Themes and Concepts of Womanhood in the Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale brings out a dangerously male chauvinistic society where women are oppressed and deprived of most fundamental rights and freedoms of an individual as universally understood. Proponents of such a social setting would argue that all is being done for the well-being of the women but no form of argument can justify the degradation to which they are subjected.

Important to note is the narrator’s flashback of a ‘free’ past and a present clearly oppressive. A critical look at the strict behavioral and general social structures brings out the fear that male chauvinists have towards a free woman. An informed, learned woman would be even more dangerous to them. For this reason, “women were not allowed to read” (Atwood 1).

A deeper understanding of the novel reveals the woman as a potential threat to those who are in favor of the status quo. The present leaders have imposed regulations on women, an indication that they acknowledge the power within them.

In the first chapter, Offred, a handmaid, narrates what she and the others go through. Their freedom of movement is restricted. She says, “We aren’t allowed to go there (the central part of the town) except in two’s”, each is the other’s spy and if something bad happens during the walk, “the other will be accountable” (Atwood 26). There is apparent fear of possible revolt from women if they interact freely and exchange their ideas. However, they have shown determination in attempting to free themselves from the strings of bondage by learning to communicate amongst themselves by reading lips. Unfortunately, that is only as far as trying can go for they observe all the rules.

Various schools of thought have argued that women possess the best persuasion abilities through sexual enticement. This is mentioned here with due respect to all ladies. ‘Girl power’ is a term most people are familiar with. The society in The Handmaid’s Tale seems only too aware of this fact. It is for this reason that women are forced to wear robes that cover their bodies entirely and the guards have to keep their backs to them. In addition, they are not supposed to make eye contact, lest they be tempted.

Are women their own enemies? Why have women who ran for elective positions in various parts of the world not been elected, even when the majority of the voters have been women? These questions cannot be avoided given the gap between women of different status in the novel. For instance, the Commander’s wife is very powerful, as opposed to the handmaids. One expects her to be the voice of her fellow women but all she does is show them how powerful she is; exercise her authority over them. It is not even easy for an ordinary person like Offred to see her.

In spite of the many restrictions, it can be noted that women still remain special. They have even been brainwashed to believe that all that they are made to go through is for their own good (Atwood 24). This might be true to some extent because a reflection of a ‘free’ past reveals more violence and danger existed and women became targets of the dangers of the world. The narrator implies that unlike now, they were then protected. She refers to the time when they had freedom to speak, learn, move around freely and choose how to dress.

In Atwood’s story, women play a special role in reproduction. There is a strong similarity between them and those of Christine de Pisan’s world.  In both cases they have clearly defined gender roles that involve servitude and sex.

They are not respected in the society. In Pisan’s narration, men, even learned, are inclined to express both verbally and in writing so many lies and insults about women and their behavior. Pisan is so disturbed and disappointed upon reading Matheolus’ text for it is a complete contrast of what exists in reality. Bohm clearly brings out this discrepancy (1-2). Pisan later writes to highlight the crucial role they play in day to day life.

Atwood’s story perhaps bears more similarities to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women than any other work. Inequalities between the sexes are better depicted here. The nature of the character of men and women is not founded on the same principles. Women are required to exercise virtues greater in degree as opposed to men. They are supposed to be obedient to them. Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale reveals things which, according to the society therein, can and cannot be done by men or women. For instance, women can neither whistle nor read ‘inappropriate’ material such as pornographic magazines. It is implied here that there is nothing wrong with this if men did it. In fact for some women just like “liquor and coffee” smoking is prohibited (Atwood 19).

Wollstonecraft thinks the difference in physique between boys and girls can be attributed to the restriction that the latter are subjected to, just like in Atwood’s story. According to her, boys are allowed to exercise whereas girls are confined and not allowed to exert any manual strength (Johnson par. 8). In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are not allowed to go to the river or over the bridges for “there’s no official reason for us to go down these steps, ride on the trains under the river, into the main city” (Atwood 41).

Women are not allowed to read and write. This limitation on what they can do is also observed in Wollstonecraft’s work, though to a smaller degree. This is so since although they are allowed to study, there are disciplines they cannot venture into. A good example is politics. The education they receive limits them on what jobs they can and cannot do. Even the government is discriminatory since it has jobs meant to be done by men only.

In a word, through these pieces of work, one can see how the woman is trapped in ‘social constraints’ in a male-dominated society. This is despite the central role she plays in the day to day life.  It may be worthwhile giving a little credit to one of the pioneers of prose narrative, Aphra Behn, a woman who in opposition stood up to the classically refined precepts of Augustan writers. Her works marked the beginning of psychological realism and a consistent narrative voice. Her pioneering work in prose narrative earned her a place in history, for it contributed to the form of the novel as it is today. She was in fact able to critically examine the social and domestic arrangements, contrary to history.

Works cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986. Print.

Johnson, J; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, 1792. Print.

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