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Critical Insights: The Handmaid's Tale
Feminism and The Handmaid's Tale
By Jennifer E. Dunn
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale would seem, on the surface, a straightforward feminist text. The narrative is set in a speculative future, exploring gender inequalities in an absolute patriarchy in which women are breeders, housekeepers, mistresses, or housewives—or otherwise exiled to the Colonies. In Atwood's fictional Gilead, all of the work of twentieth-century feminism has been utterly undone, and the text explores the effects of this from a first-person point of view that elicits the reader's sympathy. Offred's tale functions as a critique of women's oppression, as we can see from one of her earlier statements problematizing biological determinism: "I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it's shameful or immodest but because I don't want to see it. I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely" (72-73). Yet Offred's story is neither wholly triumphant nor wholly straightforward. Offred's narrative is potentially undermined, and certainly deconstructed, by the future historians featured in the text's epilogue. At the same time, Offred herself is an unreliable and elusive narrator. Can we believe her story? And does her unreliable status enhance or detract from the text's feminist messages? In raising these questions, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale engages with the debates of feminist politics, dramatizing a complicated and ongoing ideological history. This is a complex novel, one that is open to more than one interpretation, but there are certain affinities with some of the major developments in feminist thought in the twentieth century, from Virginia Woolf's arguments about women's roles and women's writing to later discourses on the male gaze, the binary division of male and female, and the radical potential of language.
In A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf posits that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (3). Although Woolf suggests an income of "five hundred a year" would be sufficient for a woman writer, the amount of money is less important than the economic independence it represents. Likewise, the "room of one's own" is both literal and figurative, signifying an actual space for retreat as well as a woman's right to privacy, independent thought, and personal expression. In the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, income and a room of one's own—and, most important, the freedoms they represent—are systematically denied to women. In Offred's flashbacks to the time before Gilead, we learn how the new Gilead regime moved quickly to take away women's financial independence. In the space of a single day, Offred is fired from her job at the library and denied access to her bank account. The new legislation banning women from employment and taking away their financial assets immediately demotes Offred and all other women to the status of second-class citizens, making them dependent on the men who now control all household income. Even the dynamic in Offred's own marriage changes:
This is a major change from the earlier stages of their relationship, when both Offred and her husband had taken equality between the genders for granted. Offred's mother, a feminist activist, had even taken exception to their complacency on this matter:
Under the Gilead regime, Offred enjoys certain privileges denied other women, including her own room in the Commander's household. Soon after her arrival, she makes an effort to claim the space as her own, examining its contents slowly and in detail: "There has to be some space, finally, that I can claim as mine, even in this time" (60). Yet this is not truly a room of her own, just as the Handmaids' very names—all patronymics—are not their own. Offred is not the first Handmaid to sleep in the room, and during her stay she is not allowed to keep personal belongings. The bedroom door cannot be locked, allowing the Commander to peer into the room at will. (It is unusual and meaningful that Cora, one of the Marthas, shows respect by knocking before entering.) Constant surveillance fosters an atmosphere of paranoia, so that Offred must hide the stolen butter she uses to moisturize her face, just as she must monitor her words and actions in public. For the women of Gilead, there is no such thing as private space or ownership, and certainly no room for free personal expression.
The latter is further reinforced by the Handmaids' appearance. Like all of the other women in Gilead, the Handmaids are marked by their uniform. Paradoxically, the uniforms of the Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, and Econowives are meant to be marks of distinction, yet the effect of this mandatory dress is to make all of the women in a given group indistinguishable from one other. This is particularly true of the Handmaids' uniform, which takes the design of a nun's habit but is made with red cloth instead of the conventional black and white. The long gown conceals the Handmaid's body and is accompanied by long gloves and a wimple with large wings that conceal the face: "They are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen" (18). The habit, particularly the wimple, restricts its wearer's movements, much like Victorian corsetry. Intriguingly, Offred's description of her uniform is followed by a description of the Commander's house as "late Victorian" (18). Like women's clothing, decor has a symbolic function in this novel. Here, the decor links the Handmaids to the Victorian cult of domesticity, the notion of "separate spheres" that relegated women to the home and reserved professional and public spaces for men alone. Dressed as a Handmaid, Offred is a perverse version of the Victorian Angel in the House, the idealized, self-sacrificing wife and mother with whom Woolf does battle in order to express herself as a writer ("Professions for Women"). In Gilead, Offred suffers where Woolf has gained, as the main effect of the Handmaid's uniform is to repress her individuality. One Handmaid looks much like any other, a fact reinforced by the text's recurring image of Handmaids walking two by two around the town or of Offred reflected and thus doubled in mirrors. Indeed, the Commander's interest in Offred has little, or perhaps nothing, to do with who she is as an individual; for him, as for other men in Gilead, she is simply a replacement for the Handmaid that preceded her. Offred's own sense of selfhood is greatly diminished by the rules governing Handmaids' appearance and behavior. She has trouble remembering what she looked like before she became a Handmaid, and during her time in Gilead she is dissociated from her own body and reflection. She does not look down at her body when she takes a bath, and in the mirror she sees only the confusing signifiers of her uniform: "a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairytale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood" (18).
