How does The Handmaid’s Tale depict the intersection between politics and sexual reproduction? How is Gilead’s political order defined by this intersection, and how does it affect the lives of women?
At first, religion seems to be the central element of Gileadean society, defining all aspects of life. But, in fact, the entire structure of Gilead, including its state religion, is built around one goal: the control of reproduction. Gilead is a society facing a crisis of dramatically dropping birthrates; to solve the problem, it imposes state control on the means of reproduction—namely, the bodies of women. Controlling women’s bodies can succeed only by controlling the women themselves, so Gilead’s political order requires the subjugation of women. They strip women of the right to vote, the right to hold property or jobs, and the right to read.
Women are a “national resource,” Gilead likes to say, but they really mean that women’s ovaries and wombs are national resources. Women cease to be treated as individuals, with independent selves. Rather, they are seen potential mothers. Women internalize this state-created attitude, even independent women like Offred. At one point, lying a in a bathtub and looking at her naked form, Offred tells us that, before Gilead, she thought of her body as a tool of her desires, something that could run and jump and carry things. As a Handmaid, however, she thinks of her body as a cloud, surrounding a womb that is far more “real,” than she herself is. Offred’s comments show that even strong women come to see themselves as the state sees them, as prospective carriers of a new -generation of Gileadeans.
Discuss the significance of setting in The Handmaid’s Tale. Why does Atwood choose to set the novel where she does?
A number of geographic clues identify Offred’s town as the former Cambridge, Massachusetts. The religiously intolerant Puritan settlers of the seventeenth century made their home in Cambridge and Massachusetts. The choice of Cambridge as a setting enables Atwood to draw a parallel between the religious intolerance and misogyny of the seventeenth century and that of the late-twentieth-century Gileadeans.
The choice of Cambridge as a setting is also significant because Cambridge is the location of Harvard University, one of America’s most famous institutions of higher learning. Under Gilead’s rule, Harvard Yard and its buildings have been transformed into a detention center run by the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police. Bodies of executed dissidents hang from the Wall that runs around the college, and “Salvagings” (mass executions) take place in Harvard Yard, on the steps of the university’s Widener Library. The setting emphasizes the way Gilead has overturned the ideals embodied by an institution of learning, such as the free pursuit of knowledge and truth, and has literally enshrined in its place a regime of lies, oppression, torture, and the denial of every American ideal.
How does Gilead create and use a new vocabulary to buttress its totalitarian order?
Gilead develops its own words to give the state control over the sentiments and ideas people can express. Since Gilead is a theocracy, where religion permeates every aspect of life, biblical terminology abounds. Servants are “Marthas,” a reference to a character in the New Testament; the police are “Guardians of the Faith”; soldiers are “Angels”; and the Commanders are officially “Commanders of the Faithful.” The stores have biblical names like Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, and Milk and Honey, as do the automobiles—Behemoth, Whirlwind, and Chariot.
Language is also used to subjugate women. As opposed to Gildead’s men, who are defined by their military rank and therefore by their profession, Gilead’s women are defined only by their gender role, as Wives, daughters, Handmaids, or Marthas. Enemies of the state are described by labels that don’t necessarily correspond to the truth. For instance, Gilead calls feminists “Unwomen,” placing them not only outside of society but outside of the human race. Blacks are called “Children of Ham,” and Jews “Sons of Jacob,” biblical terms that set them apart from the rest of society. Even daily speech is tightly controlled. People must carry on conversations within the suffocating confines of officially sanctioned language. Saying the wrong thing can lead to a swift death, so people guard their tongues, thereby subordinating their power of speech to the power of the state.
1. Discuss the role of the Aunts and of Serena Joy in the novel. How do they relate to other women, and how does this make them fit into the hierarchy of Gilead?
2. Is the Commander a sympathetic character, a monster, or both?
3. Is Atwood’s novel ultimately a feminist work of literature, or does it offer a critique of feminism?
4. What role does Moira play in the novel? How does her significance change as the story progresses?
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