The Handmaid’s Tale – Critical Review
“For the Handmaid’s Tale to be successful, elements of the novel must be recogniseable.”
“I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.” – Offred.
Novels are beautiful captivating things – able to manipulate and influence a reader’s perspective. Through captivating the mind and heart of the reader, the novel is successful within it’s purpose – to convey a predominant intention. In order for a novel be successful, elements must be recognisable, thus – engaging and enticing the reader and making connections with the outside world to deepen they’re understanding.
Therefore, The Handmaid’s tale is successful because elements of the text are recognisable.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a well-written and captivating novel that showcases a totalitarian regime and it’s impacts on women in particular. The novel takes place in the 1990’s in Gilead – previously the place of Harvard University. The Republic of Gilead have reinforced new laws and regulations that strip women of their rights to be human beings – disenfranchising them by impounding their credit cards, refusing them jobs, education and oppressing them to be “walking wombs” as their sole purpose. Written by Margaret Atwood, the readers shortly understand her pro-women attitude as she cleverly builds a dystopian society we may fall into. Atwood has conducted relevant research to ensure the readers understand how close we are to replicating a society where women are stripped of their rights, demeaned and nothing more than viable ovaries – exactly like the Republic of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is written in a subjective point of view, to somewhat engage the reader with the protagonist Offred and her role as a Handmaid for her Commander (Of-Fred). Atwood further entwines recognisable elements of Irony, Allusions and Themes thus – the novel is successful.
Atwood uses irony profusely in the Handmaid’s Tale through the use of different characters and works to strongly address the contradictory and hypocritical nature of the Gilead society. Characters such as Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander are the obvious sources of irony that depict ways in which Gilead is corrupt and yet manages to contradict itself as well. Offred – the protagonist, is an anti-hero whom is passive and fails to stand up for herself despite her hatred and strong disagreement to the Gilead society. This is ironic, as Offred disagrees with the rules of Gilead and yet she doesn’t do anything about it – whether it be to escape, kill herself or defy the law once and for all. Offred is a frustrating character who fails to take action despite her constant thoughts of misery. “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” Through this passage, Offred shows her sadness of being branded with a new name of her Commander, she is no longer an individual with freedom of expression nor does she have rights to choose for herself. The element of irony here is shown as Offred refuses to move forward and make a stand. Offred will complain about her daily life with explicit detail as she overthinks this, and yet she will not do anything about it – therefore, this cycle of misery and sadness is endless and frustrating for readers. Whilst this is frustrating for readers, we are quick to judge Offred for how passive she is and perhaps need to be more forgiving. As readers, we see that Offred has a different mentality than other Handmaid’s, as she has a child whom she hasn’t seen for 5 years – this gives her an excuse or exemption for not making a stand. Therefore, not only has Offred been stripped of her own rights as a woman, but also her right to be with her child. The irony of the novel is portrayed through the use of Offred and reinforced by Atwood; during a forum, Atwood was asked “How come you’re such a pessimist?” and “Why don’t you have happier endings?” Atwood answers directly “Because I’m writing in the ironic mode…” Through the use of Offred in the Handmaid’s Tale, the element of irony is preponderant. Irony becomes an element that is recognisable because we as readers, identify with Offred as a Handmaid – and yet her defiance to do anything about the society she lives in. I believe Atwood has used Irony for Offred to shed light upon the negative and corrupt Gilead society – and how this has influenced and manipulated Offred. Irony is used to expose Gilead for what it really is – a phasade and concealment of it’s disfunction. Gilead is incredibly disfunctional as it controls women, attains a hierarchy where men are superior, and follows absurd regimes – such as the ceremony between Offred and the Commander once a month.
