The handmaid’s tale is a dystopian novel about the dangers of totalitarian and theocratic state that has replaced the United States of America and the consequences of which are borne by the women. Because of low reproduction rates handmaids are assigned to bear children of elite couples that have trouble conceiving. The setting of the novel is Cambridge of the age of readily available pornography, prostitution and violence against women- when pollution and chemical spills led to the declining rates of fertility. As a way to serve the country, the Gilead’s government first cracked down on women’s rights, forbidding women to hold property or jobs. Therefore women are now made to serve only one purpose of ‘a pair of ovaries and a womb’ which reduces them to sub-humans leaving their freedom, completely restricted.
Gilead seeks to deprive women of their individuality in order to make them docile carriers of the next generation. To serve this purpose they sought to language as a tool of power. Gilead creates a new vocabulary where men are defined by their military rank; women are defined solely by their gender roles as wives, handmaids, or marthas. Feminists and deformed babies are treated as sub-human, denoted by the terms “unwomen” and “unbabies”. Blacks and Jews are defined by their biblical terms (children of ham and sons of Jacob) that set them apart from the rest of the society, making their persecution easier. Using religious terminology to describe people, ranks, and businesses whitewashes political skullduggery in pious language. It provides an ever present reminder that the founders of Gilead insist they act on the authority of the bible itself.
Re-education centers have been established to make all the eligible or the fertile women ready to be the handmaids. There they are indoctrinating Gilead’s ideology that women should be subservient to men and solely concerned with the child bearing. They are made to shed off their actual names and instead use the name of their commander as a suffix to ‘of’ which is used as a prefix, for example Offred the protagonist works under Commander Frederic so ‘of’ ‘Fred’ and hence the name Offred. Every handmaid’s name starts with ‘of’ followed by the name of the owner. Gilead maintains its control over women’s bodies by maintaining control over their names.
In an age where there is a prevalence of rape and pornography, making women handmaids is the best way to protect them such social evils. At one hand the penalty for rape is tearing apart the culprit with the bare hands of the victim and on another hand it institutionalizes it, with the jezebel’s club where commanders are provided with the ready stable of prostitutes to serve the male elites.
The novel which was written in the late twentieth century paves it way to the present day. The novel concludes with an epilogue which is in a form of a speech by a scholar, professor Pieixoto. In his speech he discusses the diary belonging to Offred archeologists found. His comment that Gilead should not be judged too harshly echoes and calls into question the moral relativism common among academics today. They discuss her as a chip in a reproductive game, belittling her tale as the crumbs of history, and openly prizing over a few printed pages from the commander’s computer over the take of her suffering. This belittling of woman’s life and glorification of a man’s computer suggests the patriarchal leanings of this new society. Offred and her trauma are remote to this group, but Atwood’s novel urges us to think that such a fate is not far off, but imaginable, for societies like ours and like professor Pieixoto’s which fancy themselves as progressive but hold seeds of patriarchal oppression. The sad thing is that even scholars do not pay heed to their sufferings so where can a woman find solace in this world?
Maybe in their own world of womanhood, where they can be involved with other women leaving no place for men in their lives. And therefore lesbianism is a taboo to the world because it changes the political relationship of a man and a woman. This brings in the point of compulsory heterosexuality, according to the writings of Adrienne Rich, there is revelation on the topic of compulsory heterosexuality. Rich argues that the feminist theory has in some ways overlooked and marginalized the topic of sexuality, specifically lesbian experience. The sexuality of women is a topic that is generally associated with feminist theory; however there is not much focus on the life and experience of those women who do not fit the traditional heterosexual standards. Although feminist theory considers intersectionality of many topics, lesbian experience is often set to the side. In many aspects of feminist theory, there is a slight reference of compulsory heterosexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that it is traditionally “normal” or favorable to be heterosexual. However, in the aspects of women’s sexuality, it is completely possible to be free and feminist, and not heterosexual. This, in many ways relates to the patriarchal perspective of women and their sexuality. By denying one gender the freedom to their sexuality, the concept of compulsory heterosexuality is enforced; thus marginalizing women’s sexuality and the lesbian experience overall. This proves true for Moira who is Offred’s best friend from college. Moira is a lesbian and a staunch feminist; she embodies female resourcefulness and independence. Her defiant nature contrasts starkly with the behavior of other women in the novel. Rather than passively accept her fate as a handmaid, she makes several escape attempts and finally manages to get away from the red center. However, she is caught before she can get out of Gilead. Later, Offred encounters Moira working as a prostitute in a club for the commanders. At the club, Moira seems resigned to her fate, which suggests that a totalitarian society can grind down and crush even the most resourceful and independent people.
NISHIKA VERMA (689)