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Table of Contents
2. Main part
2.1.0. A Handmaid's life: Offred
2.1.1. Offred's alienation
2.1.2. How does Offred cope?
2.2. Moira – an ideal?
2.3. A successful system?
Could a system like in the Republic of Gilead ever exist?
Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale" has come into my hands for the third time already. The first time it did, I have to confess, the 300-page book didn't quite make my fingers itch to read it. This story of a woman trapped in her role as a machine of reproduction in a system where government uses its people as instruments of production seemed to me far away, and impossible. "Futuristic" was not even a word I could use for it, as it did not display any imaginable future to me.
Nevertheless, I found out more and more and finally recognized Margaret Atwood's hints that, for me, answer the question
"Could a system like in the Republic of Gilead ever exist?"
This question can easily be answered after having a closer look at women's roles and the Handmaid's alienation in the Republic of Gilead.
It is a life in which provisions have been made for safety, but freedom has been totally taken away from them.
In a society in which women's bodies are political instruments for reproduction.
A society perfectly structured and planned.
A society working
Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's tale" is a utopian novel set in future times.
It is the story of Offred, a Handmaid in the "new" Republic of Gilead, where the system has changed for reasons of great losses in birth rates .
Before the Republic changed to a breeding factory', Offred lived a simple life as a wife and mother taking for granted the freedom she was given. Now she has had all her freedom taken away and slowly loses hope that she will see her family, that she has been separated from, ever again. Nevertheless, Offred has clear memories of what her life used to be like. In flashbacks she recalls scenes of the times gone by.
As one of the few women left with functioning ovaries, her function in the system is only one - to breed. After a re-education at the „Red Centre“, she is designated Handmaid of Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy who develops an abyssal hate towards Offred. She cannot bear the miserable state that she is in - being sterile and having a fertile Handmaid sleep with her husband. Still, she accepts it, as she deeply desires a child.
Ofglen, another Handmaid and Offred's shopping assistant, turns out to be a member of the resistance and with that attests Offred's steady hope for a revolution.
Offred soon gets into difficulty when she and the Commander build up an unexpected relationship, playing Scrabble illegally at night or going to the underground night club „Jezebel's“.
Serena Joy realizes that her husband is presumably sterile as after the former several Handmaids didn't work out, Offred does not get pregnant either. She negotiates a deal with Offred which says that if Offred agrees to illegally sleep with the family's chauffeur, Nick, Serena would show her a photo of her daughter. Offred soon finds pleasure in sleeping with Nick...
Her best friend Moira, whom she meets over and over again, was once her idol and source of hope. As Moira's strength fades and Ofglen commits suicide, Offred loses hope. She is careless and Serena finds out about her nightly visits at the Commander's. The feared black van arrives for Offred and she steps in, not knowing if this will be the beginning of a new life, or death.
The highest power in the Republic of Gilead is the government. With threats it forces the citizens to obey its rules. "Aunts" re-educate the fertile women in the "Rachel and Leah Centre" (also called the "Red Centre") by teaching them the government's rules.
The highest social level consists of the Commanders and their Wives. They do not have a say in governmental decisions, but they're allowed a Handmaid,if they cannot bear children themselves. The birth of a child may get the Commander to whom it is born promoted. The elite's colours are black and dark blue, symbolizing their high position and their nobility.
Econowives and Widows form the Middle-class. They are 'normal' citizens and do not have an essential function in the Republic, but they exist. Their low social position is clearly visible as they have to wear cheap striped dresses that are in mixed colours. It marks them as the women of the poorer men, those who have to do all sorts of household work.
Women whose men have died become widows. There is a slight indication that they might be eliminated by the government, when Offred remarks that they "seem to be diminishing" [p. 34 , ll. 6].
In the Republic of Gilead, men usually serve as safeguards to protect the Handmaids because they are the most important persons in the society.
A man who is neither a Commander nor a poor husband of an Econowife is a servant (like Nick is in the household where Offred is a Handmaid) or a guard . There are different ranks of guards including the "Angels" and the "Eyes", that are both dreaded characters, as they are often spies, trying to find out members of the resistance.
