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Gender and Power in the Handmaids Tale Essay

Topic Question: What understandings of the issue of gender and power are gained from characterization of men and women constructed in the text studied?The notion of power is a fundamental building block of any ancient, modern or futuristic society. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is an example of the distribution of power across a futuristic society, specifically a patriarchal dystopia. The power which women hold in this society is minimal compared to that held by men, but this is not an unquestionable reality. The issue of gender and power and highly subjective by nature and throughout this novel this fact is emphasized and the topics interrelated. Women demonstrate this power with their possession and use of language, sexuality, choice and even the exertion of their own autonomy. Men within this society also experience repression and disempowerment. Their struggle is centered on the absence of emotional needs, along with sexual tensions being relieved for pleasure rather than reproduction. Atwood creates these power struggles through the characterization of both men and women within the text.

In terms of female characterization, Offred is an elementary character. Being a first person narrator, she offers incredible insight into the world which Atwood has created and her reactions to it, and thus her own means of power. The way in which language is used shapes this insight incredibly and demonstrates how she can gain control. The Republic of Gilead imposes strict censorship on language, ranging from forbidding all women except Aunts to read. “… decided that even the names of shops were too much temptation for us. Now places are known by their signs alone.” [p35] to intertwining biblical rhetoric into everyday language. “…a whirlwind; better than the Chariot, much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth”.

Gilead even removes the Handmaids names, in this society the are know as Of[Male name here] in reference to the Commander in which they are placed with. Throughout the novel, Offred resists these rules. She creates her own vision of the world through the use of English. Poetic devices are utilized and repeated; from the use of a simile in her description of a young guardian “His skin is pale and looks unwholesomely tender, like the skin under a scab.” [p31] to the use of repetition to emphasize points. “I am, I am. I am, still.” [p 293] “Her fault, her fault, her fault” [p82]. As Angela Carter, an English novelist once said “Language is power” and in this respect, Offred has great power in a patriarchal society.

The power of language is not all that Offred posses. The characterization of her relations with males in the novel is also important to the notions of power and gender. Similarly to language, sexuality is heavily controlled and repressed in Gilead, especially that of females. The Handmaids (Of which Offred is) don in skirts that are “ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts”[p18] with “sleeves that are full” [p18]. Her nightgown is also “long-sleeved even in summer” [p201]. It is accepted that those within this community will not have sex before marriage nor express themselves through the form of masturbation “They have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege” [p32] or pornographic mediums. “There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes.” [p32]

Offred exerts power in these repressed circumstances by going against the convention of Gilead and embracing her feminine features. She takes an active role in resisting this subjugation by tempting the young Guardians. “I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me.” [p32] The kiss she engages in during a secret game of scrabble with the Commander is also a reflection on the power of her sexuality and choice. The Commander, a high level male wants Offred to kiss him. “I want you to kiss me” [p149]. She is given the power in this situation, as she has the power to refuse. The power which Offred, as a woman, has in this oppressed society due to her sexuality is an important issue.

The notion of choice, specifically extrinsic choice is demonstrated with the Commanders want for a kiss is also apparent in other parts of the text. Choice is power and she always has some choice. The idea of existentialism is valid here – she always has self determination, even if under duress. If she does not wish to stay a Handmaid she could depart for the colonies and become an Unwoman, “…shipped of to the Colonies with the Unwomen.” where she would have the power of autonomy. The Mayday resistance is also a choice made by Offred. She is asked by Ofglen to search the Commanders room, to give information to the resistance, but she chooses not to. “You could go into his room at night, she says.” [p282]

Opting to stay as she is, content with her relationship with Nick, she exerts power to say no. Jezebels is also another option, when visiting there with the Commander he offers for her to stay there “You might even prefer it yourself, to what you’ve got.” [p250] She is aware of the decisions which she can make in these situations, “There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some and this is what I chose.” [p105] It is through this characterization which her power lies.

