The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Zhenbang Yu

handmaid tale
Genre: Fiction, classic, dystopia Paperback 311 pages, Published by 1st Anchor Books March 16, 1998 Get your copy on Amazon

Offred is a victim of a regime that thrives on fear and lies. Since Offred has assumed the role of a handmaiden, she has experienced the horrors of witnessing their utmost cruelty the regime has imposed on her.  This has led her to despise the regime for its oppressiveness towards women who are trying to survive in this new society.  Under this new Gileadean society, Offred feels very oppressed because of the harsh laws towards women who are reduced to mere house servants and sexual slaves for the Commanders. The women often suffer from abuses, ranging from sexual abuse to physical abuse. Throughout the book, the Handmaid’s tale,  Offred presents the dark nature of the society of Gilead through the three stages of her life as a handmaiden. This stages mostly are framed around the indoctrination of Offred,  the forced participation in the Ceremony, and the expected attendance at the Pyvanayza.

Through the perspective of Offred, the reader can see how the indoctrination strips the handmaidens from their individual identity through a fear-based approach.  This is exemplified when the indoctrination begins with the Testifying ritual where the handmaidens are required to listen to Janine’s confession about her rape experience. The handmaiden’s form a circle around Janine to create an illusion of powerlessness for the victim, Janine. This method is formulated to instill a sense of fear in the victim who feels very oppressed in that setting.  When Janine experiences fear through intimidation, she will suppress any thoughts because of the fear that she may be punished for having the wrong Ideas. Later in the scene,  Aunt Helena taunts Janine with a question by saying “Whose fault was it? ” (Artwood 72).  The question is used as a form of intimidation tool to force Janine and the handmaidens into submission. Their relentless effort to weaken Janine’s individuality allows the Aunts and the regime to easily control her behavior and actions. As they continue performing the ritual,  All the Aunts place great pressure on the Handmaiden’s to condemn Janine for her own rape. They chant this “ Her fault, Her fault, Her fault” (Artwood 72). The author, Margaret Atwood,  mostly incorporates the use of repetition for the purpose of emphasizing the idea of self-blame. The practice of self-blame promotes a culture of fear and distrust among the handmaidens who undergo this type of training. Their fear of each other reduces the threat of a rebellion within Gilead since the dissenter can be reported to the Gileadean authorities who are frequently spying on the handmaidens. The state capitalizes on the fear to increase their own power and influence in the country.

As Offred is slowly settling into her new role as a handmaiden, she is really struggling to accept her newly formed role of a handmaiden who conceives an heir through a special ritual, the Ceremony.  This new ritual often elicits opposition from Offred who perceives it as a demeaning punishment. The text presents a scene where Offred describes a room where she will have sexual intercourse. Here she says, “I lie on my back, fully clothed except for the healthy white cotton underdrawers. What I could see, if I were to open my eyes,  would be the large white canopy of Serena Joy’s outsized four-poster bed, suspended like a sagging cloud above us, a cloud sprigged with tiny drops of silver rain, which , if you looked at them closely, would turn into four-petaled flowers.” ( Artwood 93). In the context of this quote, she has probably ingested some medication that induces a trance-like state.  This is because she describes the furniture and room in vivid, extreme detail that gives the reader a sense of the appearance of the room. Her description leads the reader to a much more darker context where she describes the transformation of flower buds into four-petaled flowers. This means that the Offred plans to present the idea that hope does not exist. She will never be able to break the routine of conducting the sexual sessions in the presence of the Commander’s wife. This is because Offred understands that a formal barter arrangement exists between the Commander and her to secure her position as a handmaiden who is offered protection by the Commander in exchange for his sexual gratification. Consequently, the best way to survive the ordeal with the Commander Fred’s household is to comply with this new law formed from the Gileadean Regime. Under the new law, she feels despair with how she is treated in the household.

Offred advances to her final stage, which is riddled with chaotic moments of her life as a handmaiden. Her experiences are exemplified when she attends a Women’s Parvayanza where the handmaidens are expected to hand over their children to the Commander’s wives.  While all the Wives and handmaidens gather to witness the birth of the commander’s child, Offred expresses her complete distaste for the practice. She says this “To go through all that, for nothing. Worse Than nothing” (Artwood 215).  In this quote, she recognizes the severe psychological impact on the handmaiden who has to accept the role of child-bearer for the Commander and the Commander’s wife. Later in the Novel, Janine has suffered a mental shock from losing the child through the Parvayanza ritual. Under the pressure to bear this child, Janine has been permanently damaged in terms of her psychological state and physical well being. As Offred Observes the mental state of her friend, She begins to describe the strange behavioral characteristics in her friend. Offred quotes Janine saying this “ My name’s Janine. I’m your waitress for this morning? Can I get some coffee to begin with” (Artwood 216). In the context of this quote, Janine has lost her sense of control over herself. She is not able to distinguish fantasy from reality. This is because the Prayvaganza has damaged her psychological well being.

In summary,  The handmaid’s tale illuminates a society with a very dark, oppressive nature.  The book warns the reader about the dangers of a totalitarian regime that can arise from political instability in the country.  The few leaders of a pre-totalitarian regime can capitalize on the weaknesses of a democratic government to increase the support for their own party. After those leaders have risen to power, they will enforce a policy of controlling their citizens through brutal tactics. This may involve an indoctrination of the citizens into this newly formed society and heavy policing of the citizens who are more spread dissent across the country. What the readers and society can learn from handmaid’s tale is that we must pay attention to right-wing populist movements. We must not give these people the advantage to increase their own power in the country.

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