One of the most important themes of The Handmaid's Tale is the presence and manipulation of power. On the one hand, Gilead is a theocratic dictatorship, so power is imposed entirely from the top. There is no possibility of appeal, no method of legally protecting oneself from the government, and no hope that an outside power will intervene. One of the characteristics of this kind of power is that it is extremely visible. Power imposed from one direction must always be displayed. Unlike a democratic society, where the people consent to be governed and therefore have an interest in maintaining the structures of society, in Gilead, the government must cover the streets and even individual homes with guards and guns. The possibility of surveillance must be constant. The only place that people are free is in their own heads, creating a significant amount of isolation between individuals.
Despite the Gilead regime's success at imposing order, Atwood's characters demonstrate that even if any substantial power is taken from people, they will still find a way to maintain control over themselves and other individuals. Offred manipulates her sexuality in the subtlest ways, aware for the first time of how much power she has simply because she is a woman. Though she has absolutely no ability to follow through on her suggestions, she knows that she is awakening ideas in men's heads, and that she is communicating with the Guardians under the Angels' very noses. Offred learns that Handmaids kill themselves in order to maintain some final sense of power over their bodies and decisions, and indeed, the thought of suicide is always in the back of her mind. Through her relationship to the Commander, Offred gains real power, but she is afraid to test its limits. Ultimately she discovers that her powers over him were useless, as he will do nothing to save her from the wrath of his wife.
The focus of the Gileadean regime is on the control of sex and sexuality. They execute gays and lesbians; they destroy pornography and sexual clothing; they kill abortion doctors; they outlaw divorce and second marriages; and they ritualize bizarre sexual relations that they believe are supported by the Bible. It is unsurprising at the end of the novel to learn that the Gileadean regime eventually destroys itself. In attempting to separate sex from sexuality, the regime demonstrates both its underestimation of and fear of sexuality.
The regime, it appears, is right to fear sexuality, for the extent to which illicit sexual practices undermine the regime quickly becomes clear. The Commander reveals not only that he carried out a series of affairs with his Handmaids, but that there is a more or less "secret" club where higher-ups consort with women solely for sexual purposes. These actions demonstrate that the government cannot expunge illicit sexual acts merely by threatening fearful punishments. In fact, by destroying the privacy of even condoned sexual acts, the government seems to encourage those in power to act out against these regulations. Finally, when Offred takes a series of tremendous risks to continue her affair with Nick, she demonstrates the power of sexual acts. The regime can impose as many punishments as it wants; it can force women to watch other women be hung; it can torture and abuse, but no matter what it does, ordinary women like Offred will continue to risk everything for acts of sexuality inspired by the possibility of love.
The Place of the Individual in Society
One of the questions asked by The Handmaid's Tale is whether the needs of society should be allowed to trump the rights of the individual. As the Historical Notes stress, the Gileadean society was facing extreme pressures. Their population was shrinking, and they were going to disappear if severe actions were not taken. The isolation and enlistment of women with viable ovaries is a solution that makes the best use of available resources, but there are at least two serious problems with such methods. Essentially, the Gileadeans are acting under the idea of Utilitarianism: they are attempting to do what they think is best for the greatest number of people.
One of the major problems with this reasoning is that as a theocracy, the Gilead regime's reasoning is not always as coldly logical as it needs to be in order to solve its problems. The Gileadeans decide that fertility is always a problem in the woman, never in the man, as was the case in the Bible. As a result, the regime wastes many fertile handmaids on clearly infertile Commanders. This reasoning drives handmaids to violate the sexual mores of the new society and make use of doctors or other accessible men to get pregnant. In order for the Gileadean society to effectively fix their birth-rate problem, they need to take a more scientific perspective on the issue. Ultimately, the Gileadean leaders place their religious beliefs over the rights of the individual or the survival of the group.
While Atwood is widely viewed as a feminist writer, The Handmaid's Tale presents a complex view of feminism. First of all, Atwood stresses in many interviews that the extreme nature of Gilead is a result of the conservative and feminist viewpoints simultaneously being espoused during the time that she wrote the novel. Moira is the novel's mouthpiece for many of these ideas, and when Offred remembers the arguments they had, she is reiterating many of the ideas that influenced the novel. The most important idea was Moira's belief that living solely with women would solve many of the problems women were currently facing. In many ways, the new social order in Gilead is supposed to provide for a society of women. Most women have very little contact with men. Women are expected to support each other in times of birth, death and sickness. Women teach other women about the new regime. Within a household, women work together to fulfill the different functions of their gender. Of course, the utopian ideal of this community is far from the reality. Atwood seems to be suggesting that one of the flaws in the feminist community is the belief that women automatically feel loyalty towards one another.
