Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Study of Manipulation and Misogyny

EL1Imagine a world, post-apocalyptic, dystopian and a mono-theocratic dictatorship run by right wing religious fanatics who have overthrown the government and started a civil war between what left of the United States and themselves, the old United States, now called Gilead. The society is patriarchal and based on biblical principles, with the intent to oppress women into the ‘traditional gender roles assigned by god’. They have taken away their privileges and freedom, with women no longer allowed to be educated, have right of free speech, hold employment, money or property.

And yet despite this oppression this society relies upon women to succeed. Without them they would have no food prepared on the table, no clothes washed, no clean house, but most importantly no future. Whether that be to conceive or to raise the child, without women there would be no Gilead in the future.

As a result of this women are manipulated into conforming to societies misogyny and disregard for females through fear, propaganda and in some cases force. This causes an appeal to the sense of pathos of the reader evoking a sympathetic response. The novel in turn makes a social comment on gender equality and the mistreatment of women allowing for Atwood’s novel to become, although controversial, critically acclaimed and make her a household name.

Here is how Margaret Atwood uses Manipulation and oppression of women in her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to create a misogynist and feminist theme and become a shorthand for repressive regimes against women.

**For future reference the Angels are like the army, they are the guards considered heroes within the society and the Aunts are the class of women tasked with the teaching and indoctrination of the Handmaids. Also The Sons of Jacob are the leaders or the dictators of Gilead.

MISOGYNY:

“The words and works of God is quite clear, that women are either wives of prostitutes”

  • MARTIN LUTHER

According to the oxford dictionary, misogyny is defined as, dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women. Included in this is any action upon which a person of the female sex gets negative or unfair treatment for little to no reason despite their gender. Over the course of human history this has been a common occurrence with ‘traditional’ gender values being patriarchal and male dominant while the women must be at home doing all the work around the house. Our religions also hold this attitude and value with the bible being highly misogynistic and sexist, “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man: she is to be silent.” (Timothy 2:12) She must, “submit yourself unto your own husband, as it is fit in the lord” (Colossians 3:18), and, “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (Corinthians 11:3-10). As can be shown throughout the bible, these sorts of passages state that women are the property of men, are listed with the slaves and work animals, and hold little to no power throughout the text implying they are objects and inferior.

This is alluded to within the quote above from German professor Martin Luther that states “The words and works of God is quite clear, that women are either wives of prostitutes´, emphasising the misogyny within modern and traditional religious systems

Now if we consider that Gilead, the society created in The Handmaid’s Tale, is based off religious principles and ideologies, we can begin to piece together the way that women are going to be treated or thought about within the setting.

Gilead follows these religious principles, especially Martin Luther’s comments, as women are inferior and are forced into roles of wives, the wives of the powerful men, Marthas, the women that do the jobs of traditional wives, and Handmaids, who are the prostitutes in this situation, their role is to procreate with the man that ‘owns’ them and bear them children for the wives to raise. The women have no power, money or possessions and almost no other alternative then to conform to the job they have been given.

Three of the main examples of misogyny in The Handmaid’s Tale is the role of the Handmaids, the lack of choice, and the possessive objectification toward the Handmaids and Marthas:

THE ROLE OF THE HANDMAIDS:

Due to Gilead’s takeover of the area formally known as the United States and the civil war that ensued, there has become areas called the colonies that have high amounts of nuclear radiation. This nuclear radiation, also possibly caused by nuclear plant meltdowns, have caused mass infertility among the women in the Republic of Gilead, meaning a large portion of the population is unable to procreate successfully.

This is where Handmaids come in.

Their main role, once assigned to a married couple or a household, in the case of Offred it’s the Commander Fred and Serena Joy, is to have scheduled sexual intercourse in a process they call, ‘the ceremony’, in the hopes they become pregnant and provide the household with a child. This is because the Handmaids are the only ones in Gilead who are fertile and have the ability to bear children. Minus this the Handmaids are confined to their rooms except for times where they can go out to do the houses shopping or go to sanctioned events and have little to no freedom.