As illegitimate characters in the society, prostitutes and 'Unwomen' are not often mentioned, and kept secret because their existence is forbidden. Although the Republic has totally erased the meaning of 'pleasure' in sexual activities , the forbidden prostitutes display the forbidden but not completely forgotten existence of sexual pleasure.
The 'Unwomen' are women working in the colonies, where the air, polluted by toxins and radioactivity, is a steady threat. 'Unwomen' show the people living in the Gileadean society what can happen to them [[...]starve to death and Lord knows what all? said Cora" p.20, ll.10], if they don't follow the rules. The threat of being sent to 'the colonies' is a steady and scaring one in the society of Gilead. The life-span for a person working in the colonies is three years.
The Handmaid's role in the society is the most important one.
2. Main part
2.1.0. A Handmaid's life: Offred
The story is told from the perspective of Offred, who is a Handmaid in the Gileadean society...
'Offred' is not her real name, but an obligatory one that marks her as belonging to her Commander - She is 'of' Fred. This naming system in the Republic, of course, also concerns the other Handmaids. This is why they all start with 'Of', like 'Ofglen' or 'Ofwarren'.
A name indicates one's personality and it is something a person owns. By taking real names away, the government makes sure that nobody feels like an individual and with that thinks of gaining power. The Handmaids could be reminded of what their life used to be like and they could start a revolt against the government.
To avoid this, their name changes whenever they change their placement. In that way, not even their 'false' and owner-related name is of constancy, they are treated like robots. Offred is aware of her real function and often describes it with cruel simplicity ["What I must present is a made thing, not something born" p. 76, ll. 24f.].
Offred's real name is never revealed in the story although a slight indication directs the reader to the name 'June'. This happens in the first chapter, where Offred describes the customs at the Red Centre ["[...] we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June." p. 14, ll. 18-20]. All of the names are mentioned again several times, as the story continues - except for 'June'.
She keeps her name in her mind like something extremely valuable, calling it a "treasure", that she is going to "dig [...] up,one day" [p. 94, ll. 19].
Handmaids are hated by the other women, mostly for reasons of envy. Nevertheless, they are also an object of hope for the Commanders, their Wives and the Marthas. When Offred falls asleep fully clothed in the cupboard, Cora, the household's Martha, screams and drops her tray as she finds her. She thought Offred has either escaped or killed herself, which would mean to her dying hope for a child in the household. She seizes on Offred's alibi “I must have fainted” [p. 159, ll28f] and thinks it is one of the early signs of pregnancy. When Offred finally gets betrayed and picked up by the black van, Cora cries [“I was her hope, I've failed her. Now she will always be childless”(says Offred) p. 307, ll. 3f]...
In the Republic of Gilead, a Handmaid is extremely secure. Offred notices at her placement that "they've removed anything you could tie a rope to" [p. 17, l. 15] in order to avoid "those other escapes" [p. 18, ll. 1f.], meaning suicide.
The 'Eyes', male guards, that watch over their every step, guarantee their security. It is clear that the only thing they are really interested in saving is the Handmaid's bodies with their functioning ovaries. “I am a national resource” [p. 75, ll. 4f] is Offred's a reason for that.
As for the guards, they are not allotted any woman. Offred feels power when provocating the guards at the gateway as she looks into one young guard's eyes and sways her hips as she passes by. A Handmaids' power at the first look seems not to exist, but in fact their body is what they can trade with. Still, it is also what makes them suppressed, because if the government would give the Handmaids too much of a choice, or power, it would lose its authority. In this way, the Handmaid's power is an unspoken one.
Offred's view of her own body changes and definitely has been influenced by what she has been taught at the Red Centre. She realizes that her body is "something that determines her [...] completely" p. 73, ll. 1f.]. This makes her feel uncomfortable with looking at herself naked. At bath time Offred recalls memories of her wearing bathing suits at the beach, in former times. She describes it as "shameful" [p. 72, ll. 39 ], showing the change in viewing her body.
