“The Handmaid’s Tale” Book Review

Relationships between men and women and their positions in the society used to be a great controversy for a long period of time already. Even if nowadays it seems to be solved and the position of women is defined in the society, still this assumption could be too superficial. The 21st century could be characterized by development of innovative technologies and significant achievements in scientific sphere and science had the potential to become the frontier for the women’s movement. Humans currently are to face the challenges of climate change, digital revolution and such situation could provide both new opportunities for women for self-realization, as well as become even more risky. Although there is a plenty of new opportunities for females in modern society, which could become the path towards their equality with men, which was so much desired centuries ago, women are still in dangerous and instable situation, as they are forced to balance between their actual competition with men in various life spheres and their natural duties of family keepers. “Women are expected to give birth, cook, clean, take care of the children, and earn a living. In fact, there are about 85 million mothers in America, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate and about 71% of these women are working mothers.” (Fuller 2018). It seems that women’s freedoms and rights are not restricted any more and they are free to make their conscious choices. Margaret Atwood – a well-known writer – still reveals her doubts regarding the seeming safety of women in the modern world. In her famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood explored the theme of gender relations and position of women, motivating them not to forget about the historical precedents of women oppression and the potential threat of repeating them. Atwood describes conservative religious movement, which forced women refuse from their rights and freedoms. The author describes the pre-Gilead society, associating it with the society in America at the moment of publication of the novel. In that society the main protagonist of the story –Offred – was not deprived of her rights and independence, she had the same rights as her husband and it seemed that the society was well-balanced in relation to gender issues. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a profound exploration of the social norms and rules and their role for defining of the gender relationship in an imaginary society with direct reflections to modern society in America.

Margaret Atwood is known for her feminist position, still lacking any narrow-mindness. In her novel she raises a lot of important questions, related to the gender problems, without offering ways to assert her views. The protagonist of the novel  – Offred  – states: “if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a woman-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away.” (Atwood 1998). Women are the major victims in the society, living in the Republic of Gilead. Irrespective of some exaggerations in her narration, the author aims at attracting attention to the examples of inequality and abuse, faced by women during various time periods in different corners of the world. In the society of Gilead female subjection is intensified to its maximal level, but this exaggeration is not just a literary position. Handmaids in the novel are deprived even of their identity, as they are not allowed to take their own names; instead they are to use the names, showing their belonging to men, who actually have the authorities of their masters officially. In order to intensify the image of an “ideal” Gilead woman, the author introduces the character of Moira. Moira is a lesbian and her dressing style, her language and her sexual orientation are the opposites of all the characteristics, which are expected to be possessed by Gilead women.

The connection between morality and religion is generally accepted, but in case of the society of Gilead it is seriously transformed. The rulers of Gilead claim that they aim at establishment of theocracy on the basis of biblical laws and decrees, still it is evident that they have different motivations for their actions. They aim at seizing control over the society, without having to subject to the set rules themselves. The brightest example is the Commander, who is not allowed to develop any kind of personal relationship with Offred, apart of the assigned procedure. But he still meets her in private room, where his wife is not allowed to enter. The Commander visits a nightclub, where women serve the representatives of the governmental elite. These women are punished for their attempts to rebel against the prescribed roles in their society, but this punishment is again organized in favor for men.

The setting of the story is important for revealing of the main themes, discussed by the author. The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a city, which was previously a part of the United States and not is known as the Republic of Gilead. This is a kind of alternative state of the future, where the power is centered in the hands of the totalitarian government. One the surface not much has changed in the city, but in reality both the society and the government are absolutely different. Gilead is the place, where the freedom or choice, of individuality and self-realization is buried under the cover of many-layered social and religious limitations. Gilead is not simply a place to live in, instead it is artificially made a part of the psyche of each citizen of it, the narrator is programmed at the Women’s Center: “The Republic of Gilead, said Aunt Lydia, knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.” (Atwood 1998). The setting is described by the narrator in the following way: “The lawns are tidy, the façades are gracious, in good repair; they’re like the beautiful pictures they used to print in the magazines about homes and gardens and interior decoration. There is the same absence of people, the same air of being asleep. The street is almost like a museum, or a street in a model town constructed to show the way people used to live.” (Atwood 1998). An important point about the setting of the novel is the fact of absence of children. They are met really seldom during the narration, although all adults aim at creating them. Children are viewed as a kind of precious commodity in Gilead, the overreaching goal of all people there is to produce children. (Mazzeno 2010). On the one hand it is absolutely natural to strive towards creating of a new generation, but this idea is very much exaggerated by the author, as the birth mothers are forced to produce children, otherwise they will be sentenced to death. The problem is that they are not allowed to keep their children, and this could be seen as the reflection of the society, where the role of women is too much restricted to her biological function of getting married and having children. Hattori (1999) writes about the actual situation in Japan, where women are also expected to get married and have children, otherwise they are considered to be strange and not corresponding to the socially accepted norms. This is not that oppressive as in The Handmaid’s Tale, still such treatment of women could also be seen as a form of deprival of freedom and right to choose. In modern America pregnant women are also put in the environment of constant control. They are monitored by self-designated or official experts and they are forced to subdue to certain behavioral norms. (Wetterberg 2004).