This ceremony happens on a regular basis and heavily against the will of the handmaid, but it is their job and have no choice. Due to the unwillingness of the Handmaids, the ceremony basically becomes institutionalised rape, where it becomes normal within the society for this to happen. This is a major example of misogyny within the novel as the women aren’t consenting or allowing this to happen, they are being forced into the role of the handmaid and into the situation with no way to avoid it and they do not enjoy it. Page 104-5, “What he is f***ing is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved.” implies that due to her unwillingness and lack of choice it is like she isn’t there, like the commander is just doing it and she has no control or option to stop. Page 105 also states, “This is not recreation, even for the commander. This is serious business. The commander, too, is doing his duty”, showing that the society has become numb to the gravity and misogyny of the ceremony and it has become just a normality or a chore that has to be completed.

The acceptance and nonchalance of the ceremony by the society highlights the inequality and misogyny that is developed within The Handmaid’s Tale which creates a feminist comment challenging repressive regimes against women in society.

LACK OF CHOICE:

A couple of paragraphs ago I said in reference to the Handmaids, ‘but it is their job and have no choice’. This, in a way, is actually incorrect as they do have a second choice besides being a handmaid and that choice is…

…Death…

Not exactly an appealing option but their second choice, whether they openly disobey a section of the society, or whether they attempt to escape, is death, by execution or by radiation poisoning in the colonies respectively.

This means most Handmaids will ‘choose’ to stay in their job and put up with the punishment and the ceremony despite there not really being a second choice. Offred demonstrates this on page 105, “Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose”, emphasising the lack of choice, but the admittance that there is another option, despite its unpleasantry. As well as this, on page 17-18, “I know why there is no glass, in front of the waterproof picture of the blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other types of escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge”, Offred is saying that the people who run the society are worried about the Handmaids committing suicide, so they take away that option and that choice.

Offred’s decision to choose institutionalised rape over death with the additional worry that the Handmaids will commit suicide rather than continue their role highlights the inequality and misogyny within the society of Gilead and makes the reader empathise with Offred and the other Handmaids causing a social comment challenging the sexism and prejudice within our society.

POSSESSIVE OBJECTIFICATION:

Throughout the novel the protagonist is referred to by the name Offred. This is not her actual name, and despite the fact it is said at the start on page 14, “Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June”, we never actually find out which name is hers. This is because all the Handmaids get knew names when they join a household dependent on the name of the husband. The new name consists of ‘Of’ then the name of the husband to show that they are the property of the Handmaids. Offred, our protagonist, and Ofglen, our protagonist’s friend, are examples of this occurrence.

By changing the name of the women to represent the male they ‘serve’, Atwood creates a sense of ownership toward the men in terms of the Handmaids. This also dehumanises and denies the Handmaids a sense of individuality and uniqueness as they have no human name, just a label stating who they belong to. Offred states this on page 94, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it is 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.” Offred is attempting to distance herself from her new name, saying the name is not her identity, and that using her old name is important, so she feels like herself again.

The changing of the names causes the males to hold ownership against the Handmaids, taking any sense of individuality, uniqueness and human qualities away from the women turning them into objects meant for use by the male, rather than for human actions. This highlights misogyny within the society as the women are reduced to objects and ‘owned’ by the men creating a comment on the unfair treatment of women and the inferiority implied encouraging an empathetic response from the audience and challenging the traditional gender roles and oppression of women. isTHisTHisthusighp-dogjsodighsoidghisdlghhhhhh

 

MANIPULATION:

“Belief can be manipulated, only knowledge is dangerous”

  • FRANK HERBERT

Due to human greed, to get someone to do something for you, that person needs to get a positive outcome. Whether that be bribery, or inclusion, physical or emotional positive feelings most of the time something good needs to happen in return.

So how did the people in control of Gilead manage to get Handmaids to agree to a life of institutionalised rape, no freedom and no opportunity?

They manipulated them.