Handmaids soon see their body as an item of trade. A last, but never diminishing bit of power ["Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some trade-off, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy" p. 14, ll. 11-13].
For the government, only the inside of their bodies is essential. They are “containers” [p. 107, l. 23]. The forbiddance of body lotions for Handmaids is a decree of the wives and a small piece of revenge. It makes the Handmaids feel empty and lose hope that they will ever be physically desirable again.
Nevertheless, they have a secret trick – butter. It is luxury to them, but not too hard to get, as it is on their breakfast plate.
2.1.1. Offred's alienation
Offred's alienation from her former life was achieved fast and effectively. After being unable to access the money in her bank account and losing her job, she soon realizes that the change of the system she lives in bears danger to her family.
She tries to escape together with Luke, her husband, and their 5-year-old daughter, but they get caught. The memories of that day appear in Offred's bad daydreams. The worst thing about it is that she does not know what happened to Luke, whether he got killed or deported to the colonies. Her daughter also got separated, but presumably was declared a 'daughter' of a sterile Commander's Wife. A photo of her is the award that Offred gets from Serena Joy for sleeping with the family's servant, Nick.
It shows her daughter in a white dress holding hands with a woman that Offred has never seen before.
At first glance it seems as if Handmaids were given no choice at all, but in fact they were given an absurd alternative offer, if they don't want to become a Handmaid. They could choose the colonies, a place where the declared 'Unwomen' have to clean up toxic waste. The choice here is not between these women's roles, but really between life and death. Whereas in the colonies the survival rate is three years, and death is terminal, the life as a Handmaid still offers chances of survival and maybe even hope of escape. What lies behind the borders of Gilead, no one knows for sure, but the stories they have been told about the 'Unwomen' scare the Handmaids enough to make them chose against it. The reader gets a slight indication that the Unwoman's horrible life is not that bad after all. The Handmaids get to watch films at the Red Centre. Old brutal porn films and films showing the Unwomen in the colonies. "They want us to hear the screams and grunts and shrieks [...], but they don't want us to hear what the Unwomen are saying." [p. 129, ll. 15] is thought-proking and throws up doubts about the truth of the stories the Handmaids are told.
The Handmaid's brainwashing was not only achieved by the Aunts' insistent lessons, but also by physical manipulation. They were drugged in order to keep their sanity. Otherwise, Offred suggests, they would not have stayed that calm and obedient ["There must have been needles, pills, something like that. I couldn't have lost that much time without help. You have had a shock, they said." p. 49, ll. 3-5]
The changes that the new system has in store are huge. Handmaids are neither allowed to read nor are they permitted to write because it is thought to be too much of a temptation for them. 'Power' gets a completely different meaning in the new Republic of Gilead as even freedom of speech is minimized to a ridiculous level.
Greetings and farewells are strictly prescribed and based on religious basics.
Instead of salutation, such as 'hello', 'hi" or 'hey', that are based on the language Offred used in her everyday-life in the times before, her permitted language is now reduced to "Blessed be the fruit" and "May the Lord open". It attracts the reader's attention that when the Handmaids use these greetings, they wish themselves success in their mission – reproduction. The "fruit" here stands for the fertility, the mention of "the Lord" brings in the religious aspect, to show that the Handmaid's reproduction is being blessed by God. The farewell "Under his Eye" can be seen ambiguously as it can not only stand for the safety in the Republic, but also be a warning to the Handmaids that they are being watched. The "Eye", of course, in this case refers to the Angels' symbol of the winged eye, that can be seen for example on the feared vans.
Handmaids are allowed to talk about the weather and the war, but only with simple sentences and even they seem to be prescribed ["We've been sent good weather" – "Which I receive with joy" p. 29, ll. 30f]. Offred does not rate this as 'freedom'.
