3.4 Critical Review- The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale- Margaret Atwood

One of the strongest and most valuable themes and messages that is demonstrated in this narrative is the importance of freedom of values and humanity as a whole. This novel is seen as a warning by Margaret Atwood of what could be if we continue as we are. It is stating how the future may pan out if we don’t end the ways we go about taking action to different situations. Ways, such as not regognising who has power and what this power has begun to do to women and how it treats them. If we don’t start reflecting on how society and humanity has begun to evolve then there will be vicious repercussions. As said by Paulo Coelho “A mistake repeated more than once is a decision” this is the case in how humanity does not seem to learn from the mistakes it has created in the ways of religion.  In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ written by Margaret Atwood, we are taken through the eyes of Offred, who is the protagonist of the novel. The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on a totalitarian theocratic regime in the current United States, that takes away power from women. In the republican society known as “Gilead” which is another dystopian fiction that is under total control of the government and distorts and corrupts biblical texts, women no longer have any control, any freedom or any rights. They are denied to be who they used to be as well as being controlled and governed by men who they belong to. Their identity has been forgotten and they are to live as nothing but a product, trying to steal back what was stolen from them.

This book in itself creates a terrifying yet accurate ordeal of the future that is to come. The book is short on developing characterisation, with only few but crucial characters and holds onto the idea of cynicism. It sets a dark scene of a fixed feminist perspective of an apocalypse period, with men having free control of women and persuing them in order to have reign on what they choose to do to them. Women have been each put into formed subdivisions in order for them to know where they ‘belong’ such as the Wives and the breeders. There are also social hierachies, for the women there are Wives, Aunts, Handmaids, Econowives, Marthas and Unwomen, and for men there are Commanders of the Faithful Eyes, Angels and Guardians. A handmaids only have one sole purpose; to reproduce. Their bodies are seen as a both a tool and gift of purity that must be fertilised  by the men who govern them. They are a natural resource, which Offered understands. It is the duty of the commander to inseminate his assigned partner. There is control through sexuality through how the men have free roam to be able to try and fertilise them, but if a Handmaid were to enjoy sexual and moral freedom, this comes with a high price.

Freedom of values is something that all should be able to hold onto, not something that should be stripped away. The value of a name, an identity, a life and a vision, these are what are taken and lost in The Handmaid’s Tale. A name that each individual onced conformed too, once held and protected, has had to be overtaken by one that deems fit. Each name begins with the same letters that coresponds to the men that they serve. Offred is the slave of Fred, which reveals how much authority men have over women, her name is bluntly “of fred” adding the word ”of” is to reveal possession, also shown with ”Ofwarren” Names are seen as an illusion in The Handmaids Tale refering to outside societal ideas. This can supposidly be seen with the characters Moira, who is Offred’s best friend, and Luke, who is her husband. Moira may be to the Virgin Mary and Luke may be Saint Luke. Atwood uses religious connections from a wider world concept in her work to express more of what occurs in society. In Gilead, women are seen as a product rather than an individual holding a greater purpose. Offred is yet another product, of the man whom she lives to serves each day that passes. Details of Atwood’s newly formed  state are seen in other novels that express the same ideas, such as George Orwell’s 1984. That novel has come to be seen as a fierce ethical piece of literature that both disturbs yet awakens its readers to what could be. As diverse as Atwood was from Orwell both share the same ideals in the way women are treated, and how this can be long away from fantasy to be turned into a realistic nightmare.

Specific readers of this novel, may view it in a different way than I myself might. Atwood speaks of the ideas of homosexuality, rape and pornography a great deal. Women had to conform to a life where they were controlled, but were able to have some form of control over their fertility with using conception. For all that women must suffer in this state, horror becomes a well known concept that they must endure, it becomes their everyday, it becomes what they are a part of. “Ordinary. Aunt Lydia says. Is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary  to you now. But after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”

Control is exerted through language in the novel, clothing represents each individuals status and what they stand for. They prohibit reading of any form of free communication, which reveals how literate Offred is, as she suffers from being deprived of books. Even before Gilead had come into being, language had been dominated by male-oriented choices. Man and He had been used for people in general. There is an unrestricted amount of feminism written about in “The Handmaids Tale” which lives throughout Gilead, and is one of the main reasons it came into being. In a flashback with Offred (who we faintly learn that her real name is June) and her mother, at a fire; book-burning in the old time before Gilead has existed, of pornographic magazines, to ‘protect’ the women from the idea of sex or anything in a sexual nature. Her mother views this as being the ‘right’ thing.  Offred ( the narrator of the book) who is now in the present time period, knows of the world she wanted to live in. Her mother states”You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one.” This is not what she wished for, not to be dominated and governed by a world of men. The women fear the governments punishment if they were to try to overthrow them. The women of Gilead are jealous of each other, thus fail to unite as a front and overthrow the republic.

The main reason that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale was to make her readers think and understand deeper about how the world would be viewed in years to come. This can be related to this year in 2018, through looking at the state of women’s rights in America. For example the right to health care and also gender-based violence. It is horrific that we need to urge the United States government identify in writing and deed that women’s rights are human rights. Women have rights to participate and live in a society without fear of violence from others and to be in control of their own bodies and lives. ‘The Handmaids Tale’ was seen as a warning of the foundation that humanity would eventually not only sit upon but act. How people would convey information, and that racial oppression could lead to a rebellion, how there would be shifts in morals of individuals. Atwood was troubled by the 1980’s debates on feminist attitudes, mainly towards sexuality as well as pornography. Feminists were protesting against the forever demanding nature of pornography. They felt wronged by religious groups wishing to ban pornography in order to “protect women”

This idea of religious zealots limiting women’s freedom for “protective” reasons is highly notable in this piece of literature. This can be seen in the world today in middle eastern countries. Women have very few rights of their own. They have to have permission from their male partner to be able to travel to other places, and if they do travel they need to have a male chaperone with them. In other countries however, women have come far in the rights that they now grasp. For example, here in New Zealand, we were the first country to allow women the vote, to be able to have a say in how their country would be viewed and governed. “There is more than one kind of freedom… freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it”

6 Replies to “3.4 Critical Review- The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. “Their identity has been forgotten and they are to live as nothing but a face, trying to steal back what was stolen from them.” – is their face important?

    “This idea of religious zealots restricting women’s freedom for “protective” reasons is quite prominent in Atwood’s work.” – relate this to real-world examples.

  2. It is stating how the future may pan out if we don’t put an end to our ways. Ways such as not regognising who has power and what this power has gone on to do to women and how it treats them. – can you express this more clearly?

  3. However, problems of infertility do exist in this new world. There was an upsurge of AIDS, as well as women who refused to breed entierly and protested for this, however they suffered heftly consequences to take this course of action by having their tubes tied. Although, by being fetilised, this allows new life to emerge into the newly formed anti-utopia governed state to carry on the work of the generation before; to live in the ways that each individual did.- I can’t make sense of this, Kimmy

  4. The main reason that Atwood wrote the handmaid’s tale was to make her readers think and understand deeper about how the world would be viewed in years to come.- how do you see it looking at the world as it is in 2018?

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