The Handmaids Tale
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a post Cold War society plagued by infertility. Atwood presents the reader with “The Republic of Gilead”, the Christian theocracy that overthrew the United States government. Narrated by a woman renamed Offred, the reader gets an idea of a future in which women are no longer women, but are solely needed for reproduction. Atwood uses a system of vocabulary established under the Republic of Gilead in order to manipulate and dehumanize women and men throughout the text. Under this new society women are efined under their gender roles.
No longer are women allowed to hold Jobs, make an income, or have control over their body. Men on the other hand are referred to by their military rank. Women are then placed into the group in which the Republic of Gilead finds fitting. Some sent off to reproduce children, others to work and wait for a slow cruel death. Offred is what the Republic of Gilead labels a handmaid. A handmaid’s sole purpose is to produce a child for elite families of the Republic. Handmaids are stripped from their own clothes and are forced to wear all red.
A floor length dress that gives the handmaid no shape, red shoes, and red gloves. The color red is extremely symbolic towards their position in society. The red clothing could be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Red is the color of a women’s menstrual blood. Therefore the wearing of red deems the handmaids one of the few fertile women among society. However, in history red has been a marker of sexual sin. The handmaids are essentially having sex with married men. All handmaids are immediately stripped of their birth name and put under possession of the commander.
Offred receives this name because her commander’s name is Fred, and she is “of” Fred. This is the Republic of Gilead’s way of literally dehumanizing and stripping the handmaid’s from any personalization. I looked up the definition of the word “handmaiden”, and it is defined as such, “A handmaiden is a personal maid, female servant, or a subordinate thing”. Under this new society, these women who are able to produce life, are literally referred to as “things” and “possessions”. In the beginning of this new society handmaidens arrive at a place called “the red center”.
It is here they learn to be trained by what the Republic of Gilead labels “Aunts”. Aunts attempt to promote the handmaid’s as an honorable Job and position in society. The term “aunt” is appropriately used and applied by Atwood throughout the novel. Their Job is to train, reform and advise handmaids in order to prepare them for their new life. One activity the aunt’s used in attempt to brainwash and manipulate the handmaid’s was “testifying”. It was during this time handmaid’s told their apparent “faults” from their previous lives and was then taunted for it.
Offred tells one handmaid’s story from “testifying as such, “It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion”. The other handmaids chant in unison claiming it is “her fault, her fault, her fault”. Offred explains how during the last time Janine told the story she burst into tears. However, during this weeks testifying she immediately takes responsibility tor being raped claiming, “It was my tault It was my own fault, I led them on”. The aunt’s have completed their Job by manipulating the handmaids into believing that a rape was wanted.
Upon entering a commander’s home there are no longer aunts, but “Marthas”. The Handmaid’s Tale is laced with biblical references throughout the entire novel. Atwood’s use of the name “Martha” comes directly from a story in Luke 10:38-42 in which Jesus goes to visit his mother Mary and Martha. While Mary sits and listens to Jesus speak, Martha is too busy with all of the duties she had to accomplish. This is exactly what the Martha’s are seen doing while working in the commander’s home. The Marthas, Cora and Rita, are to fulfill all domestic roles in the house, exactly like
Martha had done in the bible. While Marthas take care of the house, the commander’s wives are not expected to do the same. Wives are superior to all women, and it is made clear to Offred right away. However, while living in the commander’s home it is apparent that even though the handmaidens are forced into a situation unwanted, so have the wives. Wives are to lay with the handmaiden while the commander has sex with the handmaiden. Labeled as, “the ceremony’, this event is emotionally scarring towards both females in the situation.
After one of the ceremonies Offred even wonders, Which of us is it worse for, her or me”. The act of the “ceremony’ directly shows how the Republic of Gilead has dehumanized both low ranking and high-ranking women. Sex is no longer performed for love and passion, but only to produce a child. On one hand, Offred has no say over her body and what is happening to her. Offred even states, “It’s only the inside of our bodies that is important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled for all they care”. On the other hand, the commander’s wife, Serena Joy, has to lie there while her husband has sex with another woman.
While dealing with those struggles seem unfair and unjust, other women are worse off. Deformed babies, sterile women and former feminists are not even given a chance in this society. Denoted with the labels of “unwomen” and “unbabies”, they are sent to “the colonies”. The colonies are places in which agriculture is produced and also a place of deadly radiation and pollution. The Republic of Gilead immediately sends them there because they have no use for them in their supreme society. The Republic of Gilead does not only oppress women, but men too.
Offred’s ormer friend Moira explained to her in detail the colonies, “All of them wear long dresses like the ones at the Center, only gray. Women and the men too, Judging from the group shots. I guess it’s supposed to demoralize the men having to wear a dress”. Under this society, if you do not fit their standards, you are deemed unnecessary. Atwood also uses certain vocabulary to define certain religious rituals that take place throughout the novel. “Praywaganzas,” “Salvagings,” and “Particicutions” are a few of the rituals used to manipulate handmaidens into practicing the societies beliefs.