Because words can quickly reveal someone's treachery, Offred is very careful not to use the wrong words and often has to think about what to say in order to find out the other's true attitude towards the regime but at the same time be careful not to give herself away. She finds out that Ofglen is a member of the resistance on one of their shopping walks one day when she takes the risk and answers "No" to Ofglen's question "'Do you think God listens [...] to these machines?'" [referring to 'Soul scrolls' p.177, ll. 2f]. On the other hand, she gives herself away as an 'unbeliever' when the new Ofglen states about the wall "Let that be a reminder to us" [p.295, ll. 39] and Offred answers "Yes", the ambiguous version of the Republic's "Praise be". In this case her vis-à-vis is a believer, who has noticed the meaning behind Offred's answer. Fortunately she warns Offred instead of betraying her to the Angels. Once again it is not without a purpose to have the Handmaids go shopping in pairs – "The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers" [p. 29, ll. 10f]
To avoid possibilities of reading for the Handmaids, the names of shopping stores have been replaced by pictures showing what can be bought in each store. Nevertheless, each store has an unspoken name. "All flesh", "milk and honey", "Loaves and fishes" ...
The things Offred is offered to read are limited and she keeps them like a treasure.
A cushion with embroidery saying 'FAITH' has been arranged in her room. It is the only thing she is allowed to read, although presumably Serena Joy arranged it.
She wants Offred to keep 'faith' in her destiny and not be distracted by doubts.
While exploring her room, bit by bit in order to keep the pleasure as long as possible, Offred discovers a 'code'. Engraved into the floor in her cupboard is the latin phrase "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum", that Offred cannot immediately decode. During one of her nightly visits at the Commander's room, she finds out that it is a schoolboys' joke meaning "Don't let the bastards grind you down" [p. 62, ll. 20].
This message was left by the former Offred, who "didn't work out" and killed herself.
Offred thinks about the message very often and soon sees the former 'Offred' as a role model, showing her that resistance exists within the Handmaid's sisterhood . Presumably the former Handmaid of Fred, the Commander, also visited him during the night. She could have only learnt the Latin joke in the Commander's room.
2.1.2. How does Offred cope?
Offred's life in the Republic afflicts her, but she still feels hope surviving, the hope of escaping one day and finding Luke and her daughter. Her hope is not without a future and she feels encouraged by characters like Moira, her rebellious best friend from the times before who never gave up trying to escape – and finally did. Ofglen is also an example of existing resistance and every Salvaging or Birth Day offers Offred another possibility to maybe find out something about Luke's fate, or her daughter's. It's these small pieces of the achievement in Offred hope that keep her sane.At times, Offred seems to resign and accept the Republic's rules. It is as Aunt Lydia forecasted: "It will become ordinary" [p.43, ll. 40]. Although the freedom to chose another life is what would have given Offred the possibility to avoid her situation, she now admits that "it's the choice that terrifies [her]. A way out, a Salvation" p. 71, ll. 36f]. As her story continues, she seems to lose hope and give herself up, realizing that "there is no point to it, this wanting" [p. 132, ll. 12]. With this, she agrees with Aunt Lydia who taught the same at the Red Centre [ see p.127, ll. 29].
2.2. Moira – an ideal?
Moira is Offred's oldest and best friend. Before the Republic's complete change, when the first new laws were just enacted, she already understood, what was really going on ["They've been building up on this" p. 183, ll. 16]].
For her, the new laws are especially hard to live with – she is lesbian and forced to become a Handmaid. Moira plays a very important part in Offred's story, not only does she appear in Offred's memories of the past, but Offred meets her again at the Red Centre and at Jezebel's.
In Offred's memories Moira is often presented as a rebel – a quirky woman with black humour, smoking. She is the one with the craziest ideas and always straight-forward with her opinion. For Offred, she represents adventure and hope. Moira tries to escape the system several times and even when she fails and gets penalised, she does not give up. She gets caught once when trying to escape at the Red Centre and gets her feet brutally beaten up, but the second time she tries, she reaches her aim. Her methods are creative as she manages to dismantle the inside of one of the toilets in order to use the lever as a weapon. Offred does not only lack this mechanical ability, but also this courage.
As Offred's story continues, her picture of Moira changes and when they meet again at Jezebel's, they are not anymore what they used to be – best friends.
