I just recently finished my re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale. As always, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. As Marcie says at Buried in Print, “For readers who read primarily for entertainment: this is a page-turner. And for readers who read primarily for information: the story being based on real-life events, invites historians and social scientists to recognize the author’s recreations and allusions. For writers: there are plenty of layers to consider (structure, characterization, language, themes, threading). These different access points are one of the reasons that I believe this book has endured.”
What interested me most about this particular re-read was knowing that my daughter had been the last one to read the book – her page markers still in place for me to examine and think about what she chose to mark and why.
And then I had the brilliant idea to share with you what she had to say about The Handmaid’s Tale. Why would you want to hear from me when you could hear from a 17-year-old high school student who has just read it for the first time?
(One thing she would want you to keep in mind is that this essay was written quickly as an in-class assignment.)
Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a society created to fix problems such as rape and how men didn’t feel love anymore. Throughout the novel, the author’s opinion on contemporary society and her own regime are clear. This essay will discuss how Atwood addresses problems with our society through Gilead, including the topics of blame, gender roles, and privilege.
When Gilead was first created, all the women were sent to the Red Centre with the Aunts to be ‘reformed’ to the new regime. There is a scene in which Janine, a recurring character in the
novel, tells the story of her rape during Testifying. Offred explains that it’s better to make things up during this activity than to say you have nothing to reveal, showing that the government wants to put an emphasis on past problems to remind people how they are finding solutions to such things. During this ceremony, the Aunt demands to know whose fault it is that Janine was raped, and all the women must chant, “Her fault, her fault, her fault.” (p. 67) This is still a problem in today’s society as well. Girls and women are getting blamed for being raped because of the clothes they were wearing and the way they were acting. Rapists defend themselves by saying ridiculous things like “She didn’t say no,” or, “She was asking for it.” The blame is placed on the women of the society for many other things as well, such as the inability to become pregnant, therefore enforcing the opinion that women are less important than men.
Everyone in Gilead has a role, a job to fulfill. The women are sorted by fertility, the men by age. There are labels applied to everyone; the women are Unwomen, Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives, and Wives, each with a different status in the society. The Wives are highest up the rank, having limited freedom, and the Unwomen are the lowest, cleaning up the aftermath of the war in the Colonies. Men are categorized as Guardians, Angels, Eyes, and Commanders, and have more freedom than the women, the Commanders especially, being the top ranking in the whole regime.
In today’s world, activists are trying to get rid of labels and have many people involved in feminism. Atwood uses characters like Moira and Offred’s mother to promote feminism and her own views. They’re both involved in women’s rights marches and feminist activities and Moira especially demonstrates how desperate she is to be free from the regime. Women in the society are pushed down, given one job to do, and have no more importance than that, and men
are stereotyped as wanting only one thing from women. Handmaids, for example, are killed if they cannot bear children: “Give me children, or else I die.” (p. 57)
Because men have the higher ranking in Gilead, it was a man who fired all the women at Offred’s former job, and all the Eyes that appear in the story are men, the reader can assume that the regime was created mostly by men. Atwood demonstrates how men like having this privilege over women in several instances. The Commander can be used as an example. During one of his conversations with Offred, he explains how men didn’t feel anything anymore before the society. Now, because of the regime, they do feel. He understands that it isn’t the best solution, but “Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.” (p. 198) In saying this, he throws away Offred’s concerns like they are of no real importance. This shows that he doesn’t really care about the womens’ problems. Another example is Luke after Offred lost her job and her money. When Offred talked to Luke about what happened, he was patronizing, not angry, as he should have been. “He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.” (p. 171)
This is a huge problem in today’s society as well. Men, white people, straight people; a lot of them like having the privilege that comes with being seen as ‘normal’. Some also believe the ridiculous idea that giving more rights to minorities will take away rights from majorities. This is a big reason as to why discrimination is still happening, and by making this evident in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has made it clear that she believes Gilead creates more problems than it solves.
In conclusion, Atwood has succeeded in making her own views on these social problems known by creating a regime that is entirely anti-feminist. She uses Moira and Offred’s mother as feminist characters to appeal to her point of view on matters such as victim blaming, the roles of women, and male privilege. The novel inspires new ideas from its readers and encourages them to see the problems women face in contemporary society.
I wonder what my daughter will pick up from this book the next time she reads it? Did you read it as a teen?