Serena Joy is another character whom reveals the element of Irony in the Handmaid’s Tale. The origins of her name ‘Serene’ and ‘Joy’ are the first concepts of irony readers grasp of her. Serena Joy is anything except serene or joyful – she is depressed, lonely and unsatisfied with everything around her. “With everything to choose from in the way of names, why did she pick that one? Serena Joy was never her real name, not even then. Her name was Pam.” Serena Joy is the Wife of the Commander, whilst in her past life – she was a gospel singer on TV, who used to condemn others for their sinful acts. However now, she is so unhappy with the society she has made herself. “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.” She also breaks her own rules when she advises Offred to have sex with Nick to increase her chances of pregnancy – fearing that perhaps the Commander is infertile, despite ‘sterile men ceasing to exist.’ It is basically ironic how Serena Joy breaks her own rules whilst her name is a direct comparison and contrast to her unhappiness ‘Serene/Joy.’ Atwood clearly muses over the irony of the Gilead society and it’s characters she has created – including Serena Joy and Offred. Atwood has her own ironic perceptions and these are shown in the novel, she entertains herself through contradictory and irony – seen as both Offred and Serena Joy contradict themselves. Serena Joy has contributed to the corrupt society of Gilead – she previously had made presentations upon why women should stay at home. Serena Joy oppresses women, despite she also being a women. Serena Joy has left herself with no rights, and she suffers and becomes so unhappy with life that she resorts to knitting and gardening. Knitting and gardening become her ironic hobbies as her hands no longer function as they used to. Whilst, gardening represents new-life and a new-beginning – despite her inability to produce new-life and give birth to a child herself. Irony becomes a recognisable element in the novel when Serena Joy asks Offred to betray the Commander and break the law by having sex with Nick – bettering her chance of becoming pregnant. This is ironic, as Serena Joy has put these laws in place herself, and is breaking them and defying the Republic of Gilead simultaneously. Therefore, Serena Joy is an ironic character and represents irony throughout the novel.
Lastly, the irony is recognisable through the Commander. The Commander is represented as a strong, powerful and dominant figure among society, and yet he is supposed to make the Handmaid conceive but in reality he is suppressed and unhappy – as Offred unravels this along the novel. He doesen’t follow the rules created by the society – instead he breaks them and offers acts of kindness towards the Handmaid’s. Late night talks with Offred, playing scrabble, reading the bible and taking her out to the hotel/nightclub, prove how ironic the Commander is. It’s ironic how a powerful man in society is to be the one who follows the rules, yet he is the one who breaks them and is childish and immature in reality. Ironic as he is conveyed as powerful, yet he is not. The Commander is the most naiive character in the novel, which indeed is ironic given how much power he has. Perhaps Atwood’s purpose here is to present the idea – that you have to be naiive to succeed in Gilead, just as Offred must be naiive and “stand there and look stupid” in order to succeed and follow the rules in Gilead. In his interactions with Offred, The Commander comes across like an eager little boy despite the fact that “he looks like a midwestern bank president.” The Commander is powerful, he has high-status and is upper-class, yet he defys this stereotypical figure and breaks the societal mould. The Commander dresses Offred in a naughty outfit and takes her to the Jezebel’s, where he can show her off in front of everyone. “It’s like screwing on the altar or something: [Handmaids] are supposed to be such chaste vessels. They like to see you all painted up. Just another crummy power trip.” This is breaking the law – ironic, as the Commander contributes to the corrupt Gilead society and has ensured that he is superior to women. Thus, Atwood makes irony recognisable through The Commander. Through the use of Offred, Serena Joy and the Commander, Atwood has ensured the use of irony is recognisable through their thoughts, actions and various roles throughout the novel. The readers identify with irony and contrast this to the irony of Gilead, the corrupt and yet contradictory system they have created for themselves.
Control is the overriding theme presented within the novel, but there are subsets of this theme. Control of Women, and Control of Sexuality are predominantly recogniseable throughout The Handmaid’s Tale – drawing attention to the reality of Gilead and the outside world. Control of women is a predominant theme in the novel as women are to be either Handmaids, Martha’s or Wives in order to fit the societal mould of Gilead. Handmaid’s are controlled by wearing only red clothing – ankle length, living in a house they are told to, they have their children and husbands taken away from them. Whilst their sole purpose of existence is to provide children for other families, essentially they are “walking wombs.” With the establishment of Gilead underway, all women were cut off from their bank accounts and properties – they owned nothing. All possessions were given to their husbands/partners and women were refused of jobs and education. “Any account with an F on it instead of an M, all they needed to do is push a few buttons – we’re cut off.” Control of women, is shown as men are superior, whilst women are stripped of their freedom to choose for themselves and make decisions. Women are treated like little children, taught to think of themselves as inferior always – and to obey their Commanders.“All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.” Atwood is famous for creating themes of control through use of strong and vulnerable female characters – including Serena Joy and Offred. Through Offred, we see how she is vulnerable and therefore must walk each day with a fellow Handmaid. She also must partake in a ceremony each month to have sex with the Commander – here Offred is exploited and disadvantaged; she cannot make any action of individuality or expression, she is barely seen as human. Offred is controlled – “I cannot avoid seeing now, the small tattoo on my ankle, 4 digits and an I, a passport in reverse” she cannot travel or escape far enough – her mark identifies her. This theme; control of women is very aprehensive and present in the novel. It becomes an idea recognised constantly through Offred and her lack of freedom.
