Feminist-Focused Literature: Handmaid’s Tale

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Margaret Atwood evolves feminist-focused literature with her novel Handmaid’s Tale, empowering an unconventional development of a dynamic female character, Offred. Instead of portraying the oppression of women in a static manner, she parallels the unequal distribution of power between men and women of modern society through the representation of the extreme totalitarian government, Gilead. The portrayal of Gilead as a place of total feminine submission that circumstantially objectifies their bodies and oppresses their minds: through examination of the feminist lens, significant characters, and symbolism, common thematic enterprises rise from the idea that the conception of power is unequally distributed.

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Margaret Atwood, born in Attwood, Ontario, Canada in 1939 received over fifty-five awards for her novels and poems. She is an established writer, receiving her degrees from Victoria College University of Toronto, Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, as well as studying at Harvard University. Early on Atwood expressed her love for literature through writing beaucoup works, such as poems, comics, and plays. As an adolescent Atwood was intrigued by the caliginous works of Edgar Allan Poe; She even began articulating a novel at the age of six. Many of her novels and poetry are topical to feminism, focusing on a strong female lead submerged in a variation of a society that portrays a power struggle between the sexes.

In the Republic of Gilead, women are subject to a caste system, dividing them into five sects: Wives, Aunts, Handmaids, Marthas, and Unwomen. Due to chemical waste contamination, the majority of females in dystopian America have lost their ability to bear children; therefore, a strict, misogynistic government was established in order to increase the population under such circumstances. Each handmaid represents fertility to society; they are owned by the government and their bodies are exploited for the primary purpose of sex and childbearing. Offred, the main female protagonist is a handmaid assigned to Commander Fred. Hence the etymology of her Handmaid name: “of Fred.” Every month Offred has sex with the commander while his wife sits behind her, with the hopes of becoming pregnant. Throughout the novel, Offred establishes three major relationships with significant men in her life: Luke, her former husband before the establishment of Gilead, Nick whom she has an affair with as a handmaid, and the commander. The commander and Offred’s relationship is of the utmost dynamic in nature; it is a conception of plutonic yet confused affection. As Offred adjusts to her life as a handmaid, she discovers the existence of Mayday: an underground organization working to overthrow the government of Gilead. The resistance is a symbol of hope, eventually providing the opportunity of freedom to Offred.

Through the feminist lens, The Handmaid’s Tale reveals thematic persecution of power that alludes to provisional gender roles in modern society. The power struggle women face is contrived from male dominance, but is this exertion of power innate or purposeful? This is the question that Atwood answers through her novel. As analyzed through the feminist lens, “the roles of the two sexes in this novel are extremes of traditional gender roles, and that serves to raise the question of whether they are derived from nature or if men are working hard to keep oppressive traditions alive after their usefulness to society is spent,”(source 1) which Atwood answers in her portrayal of Gilead as a male-dominated totalitarian regime. The overt exploitation of women’s bodies imposed by the opposite sex, for their pleasure is contrived through the sexual, mental, and emotional enslavement of women.

Through character analysis, Handmaid’s tale reveals a story of non-static feminine figures under a strict regime, for example, Offred. Instead of being portrayed as a helpless and hollowed-out shell of a woman, her story remains rich in thought and dynamic relationships that keep the basis of the novel. According to (source1), “what keeps the novel from being only a work of propaganda for feminist ideology is the complexity and roundness of all of the characters… the female characters may be oppressed, but they are not portrayed as powerless victims,” in return mitigating the differences between Gileadean and modern society. Moira represents resistance to society and plays a crucial role in Offred’s past. Moira has tried to escape twice and has failed both times in the end. She works as a prostitute which simultaneously portrays a paradoxical situation in which she is oppressed yet freed in her own way. “Moira surfaces several times throughout the story as an emblem of resistance to the misogynistic, totalitarian state. She is used to contracting the government’s responsible attitude toward sexuality,” (Source 1) symbolizing a movement of sexual liberation.


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Feminist-Focused Literature: Handmaid’s Tale. (2021, May 26). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/feminist-focused-literature-handmaids-tale/