Little Women and the Handmaid's Tale: Women's Struggle in Patriarchal Societies

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Throughout The Handmaid's Tale, and Little Women, Margaret Atwood and Gillian Armstrong respectively present the struggle women face to establish identities within patriarchal societies. Both authors explore this cause by setting their texts in a society where men are empowered and women potentially disempowered. Where Atwood creates a destructive patriarchy through a futuristic dystopia that strips women of individuality, Armstrong contrastingly explores the idea that women can create an identity in spite of their social context. To heighten the reader's response toward the societies, both authors explore the particular experiences and emotions of a central female protagonist, thereby personalising a woman's struggle. Both authors also use the conclusion of their texts to reinforce their premise. Atwood creates despair over the lack of change in her society, while Armstrong presents the triumph of possibility as women in her text are able to overcome societal restrictions. Not only are the tones of the texts different, but because one is a film and the other a novel, the authors utilise techniques particular to their text type in order to influence the reader's response to the central arguments.

Both Atwood and Armstrong position their characters within societies that are patriarchal in nature and expose the inherent gender inequalities that result. In both texts it is work that separates genders: where women's roles are domestic, men are involved in government, war and business. Society in The Handmaid's Tale is governed by a brutal regime where men dominate through powerful occupations. The hierarchy gives men pseudo-religious authority, demonstrated through Atwood's constant references to réligion. Gilead's social principles are based on the Old Testament where patriarchal authority is justified as the law of God, and women are given titles such as "Marthas", the gospel character devoted to housework. Local police are "Guardians of the Faith", and soldiers are "Angels". The Commander reads prescribed Bible quotations that support the role of the Handmaid, and even the sexual acts performed in the Ceremony. These intertextual references give the men Biblical-like power, reinforced through nomenclature: the central male character is simply named "Commander". While his actual work remains mysterious, his position is clear: one of control. The nomenclature for women is evident in the title itself for these 'handmaids' are merely functional objects for men's pleasure and convenience, used for sex and conditioned to perform tasks such as "scrubbing tables, "baking bread" and "purchasing" food. While the patriarchy in Little Women is less brutal it is nonetheless insidiously embedded in the social hierarchy of Nineteenth Century Massachusetts. Where women are constrained by the rules of propriety, men inherently possess social opportunities. Armstrong uses Marmee's observations to state that men can accomplish anything they wish, like "go to war", "go to university", own property and "pursue any profession [they] please". Contrastingly, "women cannot even vote" and are limited by the expectations of appropriate feminine behaviour: "it isn't proper to talk about" female whims in the presence of males, and women are expected "to take a gentleman's arm when offered". Jo bemoans the fact that women are "confin[ed]... to the house, bent over their needlework" and forced to work in "restrictive corsets", limited – like Atwood's handmaids – to menial tasks. In this context the ultimate goal for a woman is to pursue a marriage of convenience, to become an ornamental accessory to a man of good looks, financial means and social position. Atwood and Armstrong reveal the inadequacies of such patriarchal systems, yet adopt distinctly different approaches to do so: Atwood reveals the devastating restrictions on women; whereas Armstrong develops strong female characters that successfully subvert their society's expectations. The recurring...
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