According to Psychology Today, ‘Psychological manipulation can be defined as the exercise of undue influence through mental distortion and emotional exploitation, with the intention to seize power, control, benefits and/or privileges at the victim’s expense.’ This is potent in The Handmaid’s Tale as the leaders of Gilead need to use mental distortion, Rachel and Leah, emotional exploitation, lack of choice or other options for life, and constant control to keep people in line, spies and observation to make sure the Handmaids don’t try to escape.

All the manipulation must be for a reason though and that reason is control and maintaining power. Humans want to have power, they want to have control over someone else, and they want this control to be long term. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale it is the right-wing religious fanatics, The Sons of Jacob, that created the premise for Gilead and overthrew the government to put this premise into action. Once in power, these people want to maintain that position, to do this they need to minimise rebellion or large-scale disagreement from a group within the society. Due to the, in my eyes in modern times with atheist views, highly controversial ideologies proposed within the society of Gilead, the people in power can expect a rebellion from the oppressed power, to and to overcome this they manipulate the minority to confirm their position of power.

The three main forms of manipulation used by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale include: Indoctrination and punishment, through the Rachel and Leah Centre, Lack of choice or ability, and Observation and control. These together create a sense of inferiority towards women, emphasising the misogyny and inequality in the society, causing readers to empathise with the protagonist and her peers, contributing to a social comment challenging repressive regimes and misogyny in society.

It is worth stating that all the misogyny points above count towards manipulation as well because for these to occur some sort of manipulation or control must occur as well.

INDOCTRINATION AND PUNISHMENT:

Indoctrination is defined as the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. This is exactly the role of the ‘Rachel and Leah Centre’, otherwise known as the ‘red centre’, within The Handmaid’s Tale as they must teach the women becoming Handmaids the ideologies of the new Gilead system, which in this case is basically religious indoctrination, to reduce the chance of rebellion and keep the order.

Within the centre Handmaids are under strict surveillance, with an aunt even escorting them when going to the toilet and are not permitted to leave unless assigned to a commander. The centre is run by Aunts, who teach the religious ideologies of the Gilead system. This is where the quote from Frank Herbert shown above comes in, “Belief can be manipulated, only knowledge is dangerous”, which states that one’s belief can be changed and manipulated to assist another at the expense of the manipulated but if that person knows the truth and the contrary to the common belief they have power to overthrow or rebel. This is the case with red centre as they know the women will think the religious ideologies and treatment of the gender is wrong and that knowledge is dangerous to the leaders of Gilead so to counter this the manipulate their beliefs to keep them in line and avoid rebellious conflict.

If disobedient the Aunts use force through the, “cattle prods”, that they are supplied as weapons. This is the fear manipulation, where the manipulators, the Aunts, use punishment, public displays of physical abuse, to scare and control the Handmaids forcing them to obey.

The mental manipulation comes through the indoctrination, when teaching the ideologies of Gilead, the Handmaids are forced to learn and abide by these set of rules, brainwashing them into believing it to be true so they do not rebel.

Some people believe what is fed to them and some people do not, for example Offred is always very reluctant to complete the orders given to her but she does them anyway, this comes through the fear side of the manipulation, where she knows she doesn’t have the power while in the centre and will be overcome with a tirade of physical abuse if she does not obey. This causes her to be stuck in the situation where she can rebel and fight but by doing so subject herself to physical abuse and possible death highlighting the manipulation and control the people in control have.

This manipulation and oppression of women for the benefit of the Sons of Jacob and the men in the society emphasises the misogyny within the text. The thought that they are being forced into new values and attitudes with the fear of being physically abused also encourages sympathy from the reader, creating a social comment challenging the oppression and treatment of women in society.

LACK OF CHOICE OR ABILITIES:

As stated earlier, most of the ideas within the manipulation section link to the ideas in the misogyny section and this one is no exception. I talked in the misogyny section about the Handmaids having a lack of choice as their only options are to be a handmaid, die of execution due to rebellion or die of radiation poisoning in the colonies post escaping. This is also a type of manipulation as they use the lack of choice to keep Handmaids in the job and make them feel happy as they chose life, although not a very fulfilling one, over death. Another idea within the misogyny section was that the houses of the commanders are created with rooms and areas that are essentially suicide proof. This is another form of manipulation as they are taking away the option of suicide encouraging the Handmaids to stay in the job and not rebel against the system.

