The Distinction of Classes and Marxism in The Handmaids Tale Marxism, in broad terms, is a theory of social change based on sympathy for the working class. The Marxist literary theory involves looking at a class struggle (working vs. ruling). In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale a class struggle is seen between the ruling class and everyone else in the Republic of Gilead. This text can be analyzed through the lens of Marxist literary theory at many points and much of that text can be used to prove that same theory.
Pages 13-15 show a theme seen throughout the whole novel which is two separate classes as well as the great distinction between the two of them. First off we see the life of the higher, ruling class, called the Wives. This is shown by the description of Serena Joy. Serena Joy is wearing a long powder blue robe, blue being the colour of royalty. Next we see that she has an ivory head on her cane and the large diamonds on her finger.
This shows that she is part of the rich, upper class as ivory is a hot commodity and shows wealth. Next we are told of a fingernail that is filed to a gentle curving point. This shows that she is wealthy as she can afford manicures and that she is able to make herself and her body look better. Next we see that Serena Joy is knitting and that she has flowers, both of which are hobbies that show she lives freely and can do things for fun.
Next we see the ivory coloured lighter, again showing wealth and her being a higher class, and her smoking a cigarette. Also when Serena’s lips are described as ones “you used to see in advertisements for lip cosmetics” which means that she is able to make herself look better and even boast about their looks. Finally she is being called ma’am by the lower Handmaid showing that she is of a higher status and that she earns more respect. These are some of the things that the upper-class people can do in the Republic of Gilead.
After the high, ruling class, we see a lower class called the Handmaids, treated much worse than the Wives. This is displayed through the character Offred, through the way she acts and how she is treated. She says that she must use the back door which shows that she is of lower status to the Wives, who can use the front doors. Also she is called “the new one” (Atwood 13) which shows that she is simply an object that is in possession of the higher class. Also Serena was said to block the entrance and make Offred feel like she couldn’t come in, a sign that she is higher on the social order than she is and that she is the boss. We then see that Offred only has a small bag which shows how little she has and is allowed to have. Offred was also told by an Aunt not to talk unless asked a question which shows that she is so much lower than the Wives that she can’t even talk to them. The Aunt also says that it isn’t easy for the Wives, totally ignoring how hard it is for the Handmaids, a definite showing of how the classes are treated differently.
Then it is found out that: cigarettes, coffee and liquor are forbidden for the lower class showing the different treatment. Offred then says she doesn’t want to appear inattentive to Serena showing that she is lower to her and that she must show respect. Finally Offred calls Serena ma’am for the same reason, class. This is how the handmaids are living and how their class is distinctly treated. Obviously the Handmaids and the Wives are treated very differently and have different rights, simply because of the class they belong to. The Wives can have cigarettes, liquor and coffee while the Handmaids cannot. The Wives can have possessions like jewellery, while the Handmaids cannot.
The Wives can manipulate their appearance, and attempt to make themselves look better, while the Handmaids of course cannot. Finally the Wives are given the upmost respect by everyone around them because they are the working class. The handmaids again are only given respect by the Martha’s but everyone else don’t have to show them anything because they are of a lower class and are treated much differently because of it. This is how the two classes are treated differently and what they can do based on this class system.
Throughout the novel, the text can be seen to show a great distinction in two classes (ruling and working). So, if the text was analyzed through the lens of the Marxist literary theory, plenty could be said. This is due to the fact that there is an obvious class struggle seen in the Republic of Gilead, which is the setting of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaids Tale. With Marxism being a theory that shows sympathy for the working class and the Marxist literary theory shows the distinction between the ruling and working classes, it is obvious that the author was thinking of this while writing the novel.
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