The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
May 20, 2021
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Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale is a work of fiction that tells the story of Offred, a woman who was once free, but lost her independence when the United States of America was replaced by the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic and totalitarian state. The novel focuses on the subjugation and enslavement of women, some of whom are forced into sexual servitude and referred to as handmaids. The authors main goal was to demonstrate how difficult it is to fight for freedom and happiness in a dystopian world. Moreover, the novel shows that it is almost impossible to struggle against a totalitarian government and its restrictions and confines if you are a single person, who people in power consider to be inhuman. In her work, Atwood identified that the objectification of females and their bodies, the legalization of rape and sexual violence based on religious dogmas, utilization of specific language, and individual womens arrogance and desire to preserve the remains of their power are the factors that help support and maintain the totalitarian regimes imposed by males.
The first important issue that is discussed in The Handmaids Tale is the reduction of females to instruments of reproduction in a theocratic patriarchal society. In the novel, the state of Gilead emerged in response to a birth crisis; due to a number of environmental factors, the birthrate decreased significantly. In order to control the reproduction and increase the population, the new government based the structure of their society on rigid political hierarchy with elements of religious ideology. The newly emerged state attempted to deal with the problem of infertility by imposing a total control of females and their bodies with the help of political subjugation. In the new world, women had no rights to vote, hold any property, or go to work; all these women having jobs: hard to imagine now claims the main character (Atwood 69). Such policies existed directly to prevent women from becoming independent social units and to make their existence impossible without the support of husbands or the state. This was the only way the government could subjugate modern independent females.
Despite the new governments claim that their highest priority is the comfort and improvement of the status of the women, Gileads policy actually creates a state where females are lower creatures. The society reduces women to their primary purpose giving birth, and thus a set of ovaries and a womb are the only important elements that one should possess. Therefore, Gilead ignores the humanity and psychological needs of the subjugated members of society. Offred recounts how before Gilead her body was a source of her desires and pleasure, but afterwards she is perceived as a pile of flesh that surrounds the womb that must be permanently filled in order to make her a useful element of society: What we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy to be filled: with grace, with love, with self-denial, semen and babies (Atwood 98). Thereby, the government did everything possible to rid females of their personalities and a sense of individuality to make them obedient and silent carriers of the new generations of citizens.
Additionally, the reduction of the role and rights of women in society makes them exposed to rape and sexual violence. The founders of the new ideology claimed that they established the new state order because of the great amount of pornography and high rape rates in the world before Gilead. Both the government and the Aunts, women whose task is to train new Handmaids, constantly emphasize that females are finally respected and protected from violence. The legal penalty for rape is death. For example, the Handmaids are allowed to tear apart any male citizen who is accused of raping a woman: This man, says Aunt Lydia, has been convicted of rape… We are permitted anything… She pushes him down, then kicks his head viciously, one, two, three times, sharp painful jabs with the foot, well aimed (Atwood 428). However, it is clear that although on the legislative level sexual violence is severely punished, the government actually legalized it since there are specific clubs in Gilead that provide officials and male elite with the services of unpaid, enslaved women. Finally, the obligation of the Handmaids to constantly participate in the Ceremony, a rite that forces them to have sex with their Commanders, is the most apparent proof that sexual violence is present and successfully exercised in Gilead.
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The other significant element of the novel is a discussion of such a significant social aspect as language as well as the way it can be used to create a specific type of society, specifically, a totalitarian state. In Atwoods work, language is described as an effective instrument of power. Gilead developed its own specific vocabulary to alter the previously established reality and to make it more fitting for the needs of the new political elite. In order to change the role of females in society, who were restricted from having jobs, the new government developed a system of titles. While the place of a man in community is determined by his military rank, all women are defined by their gender roles. There are only three female titles Wives, Handmaids, and Marthas. By taking away womens names the government attempts to take away their individualities. Simultaneously, terms Unbabies and Unwomen were created to refer to deformed children and infertile women, while the Jews and Black people are referred to by their biblical descriptions Sons of Jacob and Sons of Ham (Atwood 307). These new names distinguish and set apart these social groups, making them easier to persecute.
In addition to the new titles and name systems, the government developed a specific set of greetings for personal meetings, which acknowledge and reinforce the social distinctions and gradations in the minds of citizens. If a person fails to respond correctly to a greeting, such individual immediately falls under suspicion of disloyalty to the state. Additionally, the new society uses a modified set of terms that define distinct rituals of the state, such as Salvaging or Particicution: Waterford… was responsible for the design of female costumes… He seems to have been the originator of the term Particicution… Salvaging may have been his too (Atwood 426). The novel makes it clear that there is a strong connection between the perversion of language and the ability of the government to repress its subjects and impose a specific worldview or ideology. It becomes obvious that Gilead uses names and titles to maintain its control over female bodies.
Another significant issue discussed in the novel is how arrogance and the sence of self-servitude prevent people from revolting against global evil. Atwoods novel describes a situation in which people willingly endure the oppression of the government if they are capable of achieving at least a small amount of freedom or power. The main character recounts an instance when her mother commented on how astonishing it is that people can adapt to the most horrible conditions if they receive some reward for it: Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing what people can get used to, as long as there are few compensations (Atwood 416). This idea is supported by Offreds own self-satisfaction after she starts a relationship with Nick, even though the law limits her personal life greatly compared to the lifestyle free from any boundaries that she used to have. A relationship with Nick gives her an opportunity to reclaim some amount of that freedom, her own self, and her desires, which were all present in her previous existence. This affection, intimacy, and closeness become the compensation she needs to be able to bear the burden of restrictions. For some time Offred becomes so content with her life that she forgets how terrible the world around her is.
Similarly, the women of Gilead support the new government by willingly taking part in the new social order. Therefore, they become agents of the totalitarian state. For example, the Wives like Serena Joy lost their power and influence on the social and political life of the country, but find delight in exercising authority in their homes and over their Handmaids and Marthas. Such women passionately guard the remains of their former power. In the same manner, the group of women known as Aunts possess some amount of power in a society of men, so they act as supporters of the totalitarian state to maintain their status. They teach other women the rules of the new ideology and watch over the Handmaids to prevent rebellions. However, it is obvious that, although the author condemns such behavior of women of all statuses and social groups, she stresses that it is very difficult to revolt in a totalitarian state. Even if these women stop complying, it will be very difficult for them to bring forth any changes, because a small rebellion would mean nothing in such a powerful state as Gilead.
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In conclusion, Margaret Atwoods dystopian novel The Handmaids Tale reflects on a great number of social and political issues, which remain relevant in the contemporary society. The novel demonstrates the dangers of combining political and religious ideologies, and show how religion can be used to justify persecutions based on gender or race. Additionally, the work emphasizes the importance of carefully monitoring the activities of the government and the terminology it uses. Inaction could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian regime, under which it would become almost impossible for a single person to fight for their rights and freedom.