By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the controversial dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. In early 2017, a television adaption hit the screens, renewing it in the eyes of the modern consumer. In the first episode, Margaret Atwood, the original author, cameos as one of the tyrannical Aunt figures. And what did she do, you ask?
Literally slap her protagonist across the face. That’s it. A good, firm slap to wake her character to the reality of her new life.
In all fairness, Atwood has to put her through some tough times, otherwise why would we bother indulging in anything without a little suffering? … Or a lot, in this case.
Margaret Atwood has presented a plot where her protagonist, Offred, endures a number of wrong-doings, with suffering and dehumanisation around every corner. With only one option- to breed, the mono-theocratic society of Gilead is one of misogyny, religious fanaticism, classist social hierarchies, but is basically just a living hell for poor Offred.
Looking for 4 ways that you, a budding author, can be assured to completely screw with the sanity of your protagonist? Atwood sets the best example around.
- The sex wasn’t great.
First and foremost, there is simply no way I can ignore THAT sex scene. Yeah, you know the one. I can confidently say it was two minutes of my most nauseating reading experience. The Commander doing his *ahem* “duty”, Offred lying on the bed blatantly describing the encounter, and just to make things even weirder, Serena Joy gripping the handmaid’s arms. When the Commander finally finishes, he removes himself from this messed-up threesome of sorts. With as much grace as one could possibly muster, he exits the room, leaving the two women together. Instead of resting for 10 minutes like she is supposed to, Offred is commanded to leave the room by a very impatient Serena Joy. As Offred quickly leaves, she feels the “juice of the Commander [as it] runs down [her] legs”.
But let’s crack down to it, to see why Atwood pulls this major dick move. Oh no, the innuendos…
In a society where reproduction is of the highest priority, the legislative alterations that support the goal of population growth are heavily enforced through strict consequences (like, you know, death). Through the tyrannical nature of Gilead, a focus on banning abortion, artificial reproductive technologies, and converting the nature of modern sex are entwined with puritan ideologies to deliver a return to traditional ideals.
In this quotation, Atwood presents her protagonist as enduring a ceremony that is neither pleasurable nor painful, due to her ability to remove her emotions from the situation. This emptiness she portrays creates a stark juxtaposition with the reader’s pre-determined mind set in regard to the elements pertaining to sex.
Normally, we are shown a romantic scene. Delicate rose petals, scented candles, and probably a Boyz II Men song. Comparatively, the horrific recounts of rape usually feature intense fear or even survival mechanisms. Offred consents to all sexual encounters, admitting that it’s what she “signed up for” when she choosing to become a handmaid. The alternate option of becoming an ‘Unwoman’, banished to the lands of nuclear radioactivity, ensures that she is forced to choose between life as a dehumanised womb or certain death. Now that’s living!
Instead, this chapter falls into a no-man’s land of sorts, belonging to no traditional sex scene genre. This is achieved through its hyper-realistic descriptions and all together atypical, dystopian context. Offred settles on the label of “fucking” to accurately describe the sex, highlighting her resistance to Gilead and Biblical discourse (
which, TBH, still doesn’t really seem that much better). The use of profanity employs a candid and blunt effect, rather than one of provocation, adding to the absolutely nauseating encounter. It’s the inability to relate as a reader that makes the chapter so confronting in the abnormal content it presents.
But seriously, “juice”? Bleugh.
- Do you have this in any other colour?
First of all, Atwood limits Offred’s options to the point where constitutionalised rape is literally the best option available. To add to this pain, she makes her endure this in a colour that she says she has “never looked good in”. Damn, Atwood. Harsh. And to rub it in Offred’s nose even more, she goes and gives those nasty wives a delicate blue. Yet, underneath all these ‘wOmanLY iNjuStiCEs’, Atwood’s intricate symbolism and manipulation of colour can be seen as the true intention.
In this novel, red is used as a continual reference to the handmaids, and because of this, acts as a reminder of fertility – their defining characteristic. Mimicking that of menstrual blood (because dressing up as a period is super in right now), the handmaids are constantly presented as a national resource, prompting the sole purpose they serve.
Intertextual links can be drawn between the red of the handmaid’s and that of the ‘A’ worn by a woman in the Scarlett Letter. Spoiler, women are about to be demonised… shocker. Used to shame those who commit adultery, red portrays these characters as demonic and shuns them from society. As the handmaids technically commit adultery, these novels can be viewed as parallel. Despite being told they are valued and important, the other characters openly scorn the handmaids and the duties they perform.
Throughout the ages, red has been a colour symbolic of power, worn by the likes of kings and rulers. When applying this to the handmaids, their only possessed power is that of child rearing. Even Offred’s name, whilst designed to be “Of Fred”, demonstrating their objectified nature, can also be seen as “Off Red”, no doubt of simple coincidence there, hey Atwood?
Yet, we shouldn’t be so dismissive. It is, after all, the most valuable possession – to control whether the population continues or not.
