Margaret Atwood’s epic novel The Handmaid’s Tale is on all counts a great read and a classic feministic work. But, by examining it more closely it is evident that the novel has deeper roots and shows characteristics of the gothic novel. Throughout this piece, I shall reveal and discuss the gothic elements in The Handmaid’s Tale such as the relevance of the castle, women in distress, the mysterious inscription and others, by comparing it to two other gothic novels; Romance of the Forest and Dracula.
In most gothic novels the heroine is threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male; Adeline’s life is menaced by the Marquis de Montalt (Romance of the Forest) and both Lucy and Mina’s lives are menaced by Count Dracula. The Handmaid’s Tale is a bit different in that the main idea is women of the society being threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male dominated system. In their new society, the women rank importance with their fertility. If a woman is not fertile she is made to be a ‘Martha’ – a cook or a servant.
If she is fertile – she becomes a handmaid – and she is sent from house to house to fornicate with the usually impotent Commanders. She has two years at each house, and if she does not bare any children she is sent to the ‘colonies’ with the ‘Unwomen’. Those who do bare children are highly praised and greatly admired. The handmaids must wear the prescribed ‘habit’, and must not look in the eyes of men. The women are treated as slaves in the new society and are brainwashed to think that this is alright. They are dominated by the men who hold all power. “We aren’t allowed to go there except in twos.
This is supposed to be for our own protection, though this notion is absurd: we are all protected already. The truth I that she is my spy, and I am hers. ” (p. 19) The men are quite despotic, since they kill those who do not obey their every rule and even punish those who have done ‘evil’ things in their former lives, before the regime was in use. The Gileadean ideas are based on a passage from the Bible, (Genesis 3:1-3) but are greatly misconstrued and misused. The oppression of women is based on the gothic injustice of the heroine in other gothic novels. The Castle has always been in the gothic novel.
Starting with Horace Warpole’s Castle of Otranto, it has always been an obvious and major component in the gothic genre. The Castle always represents a certain amount of danger; In Vathek the castle is the home of the horrible Prince and his awful mother signaling the evilness of the place. In the Romance of the Forest, although the castle acts as the character’s home, it is also always threatened by being found out, by the duke. It was constantly being menaced. In Dracula, the castle was the home of the vampire, and where all the horrible things happened to Jonathan Harker.
The castle is constantly represented as being evil and the locale of evil happenings or evil people. In The Handmaid’s Tale there are two such ‘castles’. They are not physically castles, but they are major buildings. One is an old Victorian house and the other, the Red Centre. The first ‘castle’ – the Red Centre – is the place where all the fertile women are sent to be trained as handmaids. Here, they are brainwashed by propaganda and ‘Aunts’ who teach them their new way of thinking. They must sleep in army cots and follow strict regimes.
The Red Centre represents a sort of prison. The women are the prisoners. Just like in Dracula, and Romance of the Forrest, the narrators are trapped in their cells as though in jail. The Red Centre is exactly that; a jail and a place cessation. The women’s old ways are restricted and terminated and their liberty is stolen from them. In the Victorian house, lives The Commander, his wife, the handmaid and a few servants and it is the location of many unfortunate things. It is where the handmaid must fornicate with the Commander on a regular basis.
This, is not a pleasant experience for it is her duty, not her passion that compels her to do so. Also, his wife is present for the act, which must be very humiliating having a witness to a deed that is so personal. It is also the locale of her life as a handmaid. It is the final destination of her training as a servile woman, as a handmaid. The house is where her new life as a prisoner woman is to unfurl. She is a prisoner in her own room: “I know why there is no glass, in front of the water-colour picture of blue irises, and why the
window only opens partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get that far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. ” (p. 8) The ‘castle’ represents the ceasing of ‘freedom’, for once she enters it – both the Red Centre and the house – she is a slave to man. Another element of the gothic novel is the costuming throughout this story. Although it is set in the future, they make the women dress in garb from the past. They wear drapey clothing described as habits.
The word habit refers to the dress in the gothic tale The Monk, by Matthew Lewis. “The skirt is ankle length, full, gathered to a flat yoke, that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. ” This style is also reminiscent of the nun. This is an ironic twist since nuns are chaste and married to God, while the handmaids are used for procreation/fornication purposes and are not permitted to have husbands. The parting of lovers is another gothic element. In The Romance of the Forest, Adeline and Theodore are separated for many months, but are eventually reunited.