Margaret Atwood’s controversial dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, leaves the reader with the lingering question of “what if?”. Set in the near future, what is known to be the United States, is overtaken by puritan conservative Christians, creating the Republic of Gilead. Assasinating the President and congress, this religious extremist movement suspended the constitution and took complete control over the government. Women in Gilead lost their rights, and served only one purpose; for reproduction. A large population of the women were infertile due to previous constant exposure to pesticides, nuclear waste, and leakages from chemical weapons.
They were either labelled “Unwoman” and sent to “Colonies” to clean up toxic wastes, or be house servants; “Marthas”. The small number which made up the fertile population were taken to camps where training to become handmaidens for the upper-class people took place. The women of Gilead were denied all basic human rights, and although the main focus of this novel is of what may occur in our future, The Handmaid’s Tale is an extension of the patriarchal societies of our past, and of those which are of existence today.
In the Republic of Gilead, the women were stripped entirely of their freedom and identity. Unlike some of the men, they loose the right to work outside the home, or even go out. Their only outing is for daily grocery shopping and mandatory attendance at public events. The women have no say in the choices of daily life, such as what to wear, or eat, who to be friends with, or the choice of sexual partners. Shall one be impregnated, she has no choice of having an abortion, nor the right to claim ownership of the child. The women have no real identities, for what they wore, and where they stood in society, was who they were.
The handmaids were distinguished by their “fairytale figure in a red cloak” (Atwood 9), and served only for the purpose of reproduction. Some of the infertile women were kept in the house as servants, “Marthas”, dressed in a “dull green, like a surgeon’s gown” (Atwood 9). The Wives of the Commander’s of the house were recognized by their blue wardrobes. Their main purpose was to raise the children the handmaids produced, and to maintain the domestic sphere. The ones outfitted in “striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy” (Atwood 27) were women of the poorer men, Econowives, and held the resposibilty of all three functions; a Martha, a Handmaid, and a Wife.
A concept strongly present in the society of the Republic of Gilead is that of misogyny: the hatred of women. The jealousy is all centred towards the Handmaids by the infertile women of Gilead. The Wives envied the Handmaids due to the fact that, not only were they fertile but also because they stole away their husbands, the “Commanders”. Many of the Wives were blunt with their feelings and reacted in such ways; “Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the belly.”, and using “toilet cleanser……[wich] worked like a charm.” (Atwood 12)
The second source of jealousy derives itself from the caretakers of the Handmaids, the Marthas. They are nothing but servants in the household, and have less freedom than the Handmaids, no outings, nor any sexual experience. Due to the resentment and bitterness heavily weighed on the Handmaids, many take the only freedom which exists; the freedom to refuse to handle any of the pressure and take the only control of their life- to end it; “She hanged herself….it was better.” (Atwood 329)
The patriarchal society portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale is one of which existed for centuries, and is still present, though not to such extreme. In Hebrew times it was considered normal for a man to have sex and even conceive children by his servants, especially if his wife was infertile. Such a story can be traced to the Bible in the book of Genesis. ‘Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, is infertile, suprisingly, since her sister, Leah, who is also married to Jacob, bears him many.
Envying her sister, Rachel gives Jacob her maid as a wife and says, “Behold my maid Bilah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I also may have children by her.”(Genesis 30:2-4). Bilah gave Jacob many children and appeared to have no choice in the situation, showing “women are valued only for their ability to reproduce, and their consent is not required.” (Fitzsimmons&Woods) Such situations not only occurred a century ago, but just decades ago, and some even still happen today.
In various contries around the world, women are still being treated as though the only thing from which our society can benefit from them is by means of reproducing and domestic purposes.. “The persistance in India of cutural practices that discriminate against girls and women means not only abuse of, but, finally, the deaths of countless women.” (Peters&Wolper 51) The high technology has assisted in the discrimination against women, instead of bringing relief. “Parents can now detect the sex if a fetus within the first trimester, and, upon learning that the sex of the unborn child is female, many women choose or are forced to abort.” (Peters&Wolper 51) ( The use of ultrasounds is also used for selective abortion of female fetuses in China (Peters&Wolper 97)
Female children were fed less and were not given foods such as butter or milk, which were reserved for boys. While boys went to school, girls were forced to stay home to assist in house chores and the looking after of younger siblings. (Peters&Wolper 51) “Even educated, well-placed professional women submit, for instance, to wife beating, , implicitly an acceptable form of control.” (Peters&Wolper 52) Just as in India, successful women in the former United States were converted into nameless handmaids in the Republic of Gilead.
The second country of which practices the unfair treatment of women, demeaning them to less than humans is Iran. Women in Iran, compared to men, are worth half as much by means of everything including inheritance and testimonials in court. Even compensation paid to a murdered woman’s family is half that of a man’s. (Peters&Wolper 72) “Men, who may be polygamous, are permitted to have up to four wives and an unlimited number of concubines. A married woman must be at all times willing to meet her husband’s sexual needs, and if she refuses, she loses the right to shelter, food and clothing. A husband, father or brother has the right to kill his wife, daughter, or sister – and go unpunished – if he finds her committing an “immoral” or “unchaste” act.” (Peters&Wolper 73)
Like in The Handmaid’s Tale, the woman of Iran have no choice in the clothes which they wear. “The veil and the Islamic dress code are central to the segregation of women. In an effort to confine women to the home, Khomeini declared that the 1936 authorization of freedom of dress for women was null and void, and that the veil and the Islamic attire were compulsory for women.” (Peters&Wolper 74 ) Failure to abide in the dress code resulted in punishment in forms of having their face splashed with acid, cut with razors, and even sometimes death. (Peters&Wolper 75) Even, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, having any relation outside of the house was strictly forbidden. “In 1991, a woman was stoned to death after having been accused of having relations with a Guardian of the Islamic Revolution.” (Peters&Wolper 76)
In a neighbouring country, women also have little, if any say, to the decisions made in their lives. The women of Israel are fighting tradition in attempts to gain equal rights, wich right now is just a mere distant dream. “The world according to Jewish law is divided into two spheres, the public and the private. Man’s place is in the public sphere of political government and the market economy, while the woman’s place is in the private sphere of domesticity.” (Peters&Wolper 91-92). The handmaids in Atwoods novel were held captive in their Commander’s house, and lived a private, and lonesome life, while the Commander took outings when he pleased.
Under biblical law in Israel, men were allowed to practice polygamy, where monogamy only applied to the females. “Thus, even today, if a wife refuses to grant her husband a divorce or is incompetent to do so, the husband might be given special permission to marry another woman.” If the situation were vise versa, the woman would remain bound in the marriage, should the husband refuse a divorce. (Peters&Wolper 92) This is of similarity, showing the little power woman held when in reference to the novel. Although it was evident that the Commander’s wife greatly disapproved of the handmaid, and the sexual activity, she was powerless in its prevention.
The Handmaid’s Tale is merely a representation, and a more extreme view, of the various patriarchal societies evident throughout the world’s history. Although it is no longer evident in Canada and the United States, such practices are still held across our ocean, in third world countries. Such laws have survived centuries, from our past to our present, and most likely into our far future. But no matter how many restrictions are applied to the female, they will never be able to be eliminated. A society cannot function without a woman, for a woman is the only one who propogates it.