Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Handmaid's tale: A Feminist's Warning Against the Oppression of women

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The Handmaids Tale A Feminists Warning Against the Oppression of Women


Elegant, robust, and picturesque, these characteristics aptly describe the body of a peacock. It is with this magnificent figure that the peacock asserts his authority over others of his species and ultimately finds his mate. Unfortunately, man tries to steal the feathers of the peacock and market them to further his own ends. Women, like the peacock, have a body full of beauty and grace, and like the peacock, a woman possesses an immense amount of potential power in the way she uses her body. It is when society tries to repress or destroy this power and strength that a woman loses her essence and freedom. In The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood, a famous Canadian feminist, reveals the theme of freedom and strength for women, despite a society that views them as less than second-class citizens, through bodily symbolism and imagery.


As with all dystopian novels, The Handmaids Tale holds its basis in the events that occurred at the time of its publication. Atwood views the novel as a logical extension of where [the society] was [in the 180s] by projecting into the future a number of things [society has] already done (Atwood, Margaret. Interview NP). Following the sweeping civil rights movements of the 160s and 170s, the 180s began to see a backlash against the feminist movement and its motives. With the emergence of right-wing extremist groups, such as the New Right, and fundamental evangelists, like Jerry Fallwell, a zeal for religion resurfaced, which the society began to embrace (The Handmaids Tale 16). These groups saw the rise in divorces and single parent


families as negative examples of the feminist movement, calling for a return to the traditional family values and gender roles (The Handmaids Tale 17). To many feminists, who spent their lives in pursuit of equal rights, these comments were a slap in the face, especially when they came from the mouths of the very women whom they fought to protect. Despite the outcries, feminists accomplished a lot in their plight during the 180s, including the right of a woman to seek an abortion and have control over her own body, the emergence of rape counseling centers, and the ability to hold a job that was equal to that of a man (The Handmaids Tale 141). Thus, Atwood wrote The Handmaids Tale in response to critics of the feminist movement to show how things might be if society stripped women of these new freedoms.


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One way in which Atwood conveys her message of the oppression of women in the Gilead Republic is through the use of symbolism that relates to a womans body. In the Republic, the society only values a woman for her fertility. This is the only type of possession that a woman may have because in every other way she belongs to her husband or Commander. Since fertility is the focus of life and the sole purpose for womankind, it is logical that this is the most important way for the government to control individuals. As Offred explains, [Women] are two-legged wombs, [that is] all sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices (Atwood 16). This symbolic representation of women is important to the theme of the novel because it reveals the plight of women. A woman is no longer able to be anything more than a reproductive machine, and that is exactly what the government wants, a quick, efficient way to restock the population with as little fuss as possible. This view of women is an important defining characteristic that flows throughout the book and underlies most of the other symbolism and imagery.


The imagery Atwood employs in describing the clothing of the handmaids is particularly vivid and important. No longer able to even pick out their own clothing, handmaids must adorn themselves in the customary dress in which everything except the wings around [the handmaids] face is red the color of blood, which defines [them] (Atwood 8). The color red is especially important to the dress of a handmaid because, as Offred states, it is the color of blood, symbolizing sinfulness and fertility. To every Commanders wife, a handmaid is dirty and sinful because she takes away the most intimate relationship between a husband and wife (Atwood 115). Due to this fact, the government tries to appease the wives by allowing them free reign to discipline the handmaids as they see fit; therefore, the sinful nature of the clothing and life that handmaids must deal with is one of the main ways in which the government and wives oppress the handmaids. Also, the color of the handmaids garments is symbolic of the way in which a womans body oppresses her. The red shows the womans fertility and the way that a womans reproductive system rules her life because it evokes images of a womans menstrual cycle. If a woman cannot conceive, then there is nothing that she can do but become an Unwoman, a sterile woman who must live out her life in the Colonies amidst toxic waste (Atwood 61). Therefore, the red color that covers a handmaids body is symbolic of the oppression she feels due to the government, other wives, and her own reproductive system.


