The Handmaid’s Tale
Throughout the entire text of The Handmaid’s Tale, the ruling totalitarian government does what is in its power to attempt to isolate women from society. Not only do are the women isolated from society in terms of sexual contact (or any contact, for that matter), with men, but they are also individualized within the gender itself and separated from each other. Evidence of this isolation is available throughout the novel in different levels. The first level, perhaps the harshest, is the division of genders, with women like the Handmaids unable to communicate with unmarried men.
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Offred’s separation from men is apparent when she compares herself to the “power of a dog bone” (29), but the bone is “held out of reach” (29). This depicts how there is a strict gender division that disallows them to even communicate with each other, much less have sex. For the Angels, they are not even allowed to look at the so- called dog bone. When we are first introduced to the idea of the Angels, Offred mentions that the Angels must stand outside of the gymnasium “with their backs to us” (10). Offred wishes that they would only look at her and if only “something could be exchanged” (10).
The guards of the complex Offred is held in at the beginning of the novel aren’t even allowed inside it. With the men not allowed in the Red Center and the women now allowed outside of it, they are each isolated from each other. Even though women are isolated from men, they are also separated from each other. Women are segregated further into social classes, such as the Handmaid or the lowly Econowife. These women are separated by their function of society, and they are identified with the color they wear.
Handmaids wear red, which Offred is opposed to because she “never looked good in red” (14). Her opposition to the color shows the limits of her decision-making (if it can be argued that she makes any at all). All women are separated according to their colors, whether it was red, the green that the Marthas wear, black, or the ugly stripes of the Econowives. While all women were separated into classes, identifiable by their color, this was not the end of Offred’s removal from society. Even between women of the same class, Offred being a Handmaid, communication is still heavily regulated.
Even before she is a Handmaid, when she is in the gymnasium, the other women and she are held with little sense of community. They can only reach out and touch one another “when the Aunts werent looking” (10) in the dark, showing the sense of separating between women and the enforcement of that separation from women of a different class, the Aunts. When Offred and another Handmaid are “allowed” to be together (allowed in the sense that it is an illusion that is really an attempt to keep them in line by preying on their fears that the other may be an Eye), they are almost afraid to talk to one another. Praise be” (28) is Just one of the many examples of the automated responses that the Handmaids are able to give ach other and anyone else they come into contact with. The mistrust of Handmaids even between one another caused by the Eyes further separates Offred, and indeed all other women. composition of her thoughts is an act of rebellion against that isolation. She thrives on the idea that if she tells her story she is creating a community. Any story that is told must have an audience, so by narrating her story she is “believing [the reader] into being” (267) and creating a community of her own.
Throughout the entire novel, Offred is trying to create a community. The Latin that is carved into the wood of ‘her(? ‘ room gives her a sense of connection with someone, even if they had never met. She makes up a story for this person, how they may have actually escaped, and thinking up a story for her to believe makes the person who was there before her real, and she would feel some sort of connection with them. Offred wants to continue this trend when she wants “to steal something” (114). She wants to steal something, which she decides should be a flower, so she could “leave it [under the mattress], for the next woman” (115) to have.
She uses these objects to symbolize the idea of connection and community within the Handmaids, the ones ho are all connected by that one room and the objects that are found in it. Though Offred looks for connection with the other Handmaids, perhaps the stronger community she feels, the one that dominates her mind for a good portion of the novel, is that with her own family. Luke and her daughter give Offred a sense of community, and she spends an excessive amount of time wondering about Luke and thinking about their past.
She explains to the reader her connection with Luke and how the two had an affair before they were married. One night while she lies awake in bed, she thinks up all of the cenarios of what could have happened to Luke the night they were trying to escape into Canada. She dreams up three situations and thinks them all at once because “one of them must be” (122) true, though she hopes that Luke, their daughter, and herself will one day “be all three of us together” (122), and obvious longing for the idea of community in her own family as well as the other Handmaids.
Resistance to the totalitarian regime and its oppressive nature is, for the large part, futile. This is made obvious by the percentage of women who are bound to their duties. Only one woman that Offred knows of, Moria, has ever escaped. Only one woman out of all of the Handmaids and Econowives and other women has ever escaped, but even that offers some hope for a little while. Even after Moira escapes, she is recaptured and ends up living her life as a prostitute, and hasn’t really escaped to freedom.
When Offred meets her against she notes that Moira is lacking the rebellious attitude that “used to be so central to her” (284), and it appears that even Moira, the lesbian symbol of feminism and rebellion against male oppression, has been broken down and now possesses “a lack of volition” (284). The evidence of he futility of resistance is abundant in the text. Perhaps the biggest, if not the most demoralizing of this evidence is the note that is left behind by the previous Handmaid, the “nolite” (174). ind, and she makes her a strong symbol of resistance to the Gilead regime. By knowing that the previous Handmaid scratched such a motivating line, not letting “the bastards get you down” (228), Offred is given a sense of resistance. It isn’t until the Commander tells her that the previous Handmaid killed herself that Offred is struck by a demoralizing realization: the previous Handmaid let the bastards get her down. This is strong, upsetting evidence to Offred that perhaps there is no escape and that resistance is ultimately fruitless.