The Handmaid's uniform is telling in other ways as well, since it operates as a signifier of the Handmaid's contradictory sexual status. The nunlike habit works to desexualize the Handmaid, recalling chaste servants of God and concealing the woman's face and body from men who might find her sexually attractive. Yet the uniform simultaneously marks out its wearer as someone whose sole function in Gilead is sexual. The red material is meant to represent the blood of the womb and the sacred rite of reproduction, yet this symbolically resonant color retains historical connotations of both sexual allure and sexual shame (e.g., Hester Prynne's "scarlet letter" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel). The Handmaids are officially protected and untouchable, but they remain powerful objects of taboo desire; indeed, their inaccessibility and sham aura of chastity might make them even more desirable. Early on in the narrative, Offred describes the lingering look of two young Guardians: "As we walk away I know they're watching, these two men who aren't yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead" (32). The moment conforms to feminist theories of the male gaze, which reduces women to objects (often sexualized ones) rather than active, individual subjects. Laura Mulvey argues: "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects it fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly" (442). The gaze makes the woman the "bearer, not maker, of meaning" (Mulvey 439). Offred becomes a passive object, a blank screen onto which the gazer might project any meaning at all—including, but not limited to, objectifying sexual fantasies. In The Handmaid's Tale, even Aunt Lydia recognizes the power of the beholder:
The Handmaids' habits do little to prevent the penetrating gaze of others. Although only men of higher rank are allowed sexual access to women, the Guardians' leering goes unpunished as long as the young men do not act on their desires. Yet their gaze speaks to the power that accompanies looking in Gilead, especially when it comes to looking at women. Gilead is a society that has outlawed pornography and sexual images of women, yet one of its basic organizing principles is the sexual objectification of the Handmaids.
This objectification occurs via hypocritical but official routes in public, in the way the Handmaids are classified and dressed, and it occurs through unofficial, more familiar means in private. The Commander, for instance, has access to illicit materials such as fashion magazines and pornography, and numerous high-ranking officers secretly frequent the Jezebel's club. Here, male officers consort with women wearing forbidden lingerie and cosmetics. When the Commander takes Offred to the club, he first provides her with a new "uniform" of sequined, feathered lingerie. Moving through the crowd at Jezebel's, Offred is uncomfortable with the unusual sight of exposed female flesh and realizes that she, too, is on display:
The Commander, who "retains hold of [Offred's] arm" as he displays her to the crowd, is also showing off his mastery of her. Being the object of the gaze means being in someone's power, especially in a society so highly controlled by surveillance. The mysterious surveillance force known only as the Eyes is perhaps the most powerful authority in all of Gilead; even upper-level members of the regime, including the Commander, fear their transgressions being "seen" by higher authorities—authorities that remain, significantly, unseen themselves. It is telling that Offred occasionally gains some power by manipulating the dynamics of the gaze. When she senses the young Guardians watching her, she realizes she has them in her thrall to some extent:
Then I find I'm not ashamed after all. I enjoy the power: power of a dog bone, passive but there. (32)
The language used here is similar to Offred's description of the Commander "thumbing his nose" at the crowd at Jezebel's. Offred describes the Commander's behavior as a "juvenile display" of power, but a display she understands (248). Likewise, Offred's teasing of the Guardians is "passive," but it is a form of resistance and subversion nonetheless. Later, in her relationship with the Commander, Offred gains more power through witnessing the Commander's transgressions. Her shopping companion Ofglen recognizes this knowledge as real power and asks Offred to pass on any incriminating information to Mayday, the secret rebel organization.