Margaret Atwood describes that society, where men seem to have the complete power, as they could perform any functions. At the same time she shows that such rigid hierarchical order and control restrict their personal freedoms as well. This idea is unexpected but logical, as it is not possible to establish such order in the society that only one category of people would suffer and the rest would be happy and free. Women are certainly more victimized in the Gilead society in comparison to men. Their overall existence in the society is limited to their strict and regulated fulfillment of their gender roles and functions. Biologically women have the role of having children. In addition they are forced to serve men as wives and household servants. The roles of women in the Gilead society are explained in the following passage: “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can.”  (Atwood 1998). In order to make this subdivision even more vivid, the women were to wear clothes of certain color. Using the set colors in clothing for women is another attempt of the writer to underline the fact that any kind of individuality was strictly oppressed. The strong point of the novel and Atwood’s presentation of women is that she does not simple show women as victims of the social order. Instead she does her best to make the readers feel the complexity of real social relations. There are a lot of women in Gilead, who actually support the regime and contribute to keeping other women in order. For example Wives control Handmaids or the women, called Aunts, control the discipline of other women, as they are assigned with the positions of the female government officials. This is a subtle, but strong argumentation for the position of the author, that women have actually traditionally contributed themselves towards enforcing of the rules of patriarchal societies. The novel refers neither to the past nor to the future directly, instead it underlines the need of the overall social for change and transformation of the males’ and females’ perceptions of the social order and the position of women in society, as equally important conditions for change.

The change of role of women in the society is shown by the author with the help of the topic of women and careers. Before the Republic of Gilead was established a lot of women had their careers and jobs, and then they are dismissed on the basis of the new order. All the female employees are informed by the chiefs that they are to leave their positions purely on the basis that they are women and they are no longer allowed to have bank accounts or any property. The complete control over their lives, their finance, their health and other things is passed to males. Offred realized the serious change in her relationship even with her close person Luke: “We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.” (Atwood 1998). During the visit to Jezebel’s the Commander told Offred about women there: “That one was a lawyer, that one was in business…” (Atwood 1998). Career and profession is a form of self-realization for any individual, irrespective of gender. A person obtains his financial security and freedom and is able to find his or her place in the society, when choosing a career and working, performing some job duties. Women in Gilead were deprived of their right to choose, to develop, to work and to become independent. Irrespective of the fact that there are numerous feminist movements across Western societies, still women in the modern world are less likely to be promoted at Universities in comparison to their male colleagues and are not able to get their job places in the first place. (Savigny 2014).

The society, which is described in The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, seems to reveal the author’s concerns regarding oppression of women, however later it becomes evident that the author underlined the menace for any category of people, any group of the society in case the whole society is subject to follow strict and one-sided rules. Men seem to have much more power and freedom in Gilead, still under the condition of thorough consideration of their lives, it becomes clear that they are also deprived of those rights and privileges, which are granted in democratic societies. Men in Gilead are just the guards, managing and controlling of the rules, even the representatives of higher authorities are not able to enjoy their positions, as it is shown with the example of the Commander.

Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is an outstanding utopian novel, revealing a potentially dangerous society, where women are deprived of their rights and freedoms, where the governing of rule is highly absurd and oppressive for all members of the society.

Works cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition, 1998

“Feminism: Changing the Way Our Society Views Women.” Edited by Kristen Fuller, Physiology Today, 1   May 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-is-state-mind/201805/feminism-changing-the-way-our-society-views-women.

Hattori, Ayako. “Heterosexism and Women’s Lives in Japan.” Off Our Backs, vol. 29, no. 10, 1999, pp. 1–7. JSTOR,  JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20836484.

Savigny, Heather. “Women, Know Your Limits: Cultural Sexism in Academia.” Gender & Education, vol. 26, no. 7, Dec. 2014, pp. 794–809. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09540253.2014.970977

“The Handmaid’s Tale – Critical Evaluation” Critical Survey of Literature for Students Ed. Laurence W. Mazzeno. eNotes.com, Inc. 2010 eNotes.com 5 Nov, 2018 <http://www.enotes.com/topics/handmaids-tale/critical-essays/critical-evaluation>

Wetterberg, Anna. “My Body, My Choice…My Responsibility: The Pregnant Woman as Caretaker of the Fetal Person.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, vol. 48, 2004, pp. 26–49. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41035591.

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

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