Is the Handmaid’s Tale An Optimistic Novel?

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is set in the futuristic republic of Gilead. Everybody has somebody controlling what they do and only a minority have control over other people. In the first chapter alone we learn of the system of control within the Handmaids’ residence. There are the angels, who are responsible for the Aunts, who have responsibility for the handmaids, i. e. the narrator. This system has the sole purpose, reproduction: “we are for breeding purposes… There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts…
We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices. ” The narrator of takes on a role based on the Biblical story of Jacob’s wives; when they failed to conceive, he fathered children by their handmaids. In a world in which the fertility of both sexes has dropped dramatically, it is the role for which young women who have demonstrated their ability to bear children are destined, rather to the chagrin of the Wives who have to house them.
For this regime to function effectively it is important that a high level of control is exerted and more essentially, that the people within the regime understand there purpose. They are not there to build relationships, they are there for reproduction and any other aspect of life is irrelevant. Ironically the regime is developed for sex yet any attributes you would normally apply to a sexual relationship have been removed. There is no conversation, no intimacy, no pleasure or appreciation of yourself or your partner; in fact there is no relationship with your partner or anyone else.

Physical contact must be kept to what is necessary and the act of sex itself is simply necessary for reproduction. For the regime to work there can be no feelings. To prevent feelings developing within people towards others Gilead works to remove anything that makes the person unique, this is why the regime has been described as “soulless” as by taking away peoples’ personalities you are practically taking away their soul. This is similar to the system in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” where the concept of love has been destroyed.
The idea of falling in love with someone has been made almost impossible, as there is no opportunity for this to happen, everybody been made as soulless as possible. There must be no character, individuality or expression of self to avoid people getting into any form of relationship. The women are literally branded with numbers a code that ties them to the regime. They are made to wear uniforms (in describing the uniforms Atwood appears to me making a link to the similarity to the German and Canadian prisoners of war uniforms from World War Two) and are renamed in attempt to completely depersonalise them.
They are treated as cattle, as a group with no thought of their own. This leaves the reader questioning their interpretation of the narrator, we sometimes see her as an individual taking minor rebellion against the regime, and yet at other times we see her as one of many that are all in the same helpless situation. The high level of control they hold over their people enhances Gilead’s destructive manner. Even the narrator’s name “Offred” has been composed by the regime.
The novel explains this unusual noun as being a word “that is composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the name of the gentlemen in question. ” However most readers pick up on the play on the word “offered” she is offered around the gentlemen in society. No individual or group is strong enough to overthrow the regime and this is the focal point of the regime’s strength. They can enforce and law no matter how unjust because there is no one strong enough to oppose it.
However at no point is the reader led to believe that the narrator has given up hope and that there is no purpose for her anymore. This is of a conscious effort by Atwood to create a positive perspective of the situation through her narrative technique, imagery and by surrounding the character with situations where they could potentially rebel. The harsh regime of Gilead is emphasised by Atwood offering the reader a comparison of the narrator’s current situation and her previous one, it has been suggested that this is Atwood supporting the theory that fear causes regression, not progression.
These comparisons are possible because of the flashback technique that occurs throughout the novel. For example, Offred contrasts the way she used to think about her body to the way she thinks about it now: ‘I used to thin of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplish of my will … now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.
Where as in the story, Offred uses the flashbacks as a way of escaping, a more practical level Atwood uses them to reveal to the reader the reasons behind the current situation and how the novel possibly relates to our lives. One critic commented, “1the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition”. The reader is very aware that Offred once lived a life similar to their own, this heightens their compassion towards the handmaid’s and in some ways the novel acts as a warning, for what could potentially occur in our own future.
By allowing us to see Offred’s past and compare it with the life she has been forced to live now it is obvious how much destruction the regime has caused. For the novel to progress it is essential Atwood creates optimism, because Offred herself has to say positive in order to cope with the situations, she cannot give up therefore Atwood cannot let the reader think she has given up. Minor acts of rebellion are ways of showing the reader that the system has flaws, there is a gap and if Offered works hard enough she can get through the gaps in the system.
For example, no communication is meant to happen between the handmaids and yet Offred and Moira find a way of talking through a hole in the wall, which poses as a hole in the system. However, Atwood creates the feeling of empowerment and hope through these rebellions but she never goes as far as to say there definitely is hope. It is possible that Offred is aware than any act of rebellion is simply a coping tactic and the regime will not fall, she will leave eventually and the regime will go on unshaken.
Offred’s relationship with the commander acts as “something else to think about”, as the reader we do not dwell on the state of the society as we are now concerned with the relationship Offred is forming, of course this is due to the narrative style of the novel, we are guided towards thinking about Offred and the commander because that is what Offred is thinking about and we are reading her thoughts, in the form of a dialogue to her audience.
However it is ambiguous as the whether the commander forms an attachment with many of his handmaids, so Offred’s relationship with Nick is far more pivotal to her story as it is as close as she could have to the sort of relationship she could have formed before the regime, the sort that she had with her husband Luke. The risk she eventually takes with him we know could be the end of her but at the time it’s a chance for a better standard of life, of course again this could be perceived as Offred falling under the control of Gilead’s regime by going out of her way to have a child and conforming to their rules.