Control of sexuality is a significant theme shown in the novel – referring to Gilead’s regime. Gilead’s regime is focused on the control of sex and sexuality – both forms of expression and freedom of body. Gilead executes gays and lesbians, they destroy pornography and sexual clothing, they kill abortion doctors, they outlaw divorce and second marriages, and they ritualize bizarre sexual relations that they believe are supported by the Bible. In attempt to seperate sex and sexuality, Gilead ensures that Handmaid’s are to have sex once a month with their Commander’s – sexual relations with anyone else is forbidden.“Modesty is invisibility never forget it. To be seen to be seen is to be penetrated. What you must be girls, is impenetrable.” The Commander also controls sex, he chooses to take Offred out to the Jezebel’s for his own benefit of getting “a kick out of it.” The Commanders and men want control of sex, it’s in their nature to want to pursue sex and yet Gilead controls not only women but men. Men and women are both denied their right to have sexual relations and choose their sexuality, this puts men in their place. Men control society, yet they have contradicted themselves, and oppressed women to the point where men cannot have sex either. “They touch with their eyes instead, it’s like thumbing your nose from behind fence or teasing a dog with a bone…I enjoy the power, I hope they get hard at the sight of us.” By destroying the privacy of even condoned sexual acts, the government seems to encourage those in power to act out against these regulations – in this case, men. Atwood ties many ideas of rape and assault into The Handmaid’s Tale to shed light of female’s control of sexuality. In the novel, the relationship between sex and power shows how the sexual abuse of the female body, whether it be through childbirth or rape, creates a dystopia for women.“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or remotest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” The themes – control of sexuality and control of women are recognisable elements in the novel, as characters are impacted directly by the control of Gilead. These elements are recognisable to readers, thus – The Handmaid’s Tale is successful because Atwood’s intentions are clear, and her use of literary devices support this.
The element of Allusion is used cleverly by Atwood in The Handmaid’s tale to reference events, and ideas occurring in our world. The Handmaid’s Tale is a complex novel – not just because of it’s highly fragmented plot but also due to the high amount of different concepts and vast variety of literary allusions. The first allusion of The Handmaid’s Tale is seen in the prologue – before the novel begins. “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, give me children, or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said Am I in God’s stead who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may have children by her.” This is significant as it gives reference to a biblical allusion, giving insight of what the plot synopsis and yet also the key idea throughout the novel. The story of Rachel and Jacob (Genesis), shows how Gilead is attempting to replicate a society in which follows the bible; ensuring all women bare children, and using Handmaid’s to conceive. This idea is referenced in the novel as Rachel was unable to bare Jacob children – therefore their maid conceived children for them. This has become the foundation for The Handmaid’s Tale, as Handmaid’s conceive children for the Commanders – as the Wives are unable to bare children themselves. This biblical allusion is recognisable because it references biblical terminology and an event in the Old Testament. Consequenetly – Rachel and Jacob are an integral part of the Gilead society, shaping it to ensure citizens speak in biblical terms and also the establishment of Handmaid’s.
‘Penis Envy’ – Freud’s Theory is another allusion shown in the novel, aimed at determining women’s psychosexual development. Freud’s Theory states that women develop this conditions when it occurs to them that they don’t and will never have a penis. ‘Penis Envy’ is a stage therorized by Sigmund Freud, in which young girls experience an anxious stage where they distance themselves from their mother and become closer with their superior father. Atwood alludes to this theory throughout the novel – partcilary in the sense that ‘Pen Is Envy’ – women are denied education and the right to read and right. Atwood has established Gilead to be a sexist society where only men can hold pens – drawing attention to the power and control men have over propaganda and women. Atwood clearly sees that communication through language and knowledge is a desireable power – and this perspective is shown in The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are refused of communication of any sort – no writing, speaking in non-biblical terms or individual expression through action. “All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.” Women are the main victims in the society which Atwood has illustrated – her vision on society reflects through this, as men have control and power. Having a penis, essentially creates a persona that men are more powerful and superior than women – they have the right to educate themselves, to exploit women and dominate a society of their own. Subsequently, the allusion of ‘Penis Envy’ is used in the novel to reference Freud’s theory of women’s inferiorty toward men. This element of allusion, enhances the idea that men attain a higher power than women – in The Handmaid’s Tale. Through the allusion ‘Penis Envy’ The Handmaid’s Tale is more successful as powerful ideas are conveyed, not only in the novel but also in our day and age today.
The Handmaid’s Tale is successful because elements of the novel are recogniseable. Irony, Themes and Allusion contribute towards Atwood’s overall intentions and objectives. Through these elements – The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a convincingly realistic novel, that prompts readers to reflect upon our society and what it could become in the near future.