The Handmaid’s Tale: Applying Feminist 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. 

After reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, it is clear that the topics of feminism and gender issues are very prominent within the novel, which are revealed through analysis of the novel from the feminist theory. In the dystopian society of Gilead, subjection of women is complete as the females are victimized and subjected to inequality. They are unable to make their own choices and think for themselves, as stated by Offred when she recalls how society was in the past: “It’s strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever—expanding perimeters of our lives. I was like that too, I did that too” (Atwood 227). The women cannot even escape from this sexism and misogyny, as seen when Moira tries to escape from Gilead, only to be captured again and put to work at Jezebels. The only ways to escape are means of suicide such as Ofglen’s suicide and the suicide of the handmaid before Offred. The government sometimes even controls suicide because there are shatterproof windows in Offred’s room, snuffing out any means of freedom for the women. 

Furthermore, the Republic of Gilead has laws stating that women cannot read, write, or work. These kinds of issues really connect with me because as a female, I think that women should have the ability to read write, think for themselves and make their own choices. They should not be stripped of their basic rights. Literacy skills are almost always used everyday, so without them, women are deprived and will not be able to succeed in their lives. In the “Handmaid’s Tale,” the women have books read to them every breakfast instead of them reading the books themselves, which I think indicates that they are unable to read, as shown in the quote “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth. Then comes the moldy Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the center. Give me children or else I die…We had it read to us every breakfast…” (101). Furthermore, the women who had careers before the formation of Gilead were dismissed, which was elaborated in Offred’s flashback “We’re being fired? I said. I stood up. But why? Not fired, he said. Let go. You can’t work here any more, it’s the law” (204). I think that many of these women were degraded as a result of this law because jobs can be seen as a source of empowerment for women.

Even the commander says “Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone. They got no respect as mothers” (219). Women with no jobs meant that they did not have any money so in a sense, they are worthless without the men, who were able to keep their jobs. Many of the women also had their property taken from them as well, such as how Offred used to have her own home and garden but now she doesn’t. Not only are women’s rights restricted but the way that women dress are restricted as well. When Offred encounters some women from Japan, she becomes very intrigued because she used to dress like them, with short skirts and high heels. Seeing the way that they dressed, Offred thinks back to how that was freedom because in the Republic of Gilead, the women have to wear certain clothes pertaining to their classes. For example, the “handmaids” wear red dresses and white wings, widows wear all black, the Marthas wear dull green and the women of poorer men wear red, blue, green and cheap clothing. The society of Gilead essentially robs women of their rights and leaves them more vulnerable instead of “protecting” them, which the government claims to be doing.

The most concerning part of the novel that deals with feminism, is the existence of the “handmaids.” Atwood effectively communicates that these “handmaids” are basically female slaves by using a variety of literary devices such as similes, shown in the quote “We are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled for all they care, like a shell of a nut…we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love and desire” (110-111) and Atwood also uses allusions, such as the reference to the shunning of Hester Prynne wearing the red A in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” as seen in the quote “But the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for” (16). These quotes essentially explain how the “handmaids” are mistreated and used like tools or objects instead of treated as human beings with rights.

The government of Gilead uses these women’s bodies as political instruments in order to control reproduction due to declining birth rates but as a result, the women are treated as subhuman and are reduced to their fertility, treated as almost nothing. These “handmaids” only have value because of their sole reproductive purpose, as shown in the quote “We are for breeding purposes…we are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels ambulatory chalices (157).” These women are deprived of their basic rights such as their right to individuality, freedom and expression. They have their identity stripped away from them because they are forbidden to use their real names. These women are made the property of their masters by having their name consist of the master’s name and then preceding with “of,” such as Ofglen, Ofwarren, Offred. The “handmaids” also do not have much of a say in anything and are set in a restrictive routine.  For example Offred has to always eat what is given, wear the red dress and white wings of the “handmaids,” only go out on shopping trips with Ofglen, have check-ups with the doctor frequently and endure the Ceremony. Offred’s rights to freedom and expression are completely restricted because wearing what one wants and going out when one wants is all part of freedom and expression. Offred frequently talks about her life before the Republic of Gilead as she misses this feeling of freedom, as well as individuality and love. She describes her life as a “handmaid,” as dull and sad because so many things that make people feel alive such as love, human relationships, individuality and freedom, are taken away and the “handmaids” are almost left with nothing that feeds their soul. During prayers, she often asks God how she can keep living on, indicating how unhappy she is with her life. The “handmaids” have to always walk with their heads down to indicate their lower status and they even have wings to restrict their view of the world, confining them and making them submissive to the regime. This kind of oppression leaves Offred feeling jealous of the men because the men have a chance for power, they are making money, they know what’s going on in the world, they can read, write and even work out, but the “handmaids” are basically stuck and confined to the household. “Handmaids” such as Offred lack basic human rights and a chance for a fulfilling life due to the harsh laws implemented by the Republic of Gilead. This makes the “handmaids” have very little value and are almost like tools to be used and if they are not useful, they will be tossed away. Due to these harsh restrictions on these “handmaids,” many of them want to someday get out and experience freedom again.

Overall, the novel provides great insight into the life of a woman oppressed by a totalitarian government of a place like Gilead. The kind of society that exists in Gilead is like a patriarchal society because the males have a lot of dominance and power compared to the women. The analysis of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in a feminist theory reveals these different themes and topics within the novel.

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