripping them of any identity
"So little time to change our minds, about
things like this. Then I think: I used to dress
like that. That was freedom" (Atwood, 33)
The Power of Language
Offred explains that everything is a
re-interpretation of something else, and that
nothing is an exact description of the truth
Atwood's well integrated themes
throughout the novel develops the power of
language and that the unity as one creates
power.
Feminism
Atwood is widely viewed as a feminist
writer, and The Handmaid's Tale
presents a complex feminism point of
view
Atwood explores feminism in this novel,
highlighting the flaws of a society like
Gilead
"To achieve vision in this way, this journey
into a darkness that is composed of women,
a woman, who can see in darkness while he
himself strains blindly forward" (Atwood,
101)
Historisicm Reading and Writing
In Gilead, almost all women are banned
from reading and writing. Words are
considered influential works which can
inspire ideas of freedom and change -
which is not approved of
In the past, reading and writing was not
common for women.
Atwood did a great job at incorporating
many issues which women faced
throughout history
Only a few higher up members the
community are permitted to read
in write
Atwood reflects the use of individuality and
the use of free words throughout the novel
Symbols
The Colour Red
When worn by the handmaid's, it
symbolizes fertility. Red suggests the
blood of the menstrual cycle and
childbirth
The handmaid's red garments also
symbolize the ambiguous sinfulness of the
handmaid's position in Gilead
"I don't want to look at something that
determines me so completely" (Atwood,
63)
The Eyes
The Eyes of God are Gilead's secret police
Their name and symbol (the winged eye)
symbolizes eternal watchfulness
The Palimpsest
A document in which old writing has been
scratched out and new writing has been
placed
Symbolizes how the old world has been
erased and replaced, partially, by a new
order
Cambridge Massachusetts
Symbolizes the direct link between the
puritans and their sexual heirs in Gilead
Centre of Gilead's power Offred lives here
Flowers
Considered to symbolize beauty and fertility
Flowers have ovaries, much like women do,
symbolizing reproductive organs
They are given attention because they're
capable of growing and blooming, just like
women
"The red of the smile is the same as the red
of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards
the base of the flowers where they are
beginning to heal"( Atwood, 40 )
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