Gilead's separation of men and women into mutually exclusive roles points to a system of binary divisions coded by gender. Feminist critics and theorists have explored how such binaries form the foundation of patriarchal societies, especially as they tend to promote a hierarchy in which one term, usually that coded as female, is subordinate to the other, usually that coded as male. Hélène Cixous demonstrates how oppositions such as father/mother, head/heart, and activity/passivity are gendered and assigned different status: "Logocentrism subjects thought—all concepts, codes and values—to a binary system, related to `the' couple, man/woman" (91). Woolf gestures toward this organizational hierarchy in A Room of One's Own, when she realizes that "women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size" (32).
In her illegal relationship with the Commander, Offred's subordinate position serves to flatter the man and reinforce his power, as made evident in the scene at Jezebel's. The Commander's grip on her arm symbolizes his personal control and ownership of her, even as her body is put on public display. As both a "Jezebel" and a Handmaid, Offred is an accessory and object of patriarchal authority rather than a subject in her own right. Similarly, the women who work at Jezebel's find themselves in a subordinate position to the men who visit them. Like the Handmaids who hide butter or quietly tease the staring Guardians, their own subversions operate within a small range. These women are not confined by the blue gowns of the Wives or the red habits of the Handmaids, or by Econowives' and Marthas' lives of drudgery. The Jezebels can be sexually expressive to a point, and even have the opportunity to experience true affection and intimacy in relationships with each other. But, as Moira explains, the women—some former prostitutes, other former professionals and intellectuals—have little choice in being there: "Nobody gets out of here except in a black van" (255). To Offred, Moira's acceptance of this fate suggests an upsetting "lack of volition" (261). Offred wants to think of Moira as retaining her former agency and assertiveness: "I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat" (255). But Moira has had to accept the passive role on the other side of this binary opposition: "Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to" (261).
If men and women are separated by different levels of freedom and power, Gilead's social classifications work to separate women from each other, as well. The division between Handmaid and Jezebel re-creates the classic dichotomy of angel and whore, opposing the sexually pure woman with the sexually promiscuous ("fallen," "ruined") one. The two terms are made absolute and mutually exclusive, denying the Handmaid sexual identity and the Jezebel moral principle. Some women are complicit in this system founded on absolute, gendered difference; even Aunt Lydia, we are told, is "in love with either/or" (18). The Aunts are represented ironically, of course. They are not nurturing maternal or sisterly figures, but rather operate as agents of Gilead's oppressive patriarchal regime, a "crack female control agency" (320).
The Wives, too, are enemies rather than companions. Their blue gowns, an allusion to the Virgin Mary, belie their position as rivals: to the infertile Wife, the Handmaid would seem a competitor for her husband's affection and sexual desire, and, ultimately, for the highly prized role of mother. The Commander's Wife, Serena Joy, is particularly malevolent. Offred tells us: "She doesn't speak to me, unless she can't avoid it. I am a reproach to her; and a necessity" (23). In a society that prizes children so highly, the Handmaid's role as surrogate mother breeds rivalry and tension. When Serena Joy finally discovers that the Commander has been taking Offred to Jezebel's, she accuses Offred of being "vulgar" and a "slut" (299). She must realize that Offred had little choice in the matter, and she unwittingly reveals the real cause of her resentment, telling Offred, "You could have left me something" (299).
Women of lower social rank are also enemies. Econowives resent the Handmaids' privileges and high social status, while Rita, one of the Marthas in the Commander's household, quietly judges the Handmaids. Rita's statement that "she wouldn't debase herself like that" (20) points to the unspoken fact that the sexually "pure" Handmaid is not that different from a mistress or prostitute. The Marthas, like the Wives, can share or withhold valuable information. Offred listens to kitchen gossip when she can, but Rita is tight-lipped about certain matters, including the fate of Offred's predecessor (we later learn she committed suicide). Similarly, Serena Joy uses information about Offred's birth daughter as a means of control. Even other Handmaids cannot fully be trusted. When completing errands in town, Offred and Ofglen test each other, unsure of the other's affiliations and beliefs. When a new Ofglen appears near the end of the novel, Offred soon senses she cannot trust her new companion. This "new, treacherous Ofglen" recognizes Offred's code word, "Mayday," but discourages further discussion, giving one of many sanctioned responses: "Under His Eye" (297). Like Offred, Ofglen's replacement might be too worried about spies to respond to Offred truthfully.