As wretched as these wives may seem, you’ve got to have a little sympathy for them. Their ovaries are all shrivelled up and they have to “share” their already distant husbands with a younger, fertile woman. Their designated blue attire corresponds with that of the Virgin Mary’s (it’s no wonder their heads are so far up their arses), and just like this Biblical figure, are presented as the exulted motherly symbols. Which, mind you, is pretty damn unfair considering their contributions to this process. Unlike the wives, handmaids must perform Ceremonies, carry the child during pregnancy, give birth, at which point their child is taken away and given to these purported ‘great mothers’.
At one point, Offred compares her red dress with that of a nun’s habit, of which I’m sure you can detect the blatant irony – because nothing says traditional puritanism like a pregnant nun.
- Weird Freudian Penis Stuff.
On top of all the extremely awful sex scenes, you just had to go adding in that whack Freudian business. Honestly, at this point I don’t know who is worse off, Offred for having to live in Gilead, or me, about to unpack this quotation. Okay, fine its her, whatever.
During one of Offred and the Commanders’ clandestine rendezvous in chapter 29, Offred asks the Commander for the translation of a Latin phrase she found etched into the corner of her wardrobe, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”. Eventually, he tells her that’s its just a school boy’s joke – “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. Okay, first of all, low blow. Atwood gives Offred this hope of some deeper meaning, which she lives by until the moment she discovers it’s simply a joke.
But in order to do this, Offred asks to initially write the phrase down. After being deprived of the ability to speak freely, read or write, this is played out as a rather significant moment. It is here, that she fully understands the power of the written word, realising that, “Pen Is Envy”. Which looks absolutely nothing like penis envy, right Atwood? How subtle.
Penis envy is a psychosexual stage theorised by Sigmund Freud (the founding father of all zany shit) regarding the development of young females. This is the resulting anxiety of the realisation they do not have a penis. Yep, weird. The gist of it is that females become jealous of masculine features that are associated with power, domination and status, leading us straight back to the core of this issue – the patriarchy. Despite some women possessing more power than men, such as the Serena over Nick, Gilead is ultimately orchestrated by [TRIGGER WARNING FOR ALL FEMINIST READERS] male supremacy. Women can only marry into power, which men have attained by climbing the ranks. It presents males and the essence of masculinity as one of dominance, and therefore deserving of the reign they hold over the Gileadian society. Atwood places us in an interesting position, where we acknowledge Offred’s desire for power to improve her diminished social status; however, I naturally frown upon this whack-job’s theory that this suggests a craving to be male.
Now that the obligatory phallic reference is over, we can move on.
- Adam and Leave.
Ahh yes, religion. A faith in deities which has led to endless bloodshed throughout history and seems to bring destruction wherever it ventures. Offred’s new life is no different. Atwood creates a society where the Old Testament reigns, and with it, its archaic and misogynistic values. Margaret Atwood demonstrates the dangers that come with legally reinforcing religious extremism. Again, the patriarchy is all up in this business – is anyone even surprised?
The dystopian trademark of theocracy and its purpose can be surmised by the concept that a woman’s role in life is to bear children and serve a male. This is featured in the epigraphs and repeatedly throughout the book, reinforcing its validity as a social norm. After being unable to conceive, the biblical Rachel says to Jacob, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees”. Okay someone get my girl Bilhah the heck outta there.
During the “Women’s Prayvaganza” in chapter 34, a Commander begins his speech to open the event. Whilst, young women are blindly married off to men, he states, “let the woman learn in silence with all subjection”, because after all, “Adam was first formed, then Eve”. Seems legit. In Gilead, legislation is designed to place men in positions of power and dictate citizens lives. Atwood presents its role as tyrannical and oppressive, acting as the architect in a fearful society. The ability to force “silence” upon a person demonstrates true power, yet not one worth admiration. A population of mind-numbingly repressed females is the direct consequence of removal of speech and expression of thought, especially when raised in this environment. But if you ask me, what’s the point of a growing population if all the citizens are the same? By drawing the parallel of Adam and Eve, it links these ideals back to religion, and how it is used to legitimise its subjugation of women. This reminds us of the power that religion holds in Gilead, and how its puritan values control its citizens through the mechanisms of fear and loss of freedom. Old testament-inspired fanaticism and fundamentalism provides a direct pathway to a society filled with backward ideology and stunted progression.
This age-old gendered prejudice is cemented in the premise that essentially men are the superior being, and I mean who couldn’t argue with that logic? After all, both God and his son (a white male named Jesus who was left to die on a crucifix) are males, so why wouldn’t they be better?
(P.S. check out this link about Jesus to see why he would be a she: https://youtu.be/VknatF-Ddtw )
To end this blogpost, I wish to leave you all with the reminder that no one is inherently good or bad, no matter how evil they, *cough* Atwood *cough*, may seem. Serena Joy and her fellow wives, whilst malicious and spiteful, have reason for their jealousy toward the handmaids. The Commander, a curious mixture of ignorance and intellect. Offred, the protagonist we so often sympathise with, just as flawed an individual as any other character in the novel. So, in the immortal words of the infinitely bad-ass, Moira, “everybody shits”.
but if the GIFs don’t work you can blame Barton.