In addition to these choices Offred along with other females have intrinsic choices and power, being a female with ‘viable ovaries’ they have the ability to reproduce. In Gileadean society this gives them a huge power advantage due to declining birth rates and increased infertility, sterility and genetically mutated babies. “…a graph, showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement.” [p123] Ironically, it is due to this power advantage that they are suppressed. Suicide is also another intrinsic power which all characters in this novel possess, although, its characterization in the Handmaids is the most prominent. The concept that suicide is an ultimate bid for freedom and exertion of power is an understood perception of characters within The Handmaid’s Tale.

The removal of all objects which could be used to hurt oneself from the Handmaid’s rooms portrays this. “I know why there is no glass, in front of the water-coloured picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of.” [p17] as well as Offred’s musings when she believes she will be captured. The notion of suicide becomes very real to her as a means of escape and power. “I could noose the bed sheet round my neck, hook myself up in the closet and throw my weight forward,” [p304] These intrinsic powers exist within the characters of The Handmaid’s Tale, the help form the society of Gilead and show the possible choices which can be made by its citizens.

Moira is an embodiment of the power which females hold in Gilead. She epitomizes those who fought back and were not completely obliterated. She lives on the outskirts of Gilead and rejects its values whilst still existing as an institutionalized portion of the society. “[in relation to her clothing] Government issue.” [p254] She chooses the alternative path to Offred. Moira fled the red center, succeeding on her second try. “Moira has escaped” [p140] “Moira didn’t reappear.” [p143] “So here I am. They even give you face cream.” [p261] She exists in an outreach of the government, under the power of the patriarchy, and yet doesn’t suppress herself to the point which other females within The Handmaid’s Tale do. She still engages in homosexual acts, “…it’s not so bad, there’s lots of women around. Butch paradise, you might call it.” [p261] cigarettes, and implied drinking and drugs. . “…and there’s drink and drugs, if you want it.” [p261] “You want a cig?” [p255] Moira’s characterization holds power in this society, particularly over herself and her wants and needs.

The control of wants and needs is a way in which this society functions. It is a patriarchy which suppresses all women and most men, though men have inherently more rights. This is exemplified through the character of Nick. The characterization of him is paradoxical by nature. In hierarchal terms, Nick has little power. He is a low level guardian without even an Econowife. “He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low stats: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not one.” [p27] He is perceived by those in power to have little of it. “He doesn’t rate.” [p27] In reality, he has power. “He has chasms of intangible power. He has knowledge of Mayday either due to his involvement in it or the eyes “It’s all right. It’s Mayday. Go with them” [p305] “Nick, the private Eye.” [p305] and has access to the black market.

“He has a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, which shows that he too has something he can trade on the black market.” [p27] He manages to engage in a physical and emotional relationship with Offred whilst still maintaining the guise of faithful Gileadean citizen though even then, the only reason he able to start this relationship was due to the Commander’s Wife ordering him to bed with Offred. “‘I was thinking of Nick’, she says and her voice is almost soft.” [p216] The idea the he influenced this engagement is always a possibility however, as he has initiated contact with her prior to that. “Then he winks.” [p28] The power which Nick holds in this novel is that of intangibility. His power is never outright stated, but the implications of it are visible.

This is a stark contrast to the tangible power displayed in Commander Fred. The characterization conveyed through him shows he is a strong public figure and may have even orchestrated the creation of Gilead. “We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away.” [p231] Which, in a way makes him the creator of his own demise as he too is suppressed by the patriarchy; he is not having his emotional needs met, and thus has to search elsewhere. In doing this he gives power to someone else in order to fulfill these needs, this apparent when he asks Offred to his study at night to play scrabble. “I’d like you to play a game of scrabble with me” [p148] Despite this, he remains locked in traditional beliefs about gender “all we’ve done is return to Nature’s norm.” [p232] and his power is a result of his male gender.

Gender and power are integral parts of the society portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as with any society. Understandings surrounding these issues are found within this novel. The characters within Gilead deal with the different forms of power which they encounter, including that of language, sex, choice, intrinsic and extrinsic notions and the effect of a dystopic patriarchal society has on its citizens. These forms of power are explored through the characterization of both male and female characters. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale intertwines the issues of gender and power expertly and her constructed characters carry for the notions of power contained within the text with ease.


The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood

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