Summary: How Does Margaret Atwood Use Her Novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, To Portray The Abuse Of Women

Categories: Novel

In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses a variety of different approaches to illustrate the abuse of women. Not only is there physical abuse present throughout this novel, but there is also mental abuse. This can be seen in the way Handmaids were talked to, and the information and preachings in which they were told and were to follow. The depiction of abuse in the novel allows the reader to understand the unfair treatment of women in the Gilead society.

Margaret Atwood’s purpose in writing this novel is to depict just how quickly a person’s rights can be taken away, and how that will drastically change their lives. There is a major focus on the themes of patriarchal power and the power of language present in this novel. The theme of patriarchal power is relevant in the aspect of the men having more power over the women in this particular society of Gilead. Another theme presented in this novel is the power of language.

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Power of language is presented through the use of descriptive words, and words with a negative connotation that are used by Margaret Atwood when forming the scene of particular situations and events, or describing a character’s emotions. Margaret Atwood also communicates her message through her use of symbolism.

Symbolism is the use of symbols to demonstrate an idea and can be used to represent a theme. Many of the symbols used throughout the development of the novel are presented in the appearance of the Handmaids.

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These symbols include the colors of their clothing and accessories they are expected to wear. In a society most relevant to what exists today, this novel is significant because it demonstrates how quickly a society can change in a wake of a change in authority, such as a president. At one point in time, a society similar to that in the Republic of Gilead existed during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Margaret Atwood had a personal close relation to an accused witch, her grandmother, during the time of the Salem Witch Trials which sparked some of her interest for writing the novel . In her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses symbolism and negative connotation to express the themes of patriarchal power and the power of language to portray the physical and mental impacts of abuse on women. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses the theme of patriarchal power to depict the abuse, both mentally and physically, of women. The idea that women, more specifically the Handmaids, exist for the benefit of men is effectively communicated throughout the novel. The Handmaids are present to provide children for the Commanders who have wives that are unable to provide children for them. Their inability to have children can be due to pollution or sexually transmitted diseases. One of the major purposes of the Handmaids is to reproduce children for the Commanders. They constantly remind themselves of this when they continuously repeat “not every commander has a Handmaid: some of their wives have children… according to her ability; to each according to his needs. [They] recited that, three times, after dessert”.

The Handmaids were to repeat this slogan from the Bible to themselves each night. Because this slogan is from a sacred religious piece, this gave the Handmaids the impression that they must follow it due to it coming from a supernatural higher being. This continuous repetition of the fact that the Handmaids are there to fix the needs of the Commander that their wife possibly could not provide, reinforced the idea that they otherwise would not be needed. The slogan is a depiction of only a portion of the mental abuse that the Handmaids were faced with because they are being forced to view themselves as only being used to provide the Commanders with their needs and not their own needs. At one time in the novel, Offred came to the realization that “[She] has viable ovaries. [She] has one more chance”. This realization that she has viable ovaries is important because it demonstrates that she will soon be useless. Her uselessness derives from her no longer being about to do the one thing she is needed to do: produce children. This impact of thinking they are useless when they are unable to produce children is a depiction of mental abuse that Handmaids face. They are constantly worrying being whether or not they are carrying a child for the Commander. Their fear of being deemed useless due to their inability to carry a child is constantly weighing on their minds. The result of the mental abuse carries lifelong damage to the Handmaids because will now view themselves as worthless. Margaret Atwood’s purpose in including this is to demonstrate just how a religious piece can be altered to fit the wants of authority in a wake of a dramatic change to better guilt the people into doing as they desire. Not only were the Handmaids present to provide children for the Commanders and their Wives, but they were also needed to provide comfort and advice them. When their wives were unable to support and understand the situations that the Commanders were in, the Handmaids were to step in and provide support for them. On one occasion when Offred, a Handmaid, is conversing with the Commander she comes to the realization that “his wife didn’t understand him. That’s what [she] was there for then” .