'Moira,' I say. 'You don't mean that.' She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. [p. 261, ll. 24-26]
Offred realizes that Moira's strength that she always looked up to has faded. Moira, who used to dream of a women-only society, now works as a prostitute at Jezebel's. With her escape at the Red Centre she ran away from her Handmaid's duty, but now sells herself to men anyway. For Offred hope dies, as she sees Moira giving in and turning into the kind of a person Offred herself is. She realizes that Moira portrayed what Offred wished to be herself, but could not reach ["But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?" p. 261, ll. 28f]. Gallantry and heroism is what Offred lacks. Now that Moira adjusts to the system, Offred no longer has an idol to look up to. With this last meeting, Moira's part in Offred's story ends for good. She has died along with Offred's hope of a way out.
2.3. A successful system?
The alienation of the Handmaids is a clever way of the government to keep them from gaining power in some way. As strong as the government seems to be, its true strength crumbles from within and is strongly dependant on the obedience of its Handmaids. It is weak inside and can only exist with strict rules. Would the Handmaids be able to talk about what they like and feel, to read and most of all to really decide themselves what they want to do, things would look different. Freedom of speech could cause friendships, which mean an intimate connection between the women. The government avoids this, when setting women against women. Envy and mistrust between the Women is the result, leaving the government no reason to fear treachery.
It is clear that these women do not voluntarily move from placement to placement bearing children for the elite. Were they not threatened like they are, they would choose against it. In reality the government is afraid of being betrayed by the people it relies on.
Could a system like in the Republic of Gilead ever exist?
"MOVING,VIVID AND TERRIFYING. I ONLY HOPE IT'S NOT PROPHETIC"
say the critics and, really, the question is persistent: Is Offred's story prophetic?
I say it is not. It is far worse than that, because the story is not futuristic, it is reality.
Margaret Atwood has Offred telling a story about all that is wrong in our world today. She created a system that includes all the cruelties the world has to offer.
This is not a look into the future, it is a flashback of the past and of the present.
Even today, there are places in the world that reflect a similar women's role like in the Gileadean society. Atwood especially caters for the difference in living conditions between men and women.
In East and South Asian countries, such as Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan, women have nearly no rights at all. In public they are not allowed to show their hair and sometimes they are even interdicted to show their face. This "dress code" is very similar to the one in Gilead. Here, the Handmaids have to wear long red dresses, wings and a veil covering their faces. Eye contact is always being avoided. With this dress code, women are transformed into cloaked figures that are not able to show any individuality.
Education is a rare goal, a woman is allowed to reach for in countries like Iran. Reading and writing are often considered man's business, for women they are considered unnecessary and kept on a strict level only.
Their lives are completely commanded by their fathers and, as soon as they are married to a man they do not even know, by their husband. They do not have a right to make their own decisions. In fact, the woman's father/husband acts as a "Commander" to the woman, and she is being owned by him. Women in South Asian countries are often seen as a piece of merchandise belonging to the man, especially in India, where women are sold. A 2001 report of the Council of Europe estimates the number of women, sold to work as a slave for a household being over 4 million worldwide. Once again this is a strong aspect found in the book: Women as items of trade. A Handmaid only works for the elite, the rich upper layer of the society. Only they are allotted such a possession.
In some Arabic countries it is possible and normal for a man to have several women. He owns them, and can discipline them when they don't obey. "They can hit us", is what Offred states about her status as a Handmaid in a Commander's household.
"The Ceremony" describes an act of impersonal sex in the Republic, having the sole aim of producing babies. Offred refrains from calling it 'rape', because she knew what she signed up for when choosing Handmaidhood. Nevertheless, she did not really have a choice, and was forced into sex, although she did not want it. It is rape.
In several places in the world, women are raped, and they do not even make a report, because it is senseless. They will not be believed. If it comes worse on worse, they can even be prosecuted for pre-marital sex. This cows them into remaining silent.
There is no way for a Handmaid to reach justice, as what is being done to her is ordinary and legal. It is necessary.
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children , or else I die.