One of the most important aspects of a womans fertility is her ovaries. It is therefore logical that ovaries are a major form of symbolism throughout The Handmaids Tale. In the novel, there is a common motif of ovals; everything from the mirror over themantel to a pregnant womans stomach is in the shape of an oval (Ketterer ). Offred describes the mirror over the mantel as round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a fish, and [Offred] in it like a distorted shadow (Atwood ). This imagery of the mirror as a bulging oval parallels the figure of a pregnant womans body, which swells triumphantly(Atwood 6). The connection between these two objects is important in that it extends the view of the oval in a reproductive context. The fact that the mirror changes the way Offred looks, and therefore the way the world sees her, reveals how this emphasis on a womans ovaries controls who the woman is in society. The symbolic connotation of the oval as a way of portraying cycles extends not only to the obvious menstrual cycle but also to the cycle of life and death. If a woman cannot get pregnant then she, in essence, dies because she must live in the toxic Colonies (Atwood 61). Therefore, the distorted reflection of Offred in an oval mirror seems to mock the fact that although she may possess viable ovaries, she is unable to conceive. Thus, fertility relates to death because even for women who become pregnant life is not a sure thing due to the fact that the baby may be an Unbaby, a baby which has fatal defects (Atwood 11). In those instances, the promise of life through the birth of a child harbors inside of it a looming certainty of death for both the mother and child. Through the reoccurring presence of the oval, one can see the importance of the viable ovaries and the life cycles, of both birth and death and a womans reproductive cycle (Ketterer 4).


Imagery and symbolism that involves a mans anatomy is just as pertinent in conveying the oppression of women in the Gilead Regime as is the symbolism of a womans body. One of the most important symbols for illustrating the differences and oppression that exists between men and women is the pen. During one of her secret meetings with the Commander, the Commander allows Offred to hold a pen, which causes Offred to think pen is envy…just holding it is envy. [Offred envies] the Commanders pen. It is one more thing [she wants] to steal (Atwood 186). On the most basic level this desire for a pen reflects the oppression women endure by not being able to read or write. The society keeps women inferior to men by instilling ignorance in them by denying them the right to the same educational devices as men. On a deeper level, one sees a subliminal message in the motto, Pen is envy, which the Aunts at the training centers teach the handmaids. Through this pun on the Freudian theory of penis envy, one clearly sees that the desire Offred has for a pen not only reflects her desire for an education equal to that of a man, but she also desires a penis, the only thing that gives a person in the Gilead Regime true supremacy (Brians NP).


Although the male anatomy is a way in which the society oppresses women, Offred is also able to express her strength and power by objectifying the very parts of a mans body that control her the most. The way that Offred obtains this power is through viewing the man as a purely sexual machine. This mirrors the way the society treats Offred for [she] too [is] disembodied because the society only sees her reproductive system (Atwood 104). Offred mimics this unfair representation of a person in her encounters with the Commander when she sees him merely in terms of his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate, stalked slugs eye, which extrudes, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly (Atwood 88). As this imagery reveals, Offred refuses to recognize the man behind the act, but she only sees his penis, which she further degrades by seeing it as a lowly animal. In Offreds eyes, all the control that the Commander possesses momentarily disappears because he is now just a piece of flesh, a mindless animal, that she can influence and shape just by moving or touching him differently. Clearly, the disembodiment of a person and the view of the human body as only flesh creates a harsh setting that allows Offred to see men as mere animals, which thus allows her to gain power over them (Rubenstein 0).


Through bodily imagery and symbolism Margaret Atwood reveals the theme of strength for women in an extremely oppressive society. Although the society of the Gilead Regime completely controls and objectifies handmaids, it is through small victories and subtle shifts in who controls the power that allows handmaids, like Offred, to preserve their strength. Just like a peacock, the power that the handmaids obtain results from the use of the beauty and grace in their natural bodies. The Handmaids Tale speaks to societys need to preserve and protect women from losing control over the power they possess in their figures. The predictions Atwood makes are truly chilling, and they contain a warning against the continuation of societys current views and ideals.





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