Apart from these there are also other forms of manipulation through control of abilities and actions such as reading and writing, sports, being active, and hobbies. On page 49, “Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden”, Offred tells us that this epistolary reciting of the events of her life are thoughts in her head or a recording rather than writing as writing is forbidden showing an example of the manipulation and control by the leaders of Gilead. Offred’s astonishment at a simple game of scrabble, “” I’d like you to play scrabble with me.” … Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous … It’s as if he’s offered me drugs” (Page 148-149), emphasises the control and lack of activities available to the Handmaids highlighting the manipulation.

This manipulation, for the gain of the leaders of Gilead as to avoid rebellion and dissent, highlights the negative treatment of the Handmaids causing and sympathetic response from the reader and adding to the challenge of societies misogyny and treatment of women.

OBSERVATION AND CONTROL:

As stated above, all manipulation occurs for a reason and in this case, it is to maintain power and make sure there is no large-scale rebellion or disagreement about society that could put that power in jeopardy. The way the people in control do this, minus the psychological and physiological manipulation, is through observation and constant maintenance.

The fact that the Handmaids aren’t allowed to leave the house, and when they do it is for sanctioned events, with the supervision of an armed guard emphasises the constant observation. The Handmaids aren’t allowed to write, read, and in most cases socialise with others in the house or anyone from the outside world. The only other person outside they interact with is the partner handmaid that is walked with to shopping and prescribed events, in the case of Offred this is Ofglen. Even this interaction is seemed to be unreliable, “It occurs to me she may be a spy, a plant, set to trap me”, as Offred states on page 178 when she remarks that Ofglen may be a spy sent to entice her, trap her into saying something anti-Gilead which will be counted as treason so Offred is careful to confide in her to be careful.

If Offred has to be worried that every person that is sent to spend time with her is sent to spy on her and observe her as to what she thinks and feels she can’t fully trust anyone. This causes high anxiety and makes Offred be very careful about what she says to anyone. The constant worrying and, metaphorically, ‘looking over her shoulder’ highlights the negative treatment and manipulation of women within the society causing an appeal to the readers sense of pathos toward Offred and the other women in the society.

As for constant maintenance, once Handmaids start working at a household, the Aunts can’t continue to educate, and indoctrinate the religious ideologies into, the Handmaids. As an alternative, the Handmaids have to attend a Women’s Salvaging, a women only event where the Aunts run public executions of people that went against the societal ideals or failed in completing their tasks. As well as this are particicutions, where they make the Handmaids carry out a public execution of their own on a man who has, ‘done women wrong’, or in the case of chapter 43, “A rapist”. As it turns out he is not a rapist at all and just, “A political”. These services and formalities are carried out to show the Handmaids what happens when you rebel against the system or don’t complete your task, another method of fear manipulation with the intention of keeping the Handmaids in line and reduce the chance of rebellious actions.

These methods of physiological and psychological manipulation cause fear and anxiety within the Handmaids having a negative effect on their wellbeing. The fact they have to go through all of this struggle causes a sympathetic response from the reader and creates a critical comment about the mistreatment of women and misogyny within society.

 

The women within Gilead are manipulated into conforming to societies misogyny and disregard for females through fear, propaganda and in some cases force. This causes an appeal to the sense of pathos of the reader evoking a sympathetic response. The novel in turn makes a social comment on gender equality and the mistreatment of women allowing for Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to become, although controversial, critically acclaimed and make her a household name.

Applause.

Are there any questions?

 

by E.L.

4 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: A Study of Manipulation and Misogyny

    • Still haven’t heard from you… Look forward to hearing from you, as my question still remains unanswered. Please get back to me. Please, I’m begging.

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