The Handmaid’s Tale

by: Margaret Atwood

Role of Women

1

The spectacles women used to make of themselves. Oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit, and bare backs and shoulders, on the street, in public, and legs, not even stockings on them, no wonder these things used to happen. Things, the word she used when whatever it stood for was too distasteful or filthy or horrible to pass her lips. A successful life for her was one that avoided things, excluded things. Such things do not happen to nice women.

Offred recalls Aunt Lydia’s account of how women used to behave, particularly in the warm times of year. Aunt Lydia postulates that when women dressed provocatively, they invited men to take advantage of them. By saying that crimes wouldn’t happen to nice women who cover themselves up, Aunt Lydia places all the blame on the women who are the victims rather than on the men who are the perpetrators. Aunt Lydia’s practice of blaming women performs an important role of indoctrination in Gilead’s mandated conformity.

2

There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.

When Offred goes to the doctor for her monthly checkup, the doctor offers to try to impregnate her, explaining that most men like the Commander are sterile. His observation shocks Offred, as Gilead statutes outlaw suggesting the possibility of male sterility. Responsibility for failure of a couple to conceive officially falls on the woman regardless of the man’s state of health. The law represents another example of society’s use of women as scapegoats.

3

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. She did. She did. She did. Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

Offred recalls a Handmaid teaching session in the Red Center. Janine had shared that she was raped as a teenager and had an abortion. The Aunts make the rest of the Handmaids tell Janine that it was her fault. Not only do the Aunts want Janine to internalize the idea that she led her rapists on, but they also want to indoctrinate in the others that women are to blame in these situations. The group chant demonstrates the behavior the Aunts want to instill, namely, women should take pleasure in shaming each other.

4

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.

Offred reflects on her husband Luke’s reaction to her job loss. She feels he supports her in a way that emphasizes her dependency on him. Offred senses the power shift between them and wonders if Luke enjoys having more power than she has. Although Offred can’t know exactly how Luke feels and never asks him, she experiences his comfort level with the change as a kind of betrayal. They are no longer equals. Even before the rise of Gilead, when she would become the property of the Commander, she felt like her husband’s property.

5

There’s hardly any point in my thinking, is there? I say. What I think doesn’t matter. Which is the only reason he can tell me things.

Offred makes a guarded statement to the Commander during one of their nights together in his study. As he presses her to tell him what she thinks about their new society, she plays dumb by telling him she doesn’t think much. Sharing her opinions may prove risky, while deflection may keep herself safe and keep him talking. Like the rest of Gilead, the Commander believes women aren’t a danger because they have no original thoughts of their own.

6

We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

The Commander reminds Offred of the plight of women before Gilead as he gestures to the old beauty magazines he allows Offred to read. He contends that Gilead’s mores have improved women’s lives because they no longer need to be concerned with their appearance or how to get a man. The Commander, like others in power in Gilead, sees women as one-dimensional, just as they appear to be in his fashion magazines.