Thus, even women in the same position are divided from one another. Isolation fosters the culture of fear and reinforces the assimilation process initiated at the Red Center. Most important, it prevents solidarity among women. There is little opportunity in Gilead for collective political action; the feminist "sisterhood" of the past, in which Offred's mother played a significant role, is no more. Even when women are allowed to gather in groups—during Birthing, Salvaging, or Particicution ceremonies, for instance—these gatherings are highly ritualized and regulated. They are licensed outlets for emotional expression, what Professor Pieixoto calls "a steam valve for the female elements in Gilead" (320). During the Particicution ceremony near the end of Offred's story, we see how the presiding Aunt Lydia encourages the Handmaids to bond in anger and violence, and work together to attack an accused rapist. As Ofglen reveals, the man in question is not a rapist but a subversive agent working to liberate Gilead's female slaves. Here, the spontaneously formed women's collective becomes a mob controlled by the authorities, upholding the status quo and destroying their would-be savior rather than providing an opportunity for real expression or political action.
Those who oppose Gilead's patriarchal regime must find other ways to rebel against and undermine it. As discussed above, rebellion often works on an individual scale and through small gestures: in Offred's minor thefts of butter or sugar packets, for instance, or the furtive exchanges of information between Handmaids. Any large-scale movement must work secretly, beyond the vision of the Eyes and Commanders. We see this in the hidden "Underground Femaleroad" and in Mayday's careful placement of spies within the regime. But we might also interpret Offred's very narrative as an act of rebellion and protest. By recording her story, Offred reveals suppressed truths, passing on crucial information not only for other refugees of Gilead and the international community of the story but also for posterity, for the future readers and historians represented in the text's concluding "Historical Notes." As an important historical document, and as a tale that articulates forbidden truths and emotions, Offred's narrative gives a voice to the silenced, marginalized, and subjugated women of Gilead. The Handmaid's Tale tells their side of the story, becoming what feminist critics might call "herstory." In "Women and Fiction" (1929), Woolf observes that "very little is known of women. The history of England is the history of the male line, not of the female" (141). Information about women's writing and female experience, Woolf suggests, "lies at present locked in old diaries, stuffed away in old drawers . . . in those almost unlit corridors of history where the figures of generations of women are so dimly, so fitfully perceived" (141). Offred's narrative is a modernized version of the old diaries Woolf describes; hers is a disguised story, recorded between songs on cassette tapes and locked away in an old Army surplus box, only to be found and analyzed almost two centuries later. Feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s (significantly, the years that precede the Gilead regime in Atwood's novel) sought to uncover hidden stories not unlike Offred's and to establish the women's history Woolf outlines in "Women and Fiction." Studies such as Ellen Moers's Literary Women (1976) and Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977) examined and celebrated marginalized women writers, establishing a female literary tradition. In 2195 in The Handmaid's Tale, the work of Professor Pieixoto and other academics conducts a similar reconstruction of women's experiences and stories, and Offred's tale plays a key role in this.
This Handmaid's tale is what Adrienne Rich calls re-vision: "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction" (18). The Handmaid's Tale is a rewriting in many ways, drawing on the tropes of the gothic genre, satire, and the slave narrative to tell a new story about women's experience. As signified by the text's first epigraph, it is also a rewriting of Genesis. If the Gilead regime interprets the Bible to suit its own purposes, Offred's story enacts yet another reinterpretation and retelling, giving a voice to Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid in Genesis. The text has also been compared to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949); both novels imagine a dystopian world controlled by surveillance, although The Handmaid's Tale recenters Orwell's story on a woman's experience in such a world rather than a man's. For Rich, the re-vision of familiar stories is "an act of survival" for women writers and women readers (18). This speaks to Offred's experience, which is very much an effort to survive. Telling her story is part of that effort. Indeed, Offred sometimes offers more than one version of events, and she calls attention to the constructed nature of her tale as it goes on. Like daydreaming of liberty or love, and like remembering her daughter and husband, telling stories is a coping strategy. It allows her to preserve a sense of hope but also to distance herself from the horrors of her reality:
The "story" in question is re-visionary in other ways, as well. It offers alternatives to Gilead's problematic definitions of women. In this sense, Offred's tale is what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls a "displacement," a representation of "the other side of the story" that offers positive images of women (108). Offred's friend Moira, for instance, is often cast as a hero and rebel. Offred's mother, a feminist activist, is also seen in a heroic light as the narrative unfolds and Offred better understands her struggle for women's rights. Scenes of feminists marching in the streets and of Moira's daring escape attempt are beacons of hope, counternarratives to the grainy television image of Offred's mother enslaved in the Colonies, and to the final image of Moira as a resigned Jezebel. The narrative potentially positions Offred herself as a heroine, in that the discovery of her cassette tapes in Bangor, Maine, suggests she has escaped and survived to tell the tale.