Gilead’s destructive power is emphasised by showing the extremes it will force people to go to, to succumb to their demands. An essential part to the regime is the fact that everyone is a victim; everybody has had to sacrifice something and give up part of their old life. Even those that still have a small amount of control have given up more than they have gained. Serena Joy is portrayed as a malicious character by Offred, yet she has lost her relationship with her husband, she has no contact with anyone and has to live in a regime that has her husband sleeping with many different women.
Atwood uses process and reconstruction when writing and the reader is often reminded that “truth” is only a matter of the teller’s perspective. If the reader is never sure of the true details then they are allowed to picture the worst possible situations, and the best. Time shifts and short scenes add to the ambiguity of the story and the reader may question how factually based the story actually is and how true to life Offred’s description of other characters are.
Moira is a classic example, it could be she was never as strong or rebellious as Offred claimed she was, she was maybe a role model for Offred and her character was exaggerated because Offred need her role model to be strong. However it is not only the reader that is unsure of the truth, Offred has very little facts at her disposal. The only time the handmaid’s are educated is when they are listening to the Bible being read or watching the “news. ” In the same way the Ministry of Truth created the news in George Orwell’s “1984” there is suggestion the news the handmaids are shown is fabricated.
By acknowledging this fact Offred has rebelled against the regime. However she also accepts that “any news is better than none” and she simply has to believe the news because there is nothing else to go by. It is the only source of knowledge. Gilead’s controls are so tight she is forced to believe what she hears. This too is similar to “1984” and the concept created by George Orwell of doublethink which is to acknowledge two conflicting truths at once. Offred accepts the news is probably false and yet she also believes it is true because she has to.
This is similar to the relationship between the reader and the narrator; we accept that what here cannot be entirely true yet we have to believe it. Offred herself does not know what has happened to her daughter or her husband therefore she is able to cling on to the hope that they are alive, as it has not been confirmed otherwise. The reader does the same with Offred’s existence at the end of the novel, we hope she is alive and the ambiguity of the ending allows us to do so. Quite often in the novel Atwood creates a sense of hope later to take it away again, or create optimism with an underlying tone of doubt.
When Offred discovers the note in the cupboard “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” she is filled with hope, reading it as a message left for her by the last person that lived here, she is reading which she is not allowed to do as language has been abolished and this all adds to the positive feeling of going against the regime.
However Offred then builds up the message to by more significant than it is and is let down when the commander translates it as “don’t let the bastards grind you down. At the end, we discover that Offred’s story was not founding the form of a manuscript but as a recording on a cassette player. This is confusing for the reader as the strict structure of the regime would not have made it possible to have access to a cassette player. One suggestion is that Offred did escape and managed to record her story at a later point. However even if Offred had been writing this would have been a constant form of rebellion, as language had been abolished.
It has been suggested that Offred’s storytelling is an act of resistance to Gilead, just as her tale itself is an act of resistance to masculinist fiction conventions, including that archetypal patriarchal text, the Old Testament. In many ways the historical notes are more essential to the meaning of the novel than Offred’s story. On a positive note, the historical notes assure the reader that the regime of Gilead was overthrown and society returned to normal, Offred’s story has been found in the form of cassette recordings, this suggests she did escaped and managed to get her writing on to tape.
However, Offred’s story is found but it is not heard or understood. Male historians have tried to impose their perception of it on to it and created a title for it. The regime has apparently not changed their sexist attitudes, history has taught them nothing. The professors are abusing Offred as Gilead did by removing her authority from the telling of her own story, they seem more worried at the fact there is nothing more about the Commander and his true identity. Ironically he does just what Offred predicts would happen to the story of the Handmaid’s “from the point of view of future history, we’ll be invisible. The modern day historians have depersonailised her just as much as the regime did by taking away her voice and forcing reader is brought into a second vision of the future and is forced to judge what they have just read.
Atwood’s historical notes satirise American society as it stands today, where as Gilead is based on an international range of models, which include not only historical examples but contemporary political carnage in Iran, Latin America and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan. Denay Nunavit” (deny none of it) seems to be Atwood’s message out of the past to the future, giving the reader a sense of shared moral responsibility for our own futures. This is effective as the pre Gilead society is very similar to our own society today. The novel was first published in 1986 “the age of the R – strain syphilis and Aids epidemic” Aids had just being brought to the publics attention and there was a massive campaign to prevent it’s spread.
A second reason we are given for the need of a society such as Gilead was “various nuclear power plant accidents… hemical and biological warfare, stock piles and toxic waste disposal sites” all readers will recognise these issues and can map them on to real life incidents such as Chernobyl. Similarly to “1984,” Atwood’s novel seems to be an extension of real fears her audience would have had. This was noted by one reader who commented that: “what is especially meaningful is the fact that the book was published in the 80’s, long before many of the concepts were as relevant as they are now. 2 Ironically once the regime has been abolished there is no longer the optimistic tone in Atwood’s writing, suggesting that even though Gilead was destructive, the intention of the society was good and there was room for hope, however we can now see that life after Gilead reverted to pre Gilead ways and there has been no progression, development of understanding and this is a far more negative situation to be faced because it suggests man will never learn.

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