The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the early twentieth century in the futuristic Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States of America. The Republic has been founded by a Christian response to declining birthrates. The government rules using biblical teachings that have been distorted to justify the inhumane practices. In Gilead, women are categorized by their age, marital status and fertility. Men are categorised by their age. Women all have separate roles in society, and although these roles are different, they all share the same theme: Every woman is confined to the home and has a domestic duty.
Marthas are cooks and housekeepers, and handmaids have one duty, which is to reproduce, growing and giving birth to babies to the childless wives of the higher class. The Aunts train and brainwash the handmaids to fulfill their duties. Atwood uses the Aunts to show that in Gilead women are not just oppressed by men, but also by women. Older single women, gay men, and barren handmaids are sent to the colonies to clean up after war and toxic spills, and will probably die due to exposure to radiation. This is because they have no reproductive powers and so are seen as useless in the Republic.
People’s use and status is totally dependant on their ability to reproduce. Women’s roles are visually defined in the clothes that they wear. Every woman must dress in the appropriate attire in accordance with her role. The Marthas wear green dresses, the Wives blue dresses and the handmaids wear red. The handmaids’ red, nun-like uniform symbolizes their imprisonment in that role. ‘Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us. ‘ The red colour of the handmaids’ dresses symbolizes fertility, which is their primary function.
Red may also suggest the blood of the menstrual cycle and childbirth. Although the handmaid’s role is the most important in this patriarchal society, they are treated as the lowest class. In Gilead, women are treated like objects and all of their rights are taken away from them. They cannot vote, hold property or jobs, read, or do anything else that might cause them to become rebellious or independent, and undermine the men, or the state. Even the shops where the handmaids go to buy food do not have names on for them to read, just pictures.
The only thing important about a woman now is her ovaries and her womb, as they are reduced to just their fertility. ‘I used to think of my body as an instrument of pleasure… ‘ ‘… I’m a cloud congealed around a central object,’ The language that Atwood uses here shows that a woman’s womb is the only solid, real thing that they possess. A woman’s emotions, feelings and other body parts are like ‘a cloud’, they are insignificant and not real, and are seen to just float around the solid object that is their womb. Enforcers of the regime, such as the Aunts believe that this is a better, safer world for women.
One of them states that in the time before, women had freedom to, and now they have freedom from. This means that they will not be raped or abused, they will not be whistled at, and will not have to be scared of anything when walking alone. However, what is happening to them in this new society, is, in reality, much worse. The novel is a shocking look at the future. With an original publication date of 1985, it may seem a little outdated, but this tale of a dystopian society will not age, as we see in the novel, the vulnerable position of women and how they are unwillingly plunged into Gilead’s assigned reproductive roles.
The narrator of the novel is a fertile handmaid named Offred, which means that she is ‘Of Fred’ – her commander. Offred’s name implies that she, like every other handmaid in Gilead, is considered state property and the state insists that her womb is a ‘national resource’. Instead of their own personal name, a handmaid is tattooed with a number and given this denomination of their commander’s name. A handmaid’s name simply reflects who owns them, and so they are subsequently stripped of any individuality.
Every time a handmaid hears her new name, she is reminded that she is no more than property, and never reminded of her sovereign individuality. We never learn Offred’s real name form the time before, although there are clues throughout the novel, but we do see that she forces herself to remember it, as a symbol of hope and change. As well as their compulsory red dresses handmaids must also wear wings over their faces, so that no one sees their faces, and they cannot see the faces of others. Throughout the novel, Offred uses different tactics to cope with her situation.
She is trapped in the distopian society, and although she is not physically tortured, the overwhelming power of the government mentally enslaves her. Essentially, the government enslaves her because she is female and fertile. Offred reminisces about her previous life by recalling stories of her husband Luke, her daughter, and her best friend Moira, which often provides her with temporary relief from her binding situation. She also manages to establish a forbidden friendship with a guardian, working for her commander, Nick. Offred longs for her husband and feels that she finds love of a similar kind with Nick.
She risks her life on several occasions to be with Nick, and she finds that his love gives her a window of hope in her otherwise miserable life. Instead of proclaiming her feelings aloud, Offred suppresses them, because if she did not, she would be executed and shown as an example to other women of her position. Through a series of recordings describing her life, it is shown that she cannot resolve her problems due to the outside circumstances. In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood uses the characters of Moira and Offred’s mother to present two different feminist perspectives.
Unlike Offred, they are unwilling to be passive and accept the new laws of the society. Moira is strong and independent, who is unlike any other woman of her status, as she rejects the life of a handmaid, and so the author uses her real name. Throughout the novel, Offred refers to Moira in nostalgic memories, and also as a main character who challenges the regime. She is portrayed as a rebel even before the regime begins. ‘in her purple overalls, one dangly earring, the gold fingernail that she wore to be eccentric, ‘ Atwood uses Moira to represent a particular type of young feminists that were active in the 1980’s.