How do female characters portray resistance in novels: The Handmaid's Tale, Yellow Wallpaper,

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How do female characters portray resistance?

The Handmaid’s Tale was written by Margaret Atwood in 1984 at a time when conservative religious groups were growing ever stronger, threatening to reverse the advances women had made over the last few decades. This feminist fear was very much a presence in Atwood’s mind and compelled her to write the novel despite her fears of how it would be perceived by readers. Similarly, The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell were inspired by political and social issues of the time which are still strongly related to by modern readers today. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Crucible present frequent occurrences of female resistance; whilst Julia in Nineteen Eighty-four provides an unforgettable female character, resisting against the totalitarian state she is constrained to.

In The Handmaid’s Tale it appears that women are willing to resist the theocratic state in which they are constrained when one of the most clear female resistors, Ofglen, introduces Offred to the underground movement known as ‘Mayday’. The most physical acts of resistance however, are carried out by Moira, ‘a cunning and dangerous woman’ with ‘a bad reputation’ among the Aunts. Atwood presents Moira as a symbol of feminism who unlike the women around her, is determined to regain her freedom. Structurally, Moira’s character is used by Atwood to demonstrate how even the toughest of women can be broken when she is used to provide strength and motivation for Offred for much of the novel before reappearing as the polar opposite to her previous self in Jezebels. Moira becomes for the women in the Red Centre, a ‘fantasy’, a symbol of resistance. In the same way, Julia proves a similar role model in terms of resistance for Winston in Nineteen Eighhty-four. Julia presents far more nerve than Winston where upon committing an act of resistance she remains calm and composed. This contrasts at the end of the novel where like Moira, Julia too is broken by the party.

In The Handmaid’s Tale the women at the Red Centre also learn to resist, though in far more subtle ways than those of Moira:

‘We learned to whisper almost without sound’

Whilst at the Red Centre, the women are indoctrinated so communication is vital if the women are to maintain their sanity. The use of language by the author demonstrates the women’s hunger and desire to resist where they don’t only develop new skills, they master them to gain maximum satisfaction from the power of resistance against the Aunts. Though this has no impact on Gilead or any of those in power, the act still has a positive effect on the women who are given the belief that they can however so slightly, resist against the new regime. This is highlighted by Offred further in the novel when she says:

‘It’s an event, a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetectable, but such moments are the rewards I hold out for.’

Offred describes the act of resistance as an ‘event’. This emphasises the importance of such an opportunity to rebel for the women at the Red centre. Offred further describes the moment as a ‘reward’. The metaphor demonstrates to the reader that the protagonist uses such acts of resistance to maintain her sanity. Each act of resistance proves to Offred that the Gilead society can be defied despite the indoctrination she fights at the Red centre from the Aunts. In the new society of Gilead, Women have been stripped of ‘freedom from’ and given ‘freedom to’. Despite this Mary McCarthy’s view differs on women in the novel where in her critical analysis she states:

‘The new world of the Handmaid’s Tale is a woman’s world, even though governed, seemingly, and policed by men.’

Whilst some readers might feel inclined to believe the new Gilead society to be male ruled, others might take a similar look to that of McCarthy’s where she is quite right in noting that the women are almost always under...
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