And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
In the Republic of Gilead the government finds the proof of justice for its activity in religion. The problem the old system faced was an extreme decrease in birth rates. In the Bible, Rachel and Leah face the same problem: Rachel is barren.
The government of the Republic of Gilead chose this biblical story not only as an excuse for its actions but also to bring in the aspect of faith – a phenomenon that has always been present in people's heads.
It is not fictional that religion is the reason for a revolution or a war. The Iraq war after 9/11 had religious causes. It was partly a conflict between Christianity and Islam. And that only as an example.
The feared “Wall”, where the disobedient are hanged, reminds us of famous walls, such as the Great Wall of China, or the Berlin Wall. The Wall is an insurmountable obstacle that does not only keep the citizens inside the Republic, but is also used as an implement of death. In GDR times, the Berlin Wall also meant a border to freedom that could not be crossed.
[The concept of a Chinese Wall is that of establishing a zone of non-communication between distinct sections of a business, in order to prevent possible (and probable) conflict of interest. ]
Throughout our history, suppression of citizens by their government happened several times. The one that is known best is perhaps the governmental system in Nazi Germany during the Third Reich. In "The Handmaid's Tale" Offred compares the Commander with Hitler. She recalls watching a documentary on the concentration camps including an interview with the mistress of a camp's supervisor. The mistress denied knowing about the ovens where the Jews were killed, but as Offred presumed, she did know, but did not say anything.
It is the same with the Republic, where undesirables are eliminated, but in fear of getting punished everyone just ignores it. People are suddenly beaten up in the street and shut into a van, but nobody helps. The most important rule in the Republic of Gilead now is "Pretend not to see, ignore it and keep moving". Without the people following this rule, the government's power would look very different. In fact one can say that the threat of getting picked up by the van is a constant fear factor in the Republic and it keeps the people in order.
The image a Jew was given during the Nazi period was accepted and taken over by the “desirable” characters in the Deutsches Reich. Those were the Aryans, “pure” Germans, who could prove a pure german ancestry . Shops did not allow Jews to enter anymore, they were fired and people avoided talking to them. This exclusion was only the start, the worst were the concentration camps, where Jews and other “undesirables” were sent to work, and eventually to die. It was a final station, with no way of getting out alive.
The pendant to Hitler's concentration camps of WW II is now Gilead's “colonies”. The similarity is clear: A place where the undesirables in the system are sent to work, the remaining life-span is short and eventually the workers will die.
Gilead has also other aspects that makes it so comparable to Hitler's system: the perfection of its citizens. Babies are referred to as “keepers”, “Unbabies” and also “shredders”. They are only “keepers” when perfect, but any single blemish makes the baby a “shredder” that does not deserve the denomination 'baby'. This strict aim for human perfection appears in both our history and in “The Handmaid's Tale”. In Nazi Germany, Hitler aimed for an Aryan society.
Homosexuals are not accepted in either of the systems. Hitler had the homosexuals in the Deutsches Reich eliminated, in the Republic of Gilead they are accused of gender treachery and hanged on the wall as a warning.
But finally, it is the safety for women that is more than present in the Republic.
It seems ridiculous compared to the cruelties that the system bears otherwise. In this system women are safe from any violent act, but their whole life is based on a crime.
Margaret Atwood is a master of allusions and “The Handmaid's Tale” with its reference to reality is not only high literature, but it is also an effective critique on our world today.
We are not only readers, we are witnesses and victims. This is the story of our own world..
Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid's Tale – 2nd Edition London: Vintage U.K. 1996.
Author, Unknown: Wikipedia (Encyclopedia), 23.01.06: “Chinese Wall” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_wall>
Bible, The: Genesis 30:1-3
Cover picture: www.ncf.ca/~ek867/handmaid.tale.jpg
 Quote by Conor Cruise O'Brien from "The listener", "The Handmaid's tale" book cover (Vintage edition 1996)
 Genesis, 30:1-3
 Wikipedia Encyclopedia Definiton of "Chinese Wall" [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_wall]
- Quote paper
- Sophie Wassermann (Author), 2006, "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood - A Handmaid's life - A look into the future?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/110634