The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most intriguing books I’ve read in a long time. Until I came to complete this reaction paper, I had no idea that it was written even before I was born. As I read the novel, I could see so many issues prevalent to today’s society. However, now I can also see the debates over feminist theory of that time.
One of the most interesting points was the classification of women. Through these, Atwood highlights some important debate in feminism. There are the Handmaids, such as the narrator Offred. As the story progresses, we’re introduced to more Handmaids, such as Ofwarren and Ofglen, all without proper names and only considered an extension of the male they belong to. Offred describes herself as nothing but shell hiding a core. For instance, Handmaids are denied lotion as their outer appearance is meaningless; they’re only used for their fertility. This brings into question the worth of women- are we nothing but baby producing machines?
In the Republic of Gilead, women are prevented from reading and making choices. There’s a sense of women subjugating women, as the Wives hold sway over the Handmaids. For instance, Offred often mentions how Serena Joy passively emphasizes her power over her, such as barring the door and refusing her entrance until she pleases. Also, the Marthas dictate Offred’s physical wellbeing by feeding and washing her. The Aunts hold power over the Handmaids as well, reshaping them mentally. However, none of these classes of females have any liking or respect for each other. They are in a constant battle and struggle against each other, trying to keep their own heads above water.
In a way, this relates to feminist issues today. One of the problems with feminism today is the gaps in our movement. Whether they’re caused by age, social class, or race, there are many divisive factors that hold back the women’s movement. Often, it is said that women are the ones hurting their own cause. This can be seen in the Handmaid’s Tale. Though the Commander was the highest in the hierarchy, he was actually very passive. He was even kind to Offred, giving her hand lotion and spending time with her. It was actually Serena Joy and the other women who kept Offred suppressed. In this sense, it is a shame that women are actually the ones who uphold the hierarchy of oppression.
This also relates to issues dating even farther back. The lack of unity amongst females has been a prevalent issue; even Simone de Beauvoir mentioned it in The Second Sex in 1949. She concluded that the division is because “…women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unity which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own.” Classically, women have had trouble uniting and fighting as a cohesive group. Their division further hurts the movement when they become the sources of other women’s suppression.
Classifications and distribution of roles, divisions amongst the feminist movement and women hurting women has been an issue that’s been passed down through time. Unfortunately, this is not the type of inheritance we want to leave behind for our daughters. Hopefully in time, a solution will be reached and when themes such as these make their way into literature, we can rightfully call them history, and nothing more.