Offred's mother serves as a mouthpiece for a different sort of feminism. Offred's mother marched for abortion rights, the banning of pornography, and many other women's issues before the institution of the new regime. When she was young, Offred remembers being embarrassed by her mother's activities. Her mother would lecture her for being ungrateful and complacent about her rights. Only post-Gilead does Offred realize how complacent she truly was. Offred didn't realize that her job or her right to own property could be taken away. She now understands how the lack of rights changes one's perspective.
One of the qualities that make Offred so representative of women in general is that before Gilead, she was the kind of woman who didn't consider herself a feminist. She feared feminism would alienate her from men. She did not like it when her mother argued with Luke, trying to get him to admit that the only reason he cooked was because of feminism. Now Offred understands that feminism only forces women to recognize their natural alienation from men. It is the feminine itself that creates this alienation. This distinction becomes clear when Offred loses her job and is afraid to ask Luke whether he prefers the new order. Atwood explores feminism from several perspectives, and though she clearly considers its flaws, Offred ultimately seems to realize its importance.
The Power of Language
One of Atwood's most intricate and well-integrated themes is that of the power of language. The idea of storytelling is woven throughout Offred's tale. She explains that everything is a re-interpretation of something else; nothing is an exact description of the truth. She considers possible themes for her story, pointing out that she has attempted to improve the tone of her story by adding in things like "flowers". She apologizes for the presence of so much violence and pain. As the historical notes point out, Offred's narrative is quite dissimilar from a straightforward historical account. She talks about different things, asks different questions, and provides different answers.
Another interesting use of language is found in the manner in which Offred thinks of words and analyzes them, using them to distract her from her reality and to help her survive. For example, at one point she thinks of the word chair and its many meanings, from a method of execution to the French word for flesh. When she and the Commander play Scrabble, she uses the search for words to distract herself from her fear and confusion.
Of course, one of the major changes to language enacted by the regime is that the use of language has become illicit for women. On the one hand, this lends words and language even more power. On the other hand, it renders the illicit use of language almost sexual. Offred may think so fiercely of words and take such solace in the repetition of memories because doing so helps her to retain her knowledge of language. When the Commander allows Offred to read or plays Scrabble with her, she realizes they are practicing a kind of "kinky" sexual act.
Through the Historical Notes, Atwood raises the general question of whether it is possible to judge a culture outside of its boundaries. It seems clear that she believes that the answer is "yes". Though Gilead's culture is substantially different from our own, it seems unlikely that the reader does not hold it in judgement. Atwood seems to justify this judgment, for while she teases out Gilead's differences, the narrative also reveals that there are many similarities between cultures, no matter the social or cultural mores that divide them. In other words, the same kinds of relationships and the same kinds of power differentials underlie all societies. Atwood seems to suggest that those similarities are what allow outsiders to make judgments. A greater question is whether Atwood's novel is political: is she alluding to specific cultures that she feels her readers have excused themselves from judging.
While Atwood asks a great many questions about gender conflict, she does not seem to provide readers with any concrete answers. Offred becomes more and more aware that as a man, Luke is on one side of the new regime, and she is on another, despite the fact that she believes he loves her. The Commander tries to explain to Offred why the new regime is better for men, and essentially admits that in order for it to be better for men, it must be worse for women. One of the most obvious questions is whether these feelings were simply repressed in the old society, or whether they were created by the new one. Would the Commander think the new regime was better if his survival was not bound up with his support of the new regime? Does Luke actually prefer the new way of life? Before he understood the new laws about divorce, how did he feel about the new laws curtailing the activities of women? Offred never asks, so the reader never knows the answers to these important questions.
The overarching question is whether gender conflict exists at all. Is there actually more conflict between men and women than between women and women or men and men? Though there is little discussion of the relationships between men in The Handmaid's Tale, relationships between women are not necessarily superior to those between women and men. Offred finds herself arguing with her mother and Moira about those very things. The different categories of women after the regime change serve only to widen gaps between women. Some wives literally try to stab Handmaids to death, angry about their very existence, while perfectly aware that they can do nothing about it. In general, relationships between men and women are not shown in an even remotely positive light. The exception is the relationship between Offred and Nick: the strength of that relationship lies in Nick's sacrifice of his own safety in order to be with and help Offred. Atwood may be suggesting that all relationships are difficult: those between genders, and those among them.
The Handmaid’s Tale Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Handmaid’s Tale is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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