The Commander turned to Offred for support when he realized that his wife and he no longer have much in common and do not talk much. He realized this after being questioned by Offred about why he showed her his magazines rather than his wife. This is crucial to the development of the novel because even though the Commanders hold a higher power over the Handmaids due to their position, they still turn to them for the guidance and the support that they are missing from their wives. This furthers the mental abuse of the Handmaids because they were to solely focus on the needs, both emotional and physical, of the Commanders. They knew that they were to only think of what the Commanders wanted them to do and say to them. They did not think of what was best for them during the time, and they did not think for themselves. This is based on their position and needing to not disobey the people, men, who have control over them. This is significant because the women are brainwashed to fit the desires of men, and only men. In regard to men using their stance to hold power over women, there are many circumstances were real-life women have experienced situations similar to those of the Handmaids. A former slave named Harriet Ann Jacobs had escaped the captivity of her master, Dr. Flint. Once he realized she was gone, Dr. Flint used his power as her owner to bring her back into his captivity. Jacobs went to the extremes of living in an extremely small crawl space to be free from her master and his cruel ways. This is similar to the mental abuse experienced by the Handmaids. The Handmaids were afraid to disobey the wants of their Commanders due to the possible outcomes of being deemed useless. Being deemed useless would consider the Handmaids as having no purpose in society. Another African slave named Mary Prince was forced to work in salt ponds by her master which caused severe damage to the bodies of all who work in them. This is similar to the physical abuse that the Handmaids experienced. Each time they were to attempt providing their Commanders with a child their bodies were slowly weakening, and they were also under constant stress. Because of the power that their masters held over them, not only because of their position but also because of their being a male, these slaves needed to follow the orders of their masters or else they would be severely punished. These are only two cases of the many others in which men of a higher ranking used their power to abuse others, and those being abused were most likely females. These specific cases depict the mental abuse whereas Harriet Ann Jacobs was afraid to better herself, and her relationships with her family due to fear of thinking about what her master could do. In the case of Mary Prince, she was forced to complete work in a place where she was extremely harmed, and this depicts some of the physical abuse that the men performed on women through forcing them into work. This is similar to the harsh experiences of the Handmaids formulated from the male dominance in their society.

Not only did Handmaids exist for the benefit of men, but the men also flaunted their status. The Handmaids were banned from many things and one of those things happened to be reading. Not being able to read prevented them from being aware of their surroundings, and this prevented them from being able to protest. Freethought, emotion, and free speech are all banished from the lives of the Handmaids, all of which are associated with being able to read. On one occasion when the narrator, Offred, was alone with the Commander, he was flaunting his magazines in her face: “It was a magazine, a women’s magazine… staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before [her] like fish bait”. The Commanders often tempted the Handmaids to test their ability to control themselves and remain compliant to their restrictions. The comparison of the Commander’s flaunting of the magazine to that of a fish with fish bait demonstrates how torturing the experience was for Offred because she lost the ability to read what she once was able to read. This demonstrates a part of the mental abuse that the Handmaids were faced with because of the mind games that the Commanders would play with them by trying to lure them into doing wrong. The Commanders wanted the Handmaids to attempt to take their bait; therefore, they would be able to punish them. They are unaware of whether or not Commanders are being polite to them, or if they are attempting to lure them to being punished. Not only was the persistent theme of patriarchal power present throughout the majority of this novel, but the theme of the power of language played a key role in the development of the novel. A majority of the language spoken by the narrator was often associated with a negative connotation which furthers the reader’s understanding of the belittlement that these women felt of themselves because of their positions as Handmaids. Most of the novel was spent demonstrating how not only the Handmaids viewed themselves, but also how the other people of this society view them. The inner feelings of the Handmaids are crucial because they alert of how much they do not enjoy their new lives after being taken away from everything they once knew. It allows insight into how the Handmaids feel about the treatment and their reactions to it. The Handmaids compared themselves to that of livestock continuously throughout the novel.

