The Handmaid’s Tale by Margeret Atwood, first published in 1985 in Toronto, Canada, is a novel that presents a dystopian society in which women are stripped of their rights and freedoms. The story follows Offred, a Handmaid assigned to a high-ranking couple to bear their child. Recently, the novel has reached widespread and is of particular interest due to recent socio-political events and issues.
The narration is in the first-person perspective, which allows the reader to experience the story through Offred’s eyes. It builds a vivid picture of her surroundings, movements, and observations of the world around her. Offred reflects on recent events and the even further past, providing insight into her character and the state of the world. Offred’s life is limited in many ways. She is no longer allowed to own money, have a job, or even have a family. She is separated from her husband and daughter and is now solely responsible for bearing children for her assigned couple. The inequality between her and the others she encounters is stark and oppressive.
Overall, the novel provides a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of authoritarianism and the importance of individual rights and freedoms in society. Offred is merely a person with ovaries who observes and does very little of her own accord; she responds and recites what she has to say and do (under instructions and prior teachings from Aunt Lydia, a higher-ranking woman). Ultimately, she is there to be impregnated by the Commander, as it talks about how handmaids are brought in for that purpose. Her body and self are only ideal in the eyes of something ‘sacral’; her reproductive capacity only matters, and she is shaped by society’s biological determinist views stemming from its religion.
The men, I.e., the Commander, are always outside in public as strong individuals with duties. The other dutiful roles, such as Angels and Guards, also seem ‘masculine’ in characterization. The latter means that men or the masculine are in roles that enforce or instruct those lower in the hierarchal social ladder than them. Women, the Marthas, the Handmaids, and the Wives are confined to domestic duties and private environments: the kitchen, the room Offred stays in, the garden, and the living room where the Wife knits. The male Commander has the power position to outdo anyone who lives under his roof; the men, as mentioned before in the dutiful public roles, have power over women as Offred recalls hearing about an incident where the guard shot Martha (a woman) for only appearing to be a threat because she fiddled around for something. Minor incidences like these with dire consequences at the hands of strong men, as envisioned when describing the guards and other characters, provoke the concept that men are the more powerful sex over women.
Comment from the article writer:
In light of these bleak resonances and the “public” and “private” dichotomies in the novel containing an extremely authoritarian societal context, I can see how it can relate to the experiences of women and men parallel to our societies. In Gilead, sorts of sexual/chivalry acts are forbidden, so Offred needs to be discreet to avoid punishment. The societal demeanour against women is something many women have experienced, myself, my mother, and my female friends included; women’s values and ‘rational mind’ are not taken into significant consideration in contemporary society, which in Gilead, it is the same, but to a more substantial extreme. The overall fear of punitive punishment on a grander scale does exist in our actual world; the political tyranny and dictation by policing forces is a very apparent issue that is applicable and continues to persist in broader society.
Despite the bleak nature of the novel, it provides a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of authoritarianism and the importance of individual rights and freedoms in society. It also highlights the stark and oppressive inequality between Offred and those around her. As someone who identifies as a genderqueer, the novel’s portrayal of gender roles and oppression deeply resonated with me. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of fighting against societal norms restricting individual freedoms and rights based on gender.