This essay is 1,150 words long and is aimed at International Baccalaureate Higher Level or A-Level.

The Handmaid’s Tale explores a world in which there has been a catastrophic failure of fertility. Women are removed to traditional roles and feminism is a dead relic from ‘the time before’. Yet, female power is at the heart of the novel.

In Gilead, ironically, the most vital power of all is concentrated in the hands of
very few: those with the ability to bear children. Like ‘Othello’, and ‘The Stepford Wives’, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ explores male terror of female power and fetishisation of female sexuality. The society is designed by men to control women: their voice, economic independence, minds and most of all, their sexuality and fertility. In the flashback in Soul Scrolls, Offred explains how first, her bank account stops working. Like the account, she too is now ‘not valid’. She is sacked, and her property is transferred to her husband. Women as property and being unable to own property is an old idea made new. Atwood challenges the notion that ‘change’ is ‘for the better always’, and suggests that old tenets hold a dreadful sway. 

Women’s status in Gilead is presented by the Commander as if he has returned things to their ‘natural state’. When Offred is sacked, another woman says it is ‘outrageous’ but without conviction. She asks poignantly: ‘what was it about this that made us feel as if we deserved it?’ She isn’t even sure of Luke’s response, as if maybe a part of him enjoys his new power, and is starting to ‘patronize’ her. ‘Maybe he even likes it,’ she wonders, like the formerly feminist husband of Joanna Eberhart who, in ‘The Stepford Wives’ has his troublingly independent-minded wife replaced with an automaton. In the flashback, Offred says she felt ‘small as a doll’, reduced, as in the Aunts’ designation of women as ‘girls’ to a childish smallness. She says finally ‘I am his’, the possessive indicating property, a condition that becomes even more twisted when she is ‘assigned’ to the commander, a militaristic term that barely conceals the new status of Handmaids as objects that can be moved here, there, wherever, as need requires.

In this new order, the women are as obsessed by fertility as the men. But their obsession is arguably even more sinister. Not to breed, Aunt Lydia says, is ‘wickedness’, enough to make a woman an ‘unwoman’. She seems to delight in her almost sadistic role, saying ‘a little pain cleans out the mind’. The women are reduced to “girls”, praying in circles for ’emptiness’. They are to be made ‘transparent’, ‘vessels’ to be filled with ‘grace’, ‘love’, ‘semen’ and ‘babies’. The biological and biblical co-mingle grotesquely in this travesty of prayer. The Christian cadences are both familiar and disturbing as the women ask God to ‘obliterate me. Make me fruitful’, in an ‘ecstasy of abasement’, recalling the sufferings of early female martyrs and saints, the eroticism of women giving themselves up. Here ‘ecstasy’ is both spiritual, erotic and masochistic. Women are objects, to be observed, kept like ‘prize pigs’, waiting. As Offred comments ‘maybe boredom is erotic when it is done by women, for men.’ Boredom dominates for both her, and Serena Joy, from the highest to the most degraded. The point is, they are both empty of meaning.

The role of women ‘in the time before’ is considered through flashback, focussing on Offred’s mother, a feminist, videos of pro-choice protest marches encouraging women to ‘Take Back the Night’, now dramatically reversed by the new regime. Now, abortion doctors are hung up on the wall for ‘atrocities’, as ‘war criminals’, as if the battle is for birth. Offred obsesses about getting pregnant, as the doctor searches her for ‘ripeness and rot’. Fertility symbols and erotic language dominate the book.

 The Red Centre and the ‘Aunts’ are referred to in the postscript as a ‘female control Agency’. The historian debates why women should be content to oppress their own kind, and decides that control is often enforced best by some of the ‘indigenous’ group. The word ‘indigenous’ usually refers to persecuted native tribespeoples or ethnic groups, and so the word – referring to women – suggests radical separation between women and men. The historican also tells us gnomically, that when ‘power is scarce, a little of it is tempting’. The moral corruption is frequently linked to power, the trade of scruples for it. We see this as Offred herself frequently uses the word ‘power’. Her itch to ‘steal’ – usually objects with which she can harm herself – poignantly underlines how disempowered she has become. She cannot possess the smallest object without it being a crime, and she savours the little ‘power’ she gains over the commander and Serena Joy by trading her body illicitly with the Commander, and then with Nick. 

The vast majority of power in this novel is power over women. It is hoarded, guarded and controlled by the ‘Controllers’ who have trained up a large proportion of the fertile women as ‘Handmaids’ – who are then assigned to high ranking officials in the party. It is this group on which Atwood focuses, though the society is made up of many other female groupings: the Wives, and Econowives, the Marthas, the Aunts and the Unwomen. In this society, female roles are tightly defined only within the domestic sphere, stereotyped even as far as their generic ‘proper’ naming as ‘A Martha’, ‘the Wives’, the colour-coded robes, with the powder blue of the wives evoking the Virgin Mary and the wimple of the Handmaids a bloody travesty of nuns: ‘a sister dipped in blood’. The ‘wings’ are blinkers, to prevent the woman from seeing and being seen, to render her invisible, non-present.

Society divides women into various groups, but Offred underlines the more brutal divide upheld in ‘law’. There are only ‘barren’ and ‘fruitful’ women. Fertility is all. She is only an ‘ambulant womb’, her identity centred on her ‘body’, a ‘torso only’, zoomed in on the cycles of the moon, the ‘pear shaped’ . A pregnant woman is to women ‘an object of envy and desire’. The semantic field of sin and lust appears again where they ‘covet’ her. The women’s lust is as strong as the men’s lust for the women in Jezebel’s. The ‘Wives’ and ‘Marthas’ are desperate for children, someone to ‘spoil’, love and give purpose to their blank and narrow lives. Declining birth rates give rise to child-snatching, first ‘isolated’ incidents, later state sanctioned as Offred’s daughter is taken away. But the reason behind the Handmaids’ lust for the pregnant women is far more sinister. She is a ‘flag’ that they can be ‘saved’. The word evokes spiritual salvation, purity and chastity, gained ironically through state sanctified rape. But Offred means it literally. She knows that if she can’t have a baby, she will become an ‘unwoman’ and will be sent to die.

Here are some more points that you might like to consider:
  • Character of Offred as narrator – why choose a Handmaid to tell the story – to dramatise the contradiction of being valuable but degraded, powerful but powerless
  • Books and language ‘forbidden’/’dominion’
  • Japanese tourists
  • Moira
  • sex as a means of exchange