In contemporary North American society, women are viewed in a different manner than they were in previous eras. Women have rights, and freedoms that their ancestors could not have even dreamt of. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the society, Gilead, was once much like our own, until a totalitarian government took over and the people, especially women, were stripped of their rights and freedoms. In Gilead, due to wide spread sterility (of no known cause), women who are fertile are forced into the role of a Handmaid. As a Handmaid, each woman lives in a household with a man, known as the Commander, and his wife.
The Handmaids role is to have sex, once a month, with the Commander in the hope of getting pregnant, as the Handmaids, unlike all other women in Gilead, are still fertile. Although the Handmaids do not wish to engage in this, they do so as the consequence of abstinence is exile to barren colonies. Although many of the Handmaids just accept their fate, and go along with the law, the main character of Atwood’s novel, a Handmaid named Offed, longs for the times before the totalitarian government came to power, and does not follow the uniform ways that are being fed to her.
Offred exemplifies a non- conformist character, who does not follow the newly standardized ways. This contrasts with the other Handmaids who are too afraid to stray from the expectations of conformity, therefore leading to more conformists than non-conformists. Atwood’s portrayal of these two types of characters is used to make a commentary of the role of women in society and their ability to make a difference.
The women who conform and go along with the social norms of Gilead, and follow the institutional rules of the government, end up living unhappy lives, because they do not have the freedom to make meaningful choices in their lives. Characters, such as the aunts, who work at the Red Centre (the training place for the Handmaids), are full conformists. The aunts are complete believers in the new laws put in place by the totalitarian government and their job in the society is to influence the up-and-coming Handmaids into abiding by the government and completing the vital task of producing offspring.
They are adamant about their job and very encouraging to the Handmaids: “Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary. ” (Atwood 33) The Aunts, work hard to enforce the laws; and since they follow the laws, and have conformed to the new society, these aunts are now unhappy and have been in several situations in which the Handmaids (who are supposed to respect and follow them) speak of their dishonesty, unhappiness, and downright hatred.
This shows that by conforming, they have lost the love and respect of their fellow peers and now aunts, much like Aunt Lydia, feel alone and are in despair. Also in despair and in a pure state of unhappiness is the Commander’s Wife, the wife of the house that Offred lives in. The unique situation that she and the other wives are in makes them resentful and bitter. These wives must allow for their husband, The Commander, to have sex with a Handmaid in hopes that she may become pregnant and therefore give her, the wife, a baby to raise.
Offred feels pity towards these women as she herself had felt, prior to the government overtake, the love for a husband and, as Aunt Lydia puts it, the women have reason for jealousy: “It’s not the husbands you have to watch out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the Wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Of course they will resent you. It is only natural. Try to feel for them. ” (Atwood 57) The Wife who Offred lives with follows the rules, she has conformed but at the same time she does little but sit at home, knit and garden – she rarely smiles and she does not speak to Offred unless absolutely necessary.
This does not vary from house to house, or Wife to Handmaid; instead, these women live their lives interacting as little as possible, therefore, preserving their own happiness and not straining their relationship with the Commander or going insane with jealousy. Both of these character categories, the aunts and the wives, have conformed – they follow the rules put in place and they do not question anyone or stray from the established rulings. Though despite their conformity and law abiding ways, they are unhappy, they live their lives avoiding people, such as the Handmaids, and creating grudges between peers.
These women do indeed follow the government but, in turn, do not make a positive difference in society, and they also do not think, act or make decisions for themselves. The women who choose to fight against the conformity of Gilead are able to make choices, which empower and fulfill them. Offred is a clear example of a non-conformist; she desires her old life and she frequently acts out in small rebellious ways in order to demonstrate to the government that she is not their pawn and that they do not control her.