A utopian novel portrays a nonexistent state and an idealistic way of life that establishes a model for social structure and progress. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale places itself in the dystopian tradition, presenting an unpleasant and unsettling imaginary society where the ominous tendencies of our own world are projected into some near future world. The objective of the dystopic novel is to provide the audience with a warning about the effects of excessive adherence to beliefs already existing in their world.
By watching the characters grapple with the effects of excess, the audience is supposed to learn how to avoid them and their consequences. Through The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood meant to warn society about the destructive effects of repressing female sexuality. She accomplishes this by portraying a society in which the men have taken all rights, privileges, and freedoms away from females, namely their sexual freedom. The result is a society in which the men attempt to legitimate and enhance their own power through the repression of women, and everyone, males and females, live despondently in a state of perpetual longing.
Atwood’s novel describes a not too futuristic society of Gilead, a society that overthrows the U. S. Government and institutes a fundamentalist regime that seems to persecute women specifically. The women of Gilead are not allowed to hold jobs, own property, or participate in the public sphere in any way. The regime reduces some women, the so-called Handmaids, to a purely pro-creational function. The protagonist of the novel, Offred, holds such a role. Handmaids are assigned to Commanders, who undergo a regular pro-creational ceremony with the Handmaids.
During these cold, formal rituals the wife is not only present, but lying on the bed with the Handmaid. This helps to maintain the appearance of the sanctity of marriage, one of the many Judeo-Christian dogmas that the Gilead regime fiercely upholds. This formalization and institutionalization of the act of sex represses the sexual freedom of the handmaids, and can be viewed as the enslavement of fertile women. They have no choice with whom, or when, they have sex, and they are not allowed to enjoy the act: “What’s going on in this room, under Serena Joy’s silvery canopy, is not exciting.
It has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions we used to titillate ourselves with” (Atwood 94). In Offred’s society, personal intimacy with one’s partner and the enjoyment of sex is extinguished; sex has been reduced to a duty to procreate. Essentially, the men of the society control the women’s sexuality by assigning them sexual partners. Consequently, the male repression of female sexual freedom results in the loss of personal identity for women.
The fact that the Handmaids are assigned new names, essentially a combination of the word of, and the name of their Commander, suggests how the common practice of assigning women the man’s last name upon marriage defines women in terms of their men. Women are not viewed as individuals, but are divided into roles: Marthas (cooks), Aunts (repressive women who indoctrinate the Handmaids in their procreative function), Wives, and Handmaids. Worse is the fate of the Unwomen, a group that is never clearly defined, but seem to have deviated from, or “failed,” in their assigned roles.
They are sent to the colonies to perform toxic cleanups. In Gilead, the different female roles were divided up according to various color codes: blue for the Wives; red for the Handmaids; and brown for the Marthas. There are hierarchies within these color-coded identities; Serena and the other Wives possess a status that is dependent on the status of their husbands. This scheme caused contempt among the women, themselves. The Wives were jealous and scornful of the Handmaids, and the Marthas and Handmaids felt disdainfully about the Wives.
There were even petty jealousies within the ranks of the respective roles. The patriarchy set women against each other in a divide and conquer pattern to make them easier to control. The dominant males of the society controlled and repressed the women’s sexuality by stripping them of their individualities, and color-coding their identities. The biblical reference that justifies, according to Gilead’s customs, the exploitation of the Handmaid’s fertility comes from Genesis.
Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, bears no children, and this is particularly galling given that her sister bears “fruitfully” (a word also used frequently in the novel). Rachel tells Jacob to have sex with her maid, Bilhah, in order to bear children in her name. Bilhah does bear Jacob children but she, like Offred, appears to have no choice in the matter. As such, the “ceremonies” preformed in the novel under the guidance of this scriptural precedent appear to be a grotesquely literal performance of the biblical story used, by the dominant males, for justification of their system.
This is particularly the case when they are contrasted with the Commander’s behavior. For instance, when he takes Offred to Jezebels (which leads to her being banished from the house by Serena) the reader discovers that it is not the first time he has “ruined” a Handmaid. The biblical connection, then, is clearly used by the men to justify their pleasure, and to legitimate their power over women. They do not themselves believe in the moral codes that they expect women to abide by.
Religion and theocracy are defined, interpreted, and employed by the men to empower themselves over women, and to repress their sexuality. The result of the strictly theocratic, sexually repressive, and male-dominated civilization are a society in which all members are discontent and ill at ease: I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… Now the flesh arranges itself differently.
I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping (73). In this quotation Offred is comparing how she views her body now, and how she used to view it before the implementation of the Gilead regime. Before, her body was an instrument, and extension of her identity and sexuality. Now, these things no longer matter, and her body is only important because of its “central object,” her womb. Offred’s musings show her forlorn nature that the repression of her sexuality has caused.
Even the men and women who helped instigate the regime have come to loathe it. They long for passion and freedoms that are now alien to them. The citizens of Gilead are cold, melancholy, and detached. The extreme patriarchal and theocratic rule succeeded in making some believe that its ways were right, but it failed to make people forget what a different world could be like, and how exciting and passionate sex used to be. An epigraph to the novel from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” hints that Atwood’s aim in writing the novel was satirical.
She wanted to draw attention to the vices and follies of her enemies by illustrating expounded practices that they might support or enforce. Particularly, she concentrated on parodying the beliefs of Western patriarchal society, which is commonly believed to be based on the Old Testament. That the cultural influence of the Biblical depiction of women is the chief enemy can be seen in the trappings of the Gilead state: intolerant evangelists, selective and even erroneous Biblical quotations used to justify laws, and the elite’s bearing of the name “Sons of Jacob,” among others.
Atwood’s employment of satire aided in her purpose for writing the novel-to warn of the implications of contemporary views and practices. She felt that if extreme elements of the religious right had their way, women would be denied certain liberties and repressed sexually. To illustrate her message she portrayed the men of her fictional, futuristic society as sexually enslaving and repressing women in order to guarantee that all the power lay in the men’s hands.
By satirizing these attitudes towards female sexuality, the message that Atwood conveys is that men should have no control over the sexual lives of females. Women should be able to choose with whom they have sex, and in what manner they want to practice sex. Through this message, Atwood urges support for sexual freedoms and liberties such as abortion, easy access to birth control, and lesbianism. She acknowledges that for women to gain more power in our society they must embrace and enjoy their sexual freedom, and not allow power to be relegated to males.