A large majority of this comparison is noticed when the Handmaids compared their monthly visits to those of animals. Handmaids were often in the clinics to be checked to see if they were pregnant, and if not to see if they are still able to reproduce: “[She’s] taken to the doctor’s once a month, for tests: urine, hormones, cancer smear, blood test”. These tests are not a little part in the lives of the Handmaids, instead, they are very crucial in their lives because they determine their fate. The comparison of themselves to livestock is critical because it demonstrates that only their organs and health which are required to be healthy for reproduction are working, rather than their bodies being able to survive for their own desires and purposes. The Handmaids were aware that if they were either not pregnant, or not able to reproduce they were to be considered useless because their one purpose in society is to provide children for the Commanders. This depicts the mental abuse of the Handmaids because they are constantly worried about whether or not their bodies will be able to reproduce in order to not be deemed useless, or if they will be deemed useless because their bodies are unable to reproduce. They do not want to be thought of as being useless they would then be in a social class even lower than they already are in. The purpose of this in the novel is to demonstrate the drastic changes that the come to the lives of these women, and their purpose in a wake of a change in authority. The words used by the Handmaids to describe their treatment convey the impact their conditions had on them mentally. The Handmaids were set to meet certain expectations in their appearance and their behavior. They are to maintain their cleanliness to appear presentable for the Commanders. Offred stated that they are “washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig”. This input from Offred is very critical to the story because it shows how they think of themselves. The comparison of themselves to a prized animal shows exactly how they are used to gain benefits for others. In this case, they are being shown off to the Commanders in an effort for the Commanders to have the children they are unable to have with their wives. Offred also stated that “the bath is a requirement, but it is also a luxury” . The input that even though it is a requirement that they take a bath, this is one of the few times that they are able to relax. There was another time in the novel when Offred is observing the appearance of Ofglen, a fellow Handmaid, that she continues the comparison of themselves to prized animals. She observes her as she “walks demurely, head down, red-gloved hands clasped in front, with short little steps like a trained pig’s on its hind legs”.

The Handmaids are expected to meet certain behavioral requirements that they were taught. The requirements include: how to walk, where to look, and how to look. They also were expected to follow rules that were not verbally communicated: “Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he is the police... If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look” . These certain expectations communicate the way these women were expected to meet requirements, even though they were not told to them specifically. This constant comparison of themselves to either a trained animal or prized animal shows the impact this abuse had on the Handmaids mentally. This mental abuse lowered the self-esteem of the Handmaids to the point that they no longer view themselves as human. The importance of this in the novel is to show the impact that certain words and actions have upon the way women view themselves. Not only were the words they used to describe themselves a depiction of their abuse, but the words that were used to describe their experiences showed the extent of this. The Handmaids were faced with physical abuse that resulted in long-lasting mental scars. They were forced into performing sexual acts for the men and forced into rooms where they would be abused. At one point, Moira was forced into the room: “It was a room where none of [them] went willingly. Afterward, she could not walk for a week, her feet would not fit her shoes, they were too swollen” . The place where she was beaten, her feet, was chosen specifically because it was her first offense. If Moira were to be a repeat offender, she would have been beaten much worse and in worse locations. The inclusion that she was unable to walk demonstrates just how severe the beating was. She did not want to willingly enter this room from the beginning, but she was forced. The fear associated with this room also demonstrates the emotional scarring, as a result, the events that took place there. They are forcing into doing as the Commanders please in fear of the aftermath of not. The only option for the Handmaids that do not give the Commanders and their wives a child is to become unwoman.

Being unwoman was the worst position that the women could hold; therefore, they were forced into providing the Commanders and their wives with a child to avoid this position. This is significant because it shows how the power the high-ranked men have over the lower-ranked women forces them into performing acts to avoid even more abuse. The power the men had over the women forced them into performing acts in an effort to avoid change in their position. The disobedience and noncompliance from the Handmaids resulted in abuse leading to lifelong physical and mental scars upon their bodies. Along with the persistent themes of patriarchal power and the power of language present in this novel, Margaret Atwood also uses a variety of symbolism. A large majority of the clothing worn by the Handmaids is a symbol. Their clothing constantly reminds them who they are. This is significant because it demonstrates just how the Handmaids are never able to think of living their lives how they used to and think of themselves as normal.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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Summary: How Does Margaret Atwood Use Her Novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, To Portray The Abuse Of Women. (2024, Feb 22). Retrieved from

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