The Handmaid’s Tale: Applying Reader’s Response Theory

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood takes place in the dystopian society of Gilead, where a young woman named Offred serves as a “handmaid.” These “handmaids” are essentially female slaves who have the sole purpose of breeding for their masters. Caught up in a world of constant surveillance, strict rules, and extreme punishment, the novel’s protagonist, Offred, attempts to get through each day while believing that she will someday be reunited with her husband and daughter. 

To begin, I chose The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood for my culminating task because personally, I enjoy dystopian novels. I like to read about the author’s interpretation of the future because it gives greater insight on things I have never thought of before, such as the existence of female slaves for the sole purpose of breeding. This novel thoroughly explores the themes of feminism, power and individualism in society, which are all themes that greatly interest me as well and thus, I chose The Handmaid’s Tale for this unit.

After I examined Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” from a reader response perspective, it became clear that Offred served as an example of how a ruthless totalitarian society can cause the lives of citizens to be devalued and essentially “empty”. The novel thoroughly explores the topics of power, freedom and individuality within society. It is written in first person, in the perspective of Offred, who once had an identity and the freedom to live with her family in her own home, but is now living in a totalitarian society with very restrictive rules. In the novel, Offred talks of her daily life, in which she feels dull and empty because she cannot do anything but obey the rules and survive. I felt that the author wanted to put emphasis on how devalued Offred’s life was, because the author writes in a depressing/unfeeling tone, causing readers such as myself to feel sorry for the character of Offred. Offred has her identity stripped away from her as she can’t even remembers what she looks like or use her real name, as seen in the quote “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden” (Atwood 14). Her life in Gilead seems very unhappy due to the restrictive routine that she is confined in, which consists of only going to shopping trips, Cereomonies, Salvagings and meetings with the other women. Atwood uses a variety of literary devices to describe the unhappy life that Offred lives, such as similies: “We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each other in the recital of our physical miseries; gently we would complain, our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in the eaves troughs” (10-11) and metaphors: “We are containers, it’s only the inside of our bodies that are important (96).” The way that Offred describes everything in her life and relating it back to her past freedom causes the reader to really sympathize with the character and her view of the world. Atwood uses the concept of flashbacks really well in the novel to show Offred’s desperation and longing for freedom. Offred often recalls her

freedom from the past, in which she could go wherever she pleased, wore whatever she wanted and expressed herself the way she liked because now, she is chained by the restrictive rules of Gilead. There are also instances in which she thinks about her child and husband, whom she was separated from, and the author provides in depth descriptions of these memories to show how much Offred misses her past life. Offred even dreams of the days when she was with her husband and daughter, living her life out, providing mental images for readers to visualize her greater fulfillment of life in the past. In the novel, Offred repeatedly asks how she can keep living like this and hopes that one day she can get out of it and back to her family, as seen in the quote “The message will say that I must have patience: sooner or later he will get me out, we will find her, wherever they’ve put her. She’ll remember us and we will be all three of us together. Meanwhile, I must endure, keep myself safe for later…It’s this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive” (120). This quote shows that what keeps Offred alive, is the simply the thought of freedom, effectively showing her sense of desperation. This allows me to sympathize and connect with Offred’s longing desire for freedom.

Not only did the novel’s presentation of the topics of freedom and individuality connect with me, but it also reminded me of other novels covering the same topics. When I was reading the novel, I was presented with a dystopian society similar to other novels I have read in the past such as George Orwell’s “1984”. I found myself comparing the government of Gilead to the government of Oceania in Orwell’s “1984,” because people who went against the ideals of Big Brother were vanquished as well. However, while the government of Oceania were discrete, the government of Gilead are not and they try to get as many people to see the executed criminals. For example, in Gilead, there is a Wall where hanged criminals are displayed for all the citizens to see. When Offred went to the Wall, there were hanging doctors who were brutally executed and had a placard with a human foetus around their necks to show why they had been executed. Atwood allows readers to infer and think because it is only implied that the doctors might have promoted abortion, which is against the ideals of the government, because Offred talks of how no woman should prevent birth and that they are lucky to conceive. There were also other criminals

hung on the wall, such as the two Guardians who committed “gender treachery,” showing that homosexuality is also banned. Offred states that the hanging bodies were a reminder to the people so that they could hate them and scorn them for their atrocious acts, as seen in the quote “…this is a reminder to us of the unjustness and brutality of the regime…that we should remember to do what we are told and not get into trouble, because if we do, we will be rightfully punished (327).” The “Handmaid’s Tale” also reminds me of “1984” in several different aspects as well. For instance, in the Republic of Gilead, there are The Eyes of God, who serve as the Republic’s secret police, which means that anyone could be a part of the citizens and nobody would know. The Eyes are responsible for maintaining law and order through spying, and similarly, in Oceania, there is the thought police, a secret police force responsible for maintaining law and order through spying. Another instance is when Aunt Lydia claimed that the Guardian the women were beating up, was a rapist, when in fact he was just part of the underground rebellion. The Republic of Gilead disposes of rebellions and bends the truth just like the Oceanian government to keep certain information away from the people. They keep information about the war from its citizens and on TV, “They show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news (93)?” This is similar to the propaganda in “1984” in which the government only shows its citizens what they want the citizens to see. Atwood effectively shows just how ruthless and manipulative that Gilead can be, through these various acts and laws.

Overall, the “Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood was an interesting read and I learned to really value my freedom and indiviudality after seeing how poor Offred’s life is without it. This novel is also relevant because it relates to controversial topics that still exist in society today such as abortion and gay rights. Through this novel, Atwood provides a thorough study of power and how it can deform the people living within that kind of totalitarian regime.

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