Samuel Williams
English 4300
Spring 2002

Feminism In The Handmaid's Tale

Feminism as we know it began in the mid 1960's as the Women's Liberation Movement. Among its chief tenants is the idea of women's empowerment, the idea that women are capable of doing and should be allowed to do anything men can do. Feminists believe that neither sex is naturally superior. They stand behind the idea that women are inherently just as strong and intelligent as the so-called stronger sex. Many writers have taken up the cause of feminism in their work. One of the most well known writers to deal with feminist themes is Margaret Atwood. Her work is clearly influenced by the movement and many literary critics, as well as Atwood herself, have identified her as a feminist writer. However, one of Atwood's most successful books, The Handmaid's Tale, stands in stark contrast to the ideas of feminism. In fact, the female characters in the novel are portrayed in such a way that they directly conflict with the idea of women's empowerment.

On the surface, The Handmaid's Tale appears to be feminist in nature. The point-of-view character and narrator is a woman and thus we see the world through a woman's eyes. There's much more to the story than that, though. Atwood doesn't show us our world. She shows us a newly created world in which women lack the freedoms that they currently take for granted. This dystopian society is completely controlled by men. Of course, the men have help from the Aunts, a crack team of brainwashers that run the reeducation centers and teach the handmaids how to be slaves. These characters really don't speak well for womankind for two reasons. First of all, it's difficult to tell who their real life counterpart is, assuming that this novel is supposed to be a satire. They clearly bear some resemblance to the conservative, Bible-thumping, old maids that love the old way of doing things and constantly rally for a return to family values. The aunts constantly quote the Bible and encourage to women to be genteel and unmasculine. These women are in many ways the antithesis of the feminist. In other ways though, they fall right in line with feminist dogma. Their constant derailment of men and their bitter, hate-filled demeanors make them almost caricatures of hard-line feminists. In fact, they fit quite nicely into the stereotypical way that that anti-feminist men often portray feminists, as bitchy, man-hating lesbians.

Another function of the aunts in the book is to undermine the sense of female camaraderie shown other places in the book. While claiming to hate men, the aunts side with the men, pushing their agenda on the handmaids and treating them as much like objects as the men in the story do. Another group who seems to do this is the wives, most notably, Serena Joy. Instead of siding with the handmaids in their battle against a male-dominated society, the wives treat them with little to no respect and continuously show petty jealousy towards them. In fact, most or all of the women in The Handmaid's Tale are portrayed in this manner. While the handmaids themselves show solidarity on some occasions, they too exhibit petty jealousy and backbiting in other scenes in the book. They also take part in the most shocking scene in the book. The handmaids rip and tear a young man to shreds like lions released on the Christians in a Roman coliseum. Instead of joining together to fight back against oppression, the only time they seem to be almost completely unified is in this one display of blood lust. Each group and even each individual woman in the novel has her own agenda and no one can really be trusted. Surely, this is not the image of women that the feminists would like to portray.

Feminists themselves are most clearly represented in the novel by the characters of Moira and Offred's mother. The narrator's mother provides a picture of the 60's era women's libber while Moira represents a modern, lesbian feminist. At first, these characters seem to be the strongest of the novel and portray feminism in a flattering light. Offred speaks highly of her mother. She tells of her mother's rallies and pickets, but also shows her softer side. Although never married herself, Offred's mother is able to accept Luke and trade barbs with him without taking offense. She seems to have raised Offred well and by all accounts appears to be caring and nurturing. The character of Moira has slightly more of an edge. She's tough, determined, and seemingly as capable as any man. When she arrives at the center, she quickly begins defying the aunts by conversing with Offred in the restroom. Eventually, she escapes the center using a piece of a toilet to kidnap an aunt and then stealing the aunt's clothes for a disguise. With this, Offred is left wondering what has become of Moira, hoping that somehow she managed to escape into another country or at least strike some great blow against their captors. It's not until late in the novel that the reader finally finds out what became of Moira. First, Atwood lets the reader in on where Offred's mother ended up. Offred discovers that her mother was labeled an unwoman and watches with sadness as the former radical cleans up toxic waste, a broken, dying woman. Moira has a somewhat less gruesome ending, but one that is no less tragic. Offred meets up with her at a secret club for high-ranking officials. Moira has become a prostitute, dressed in a degrading mock Playboy bunny costume and sleeping with decrepit old men in exchange for a tiny slice of freedom in cigarettes and lesbian sex with her fellow whores. The proud, self-assured feminist has become the antithesis of all she once stood for. By recounting these fictional events and several others in close succession, Atwood systematically destroys all of the hopes of the female sex in the novel. The two strongest female characters falter under the pressure of the dominant males. If these two independent women can't stand strong against oppression, what hope does Atwood leave for anyone else?

Obviously, the novel hinges on Offred. The Handmaids Tale is told through her eyes and she is the most developed of all the characters in it. Atwood allows the reader to go inside the mind of a woman and see just what thoughts populate her existence. Offred represents a sort of everywoman in a lot of ways. She's not extremely strong or confident, but she's not overly weak either. Atwood seems to be saying in the novel that Offred is reacting the same way as any woman would to the situations she encounters. Sadly for the feminist, these reactions aren't always flattering. Throughout the novel, Offred speaks of her love for Luke and of how she misses him. While she may have been overly dependent on him during their marriage, not many feminists could complain about her missing her husband. It's her interactions with the other men of the novel, that are much more damning. About midway through the novel, Offred begins a different kind of relationship with her commander, the man who owns her. She begins to see him in his office. Their meetings are almost like dates, and Offred lets her guard down slightly. The commander becomes a sort of father figure for her. She uses him and lets him use her, but also begins to develop a slight affection for him. Through the commander, she meets Nick, a young guard assigned to the house. Offred manages to begin seeing him regularly as well. Nick and Offred make love, which satisfies her libido, but there's much more to their relationship than sex. Offred starts to tell Nick things. She talks to him for hours each night that they're together while he just lies beside her and listens. Like Luke and, to some extent, the commander before him, Nick makes Offred feel safe and protected. She clings to Nick and lets him fill the void that Luke can no longer fill. Atwood could have chosen to create Offred as an independent being, but instead she chose to shape her into a woman who needs men. On her own, Offred seems lost, but once she has that strong male figure to hold her and tell her that everything will be alright, she is much more content. One would be hard pressed to find a feminist that would admit to such utter dependence on the opposite sex.

Though many feminists would like to claim Atwood as one of their own, her writing is ultimately quite different than that of the purely feminist writers. It's obvious that Atwood intentionally set herself apart from these writers with The Handmaid's Tale. At times, she seems to disagree with them completely, such as when she shows pornography in a favorable manner. At other times, she portrays feminists themselves as the powerful women they would like to be seen as, but it's always with full disclosure of their human frailty. Atwood never bashes feminism. Instead, she shows both sides of it. Like everything else in the novel, feminism is shown to have good and bad elements. Even in Atwood's brave new world, there is no black and white.


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Copyright © 2002 by Sam Williams.  All rights reserved.