The book, The Handmaid’s Tale presents with three socially conscious themes. The first theme involves the role and perspective of women in society. In this book, women's identitfy and objectification are controlled through religious, political, physical, and psychological ideas and actions. Borrowing heavily from the Puritan denomination of Christianity, Atwood used the elements of body denial and the patriarchal culture-driven oppression of women to control and objectify them as a major theme. The Handmaid’s Tale also examines the role religion plays in perpetuating gender roles and stereotypes. The objective of this report is to facilitate a parallel experience for the reader to both conceptualize the atmosphere of the book, as well as to comprehend and empathize with the psychological well-being of the women and society.
In the Republic of Gilead, women were oppressed as a method for population control; subsequently they were not allowed the right to be educated or afforded any rights afforded to citizen. Likewise, the socio-political system is such that women have lost all rights and most freedoms, and society has become a caste system based on fertility and power. “Nothing safer than dead…” (20). Women are physically restrained and abused, and sexuality is reduced to culturally endorsed rape; therefore many of them share this sentiment that they will only truly be safe once they are dead and untouchable to the rulers of their society. Psychologically, women are alienated from their bodies and senses of selves, and women are encouraged to become part of the system as this is seen as a better alternative than fighting.
The next socially conscious theme is the religious content in the book which is modeled after the Puritan movement, a particularly patriarchal and anti-sexual strain of Christianity. This religious movement treats women’s bodies as unholy objects that are useful for one purpose of reproduction in a controlled context. This means that women are only allowed to be at the man’s will as it relates to sexuality as they were observed as sinful creatures. This is highly sexist behavior and obviously a male oriented view to oppress the progress of women and keep them controlled. The religion is intolerant, creating a social and racial purity that prevents women from knowing a multitude of experience. Women are not afforded the opportunity to experience social activities and the surrounding areas, as they are basically treated and exploited as slaves. By keeping the cultural religious nation ethnically and ideologically homogenous, it becomes difficult for women to compare their existence to any other. Homogenous thought also facilitates and produces group think which is what many cult leaders use when convincing others to follow them. This type of thought is also the type of ideology which allowed the takeover of individuals such as Hitler, Napoleon, etc.
The final issue of social consciousness addressed is that women are given no political right and have a specific form of education and engagement with the world. One article review of The Handmaid’s Tale described the Gilead Republic as “they ruled by fear, terror, and psychological control” (Malak, 12). These policies not only limited women’s power by devaluing and degrading this segment of the population it also negatively decreases their sense of self. In order for this society to work, women had to be viewed as less valuable and less powerful, as this creates a psychological dynamic easier to digest. Fear and terror were used to maintain this psychological dynamic, and any outliers would be prosecuted. Controlling the education, political, and social voice of women is equivalent to controlling their identities and bodies. This vivid depiction of a fictional society is not only immoral, but it is also highly disrespectful. However, one must be cautious not to become overly angry, irrational, or too radical, which may be just as detrimental to women.
Radical feminism as an ideology is too extreme and results in the same control over women’s bodies. It asserts that since our society is male dominated, that women should assert resistance to stereotypical female values and behaviors. Just as the extreme patriarchal viewpoint of sexuality and women’s subhuman status limits expression of individuality and freedom, so too does the extreme leftist position which makes taboo the practices and behaviors it does not like; thus exhibiting complete control over the women’s bodies.
The Handmaid’s tale provides a fictional perspective of women that is even more disturbing. The women were not only abused psychologically, mentally, and sexually, but they were also frequently physically abused. Women suffered physical restraints, control, and punishment. Although all of the punishments were severe, this punishment appears to be the most atrocious as no form of control is quite as intimate and corporeal as physical control. Each moment of physical abuse inflicted upon the characters develops the theme through their rebellion or acquiescence to it. The scenes are described very vividly as the author breathes life into the characters; subsequently he facilitates empathy and relatedness to them and their present difficulties. Physical space was an integral metaphor which exhibits the control of women’s body in the public and private space. Atwood also used a lot of good physical details to depict spaces which leaves the reader feeling confined, altered, subverted, and constrictive of both body and soul.
Psychological control is important in maintaining abusive relationships and social inequality. The women were held psychologically captive through physical dominance. Some women, such as the Aunts and Wives, held small position of power so long as they maintained the system that disempowered the masses of women. Both characters Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy developed the theme through their actions and points of view that varied from Offred’s. Offred felt disconnected from her body and her previous life because of her experienced psychological and emotional trauma. Like many women in this fictional society, Offred is living a dehumanized existence.
Women in the book engaged in many defense mechanisms (e.g., internalization, repression) in the attempt to rationalize and cope with their feelings. “Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last” (8). This quote epitomizes the female perspective of internalizing pain as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable physical and emotional feeling which arises from thinking about the severity of her life. This statement suggests that it is useless and detrimental to critically analyze the situation, as it will only result in anger, futile expectations, or further physical punishment. The only problem is that internalization is a temporary solution, which leads her to feel depressed and even more devalued. This type of alienation is deep and indicative of the emotional and psychological trauma women endured by the female citizens of the Gilead Gilead society. Subsequently she has repressed her feelings and thoughts, and frequently has difficulty recounting her former life or her daughter; which manifests both physically and behaviorally. People use repression when something is too uncomfortable to hold on a conscious level. This defense mechanism provides relief for the individual and alleviates anxiety associated with the cognitive stimuli.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretation: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’sTale and the Dystopian Tradition. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. United States: Anchor Books, 1985.