As shown in the text's "Historical Notes" section, Offred's account ultimately functions as an alternative to the official history of Gilead. Conventional historical accounts strive for objectivity and factual truth, and typically focus on the macro scale; Offred's story is clearly a subjective, even autobiographical, account, and one that focuses on everyday, domestic reality. She is not the hidden, omniscient narrator of history textbooks, but rather a deeply unreliable storyteller. She admits to a limited knowledge of events, displays a problematic memory, and sometimes changes her story:
The text is thus a rewriting of history, a way of "telling it slant," to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. If the text challenges and revises familiar tales and images of women, it also confronts historiography, offering "herstory" instead. As Coral Ann Howells notes, "Offred's tale claims a space, a large autobiographical space, within the novel and so relegates the grand narratives [of the Bible, of history] to the margins as mere framework" (93). Just as Offred's own story offers multiple versions of events and multiple kinds of truth, the text as a whole presents "history" and "herstory" as competing but also equal discourses. This is another kind of re-vision, one DuPlessis calls "delegitimation." Unlike displacement, which gives the reader access to "other side of the story," delegitimation is an "active rupture of a narrative order" that highlights how "stories are ideologies that shape our sense of reality—indeed, that stories themselves can colonize" (112). In other words, delegitimation acknowledges the power that language has over us. In The Handmaid's Tale, language is shown to be a source of power, one as effective as the gaze. The Commander's illicit games of Scrabble are a metaphor for control over language and an acknowledgment of its potential. At first, the game seems to offer merely the thrill of the forbidden:
Offred even compares the game to a fetish: Playing with words has become a replacement for the sexual taboos of the past. Yet, in Gilead, playing with words is much more than a game. Like telling one's story, it is a means of subversion and survival. The text is full of puns, codes, and gossip, all of which serve to pass on—or to hide—vital information. Offred's own narrative both passes on and disguises the truth. As Professor Pieixoto discusses, Offred has probably used pseudonyms, and she even disrupts the order of her own story by not labeling the cassette tapes. Nathalie Cooke argues that Offred is ultimately not in control of her own story, since Pieixoto's team creates the final, authoritative version: "In the war of words, Offred has lost" (131). Yet we might see the very elusiveness of Offred's tale as a final gesture of subversion. Her text resists closure and fixed meanings, defying the logical paradigms of historiography and the penetrating gaze of the reader, even some two centuries later. After all, as many critics have noted, even Atwood's post-Gilead society displays sexist tendencies, as seen most clearly in Professor Pieixoto's lewd pun on the Handmaid's "tail." The self-reflexive qualities of Offred's tale, and the way it draws attention to the plurality of meaning and the unreliability of any narrative, forces the reader to consider the effects of language in any context and to think about who is telling and retelling stories.
The Handmaid's Tale is exceptionally open-ended, lending itself to more than one feminist reading. In its explicit critique of gender inequalities and positive images of women, the text answers to the demands of academic feminist criticism. In its elusiveness and playfulness with meanings, it reflects a preoccupation with the instability of language and radical potential of rewriting and retelling, thus conforming to many feminist approaches. Yet the text is sometimes a satire of feminist politics, too, just as it is a satire of patriarchal ideology and authority. As Fiona Tolan observes, the terrifying Aunts "ironically echo the slogans of early utopian feminism": Aunt Lydia's society of "freedom from," though repressive and dystopian, is in some ways a solution to earlier problems of "freedom to" (Tolan 152-53). Atwood's images of women are not all positive, and the text does not always offer happy endings, as we see in the case of Moira. This does not detract from the novel's feminist import. On the contrary, The Handmaid's Tale illustrates that both positive and negative endings—like straightforward and elusive narratives—can highlight social injustice, criticize repressive ideologies, and prompt the reader to think about the effects and applications of language, especially as they relate to gender inequality.
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