When Offred mentions that she feels “for the first time, their true power” (286), she is basically giving into the regime and giving up all of the past hopes of resistance she had. She says that “they can do whatever they like with me. I am abject” (286) after Ofglen’s death, and she now feels compelled to stop resisting and succumb to the Gilead. When she is confronted by Serena Joy after she becomes “abject” (286), she is completely void of any type of resistance, even when threatened with ending up “Just ike the other [Handmaid]” (349).
Though this does not occur toward the end of the novel, the idea of resistance being useless is drilled into their heads the entire novel. Even after Janine is raped and has to have an abortion, she is made to feel like she is the one who is guilty. She is called “crybaby” (86) by the rest of the Handmaids when she is recounting the events and cries because of them. The Handmaids are all coerced by Aunt Helena into blaming Janine for her own rape, and that it was “her fault, her fault, her fault” (85) and that God allowed “such a terrible thing” (86) to teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson, teach her a lesson” (86).
When the Handmaids all chant these responses in unison against Janine it seems to break down the resistance that each of the Handmaids has against Gilead. By hearing themselves chant it they are conditioned to think of themselves as second-class citizens and that they are to be blamed by things that may be out of their control. It even forces the Handmaids to “despise [Janine]” (86) after she begins crying because of how ugly she looks while she is crying, when in fact she is only crying because of he rest of the Handmaids blaming her for her abuse.
When the Commander first asks Offred to play Scrabble with him, she is deeply puzzled and amused by it. The Commander’s room was thought to be “the forbidden room” (1 38), and Scrabble was harmless compared to what Offred could imagine being in this room. However, upon considering it a bit longer, though she knew only old men and women played it “when there was nothing good on television” (1 38), Scrabble now interests Offred the way it hadn’t before. Now that the game had been outlawed for he, it seemed “dangerous” and “indecent” (138), and the fact that it is onsidered enviable when it hadnt been before.
When Offred mentions that “context is all” (144), she means it in the way that she does when she considers Scrabble indecent. Context is unique to the situation and the way it is perceived. When Scrabble was once boring, now that it is available in a situation where Offred would otherwise not be able to play, it seems enticing. reader, may seem menial and unimportant are now considered sexual or indecent because of the context they are put in. When Offred is reading a magazine, because Handmaids are not allowed to read, the Commander is watching her and Offred nows that “he found pleasure in seeing [her read]” (153).
Offred knows that she should feel evil for reading and that the Commander gets some sort of sexual gratification out of Just watching her read. During the Ceremony, the Commander, as well as Offred, seems blank while they are attempting to get Offred pregnant. He is approaching it as if it is a duty and it should be pleasurable, and when he is done he leaves because he thinks it is “impersonal” (156). Context plays a large role in him unable to find pleasure in sex with Offred but he finds a large amount of pleasure in watching her read and do hings that are forbidden because of the idea that they are doing things that are considered illegal.
Offred sees Gilead as a totalitarian regime that means to take away the ability for Offred as well as other Handmaids to own her own body. She is given “freedom from” as opposed to “freedom to” (24). Context is important to the novel because it is from the point of view of Offred. Because it is from her point of view, the entire novel makes Gilead seem oppressive and an evil totalitarian regime. The reader is made to become sympathetic to the plight of Offred and those like her because of the idea hat she is being repressed by a government that step in to power when the government of the United States was taken out.
The idea of “nolite te bastardes carborun-dorum” (54), or not letting the bastards (Gilead) get you down, depicts Gilead as trying to get Handmaids down. The Salvaging, the bodies hanging on the wall, and the abundance of suicide in the novel all paint a portrait of Gilead as uncaring and unfeeling toward the plight of the women. The reader is meant to think this until the Historical Facts section, where Professor Pieixoto is giving a presentation n Gilead.
When the point of reference is changed from the oppressed Offred to that of Professor Pieixoto, the reader’s understanding of Gilead changes radically as well. Pieixoto warns against “passing moral Judgment upon the Gileadeans” (292) because of the pressure the government was under and the extraordinary circumstances they faced. The presentation of Pieixoto starkly contradicts the portrayal of Gilead by Offred’s section of the novel. Declining population numbers as a result of birth control and toxins led to the radical changes in the attitude towards women in
Gilead, and women became vessels to try to sustain life. Gilead was strongly driven by religion and the Christian Bible, as was seen in the Ceremony where a man and his wife would use a Handmaid to produce a child to be taken by the Wife. Context as being the most important idea in interpreting a novel is only understood after reading the section with Professor Pieixoto. After the reader is conditioned to being sympathetic toward Offered because it is from her point of view, novel when the novel suddenly becomes understanding, if not sympathetic, to Gilead.