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Handmaid's Tale. Is Atwood's novel ultimately a feminist work of literature or does it offer a critique of feminism?

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Handmaid's Tale. Is Atwood's novel ultimately a feminist work of literature or does it offer a critique of feminism?
Throughout her novel, Margaret Atwood conjures up a terrifying image of a society that has completely reversed all its ideologies and principles and named it The Republic of Gliead. In this society Ofrred's sole purpose in life is to reproduce for the elite, and failure to comply will result in expulsion to the colonies. The colonies are places separated from society where infertile women are sent. The new society of Atwood is set in the debris of a shattered America. In Gilead, women are completely dominated by men and their position in society is completely determined by the status of their husband and their fertility. Atwood depicts women as powerless beings in a society completely unfamiliar to anything we would understand. In her novel, the author offers more than just a critique of feminism as the issue of feminism is imbued into her work.

In Gilead, women are strictly categorized as Handmaids, Wives, Marthas, Econowives or Aunts. Offred is a Handmaid because she showed her fertility in pre-Gilead society by having a daughter. Wives are women married to Commanders, men with a superior rank in society. Despite their elevated status, they have do not have much power. Infertile wives are allocated Handmaids who have sex with their husbands in order to give birth. Marthas are servants of Commanders and Econowives are those married to common men. Aunts are older, infertile women, dedicated to the regime, who train Handmaids. By referring to women as their category and not their individual name, Atwood impersonalises these women, making them represent their whole category within Gilead. This makes the novel more than just a fictional autobiography, in fact it is a study of women as a whole in certain situations.

Before Gilead was created, Offred, the protagonist, was a normal woman. She had a job, was married to Luke, a man whom she was very much in love with and had a young daughter. An intelligent women, who had been well educated and had gone to university. Offred symbolized a normal, politically moderate woman, who did not fully understand the extent of her freedom until it was taken from her. Now, in this new society, she is destined to give birth and is moved from family to family until she succeeds. She has no freedom and is totally at the mercy of the family that she is staying with. This is even shown in her name, Offred, composed of the possessive preposition 'Of' and the name of the Commander with which she is staying, 'Fred'. She goes for a walk, has a bath, rests and eats at set times. She is not allowed to leave the house without he face covered by a veil. Offred does not possess any control over her life, which is a particularly disturbing thought, especially to women in today's society, where making decisions is a part of everyday life. To be without simple independence is petrifying. As Atwood set up a pre-Gilead society that resembles today's society, we can easily put ourselves in Offred's place and examine how we would feel in her circumstances.

Offred now lives in a society that is completely foreign. Its basic values are completely different to what today's society is used to. For instance in Gilead, women have lost the rights they currently have such as freedom to express themselves. The Aunts try to tell the handmaids that just because they were used to something does not necessarily mean it was better and that this new society is protecting them for their own good. It is neatly summed up by the quote on page 24: "There is more than one kind of freedom...Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it." Offred is surprised when she sees Japanese women, visiting Gilead on holiday, in the old revealing dresses. In this novel, Atwood is making the point that humans adapt very easily to changes and that what we see as the values held by our society can be so easily crushed. It serves as a warning to today's society to hold fast to what it believes in.

Sex is a chore for women; it is a duty which must be endured if Offred wishes to survive. She manages to detach herself from the act, but at the same time realizes how important it is to her. Handmaids are only allowed a certain number of years in which to get pregnant or they are sent to the colonies to die of radiation exposure. Offred has a desperate desire to be pregnant but she has so little control over it. Thus her body begins to play a massive role in her life. This is shown on page 63 when she says, " I avoid looking at my body.... I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely." To be pregnant is the highest thing a Handmaid can aspire to in Gilead. The author shows us this suffering is not undergone by Offred alone and suggests that in a way this society has brought them together, as they are the only ones who can fully understand what the situation means for them.

In a society dominated by men, women are completely powerless, not being allowed to read, be educated or work. Depriving them of an education means future generations will have no knowledge of a different existence; therefore Gilead will only get stronger. People will not have the knowledge to question, as Offred does when she knows something is wrong. Further proof of the values on which Gilead is based is that the women are there to give, and men are there to receive. Men have incredible amounts of freedom compared to women. This is shown in many ways in Gilead, men can come and go as they please, whereas women are not free to leave the house, men may have sex with prostitutes whereas women would be executed for having sex with someone other than the commander. By dividing the roles of men and women, Gilead has created two completely distinct societies within one. If Gilead succeeds, men and women will never understand each other thus, they are unlikely to unite and overthrow the oppressive regime.

Feminism is at the core of this novel as the plot revolves around it. Through this novel Atwood shows women as powerless, in a society completely unfamiliar for today's modern society. The author manages to balance the moving tale of one woman and the message of a whole society turned upside down. It is not a prophecy of things to come, but a warning that we must not become nonchalant about feminism and that we must remember that our society can change, and not always for the better.

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