So this is a rough draft of my final for my lit theory class. The intent was to do a deconstructive/feminist analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (awesome book, btw). Give it a read.
The Unwilling Martyr: I don’t want to be telling this story
Not every woman is the same. Being the same is a misconception that occurs regularly in feminist criticism and, frankly, popular culture. The conservative argument for the equality of woman-kind assumes that all women have the same wants, desires, needs. They don’t. This is something that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of and is warranted in its discussion. The variety of female characters in the novel – from its reticent protagonist, Offred, to the other Handmaids, the Marthas, the Aunts, the Jezebels, and the Wives – exhibit a purposely ordered and habitually un-named or conservatively named variety of female characters, aware of their oppression and inhibited potential but reluctant to rebel, constructed as such to tell all of their stories because even within the classifications, all women are not the same but deserve the same right to have their story heard – just like any human being.
The home is one of the central locations within The Handmaid’s Tale. In many ways it is a microenvironment of societal oppression. If women have certain roles in culture, then it’s the home where those roles primarily take place. One of the earliest of Offred’s observations comes in one of the home’s hallways. Consider the first paragraph:
There remains a mirror, on the hall wall. If I turn my head so that the white wings framing my face direct my vision towards it, I can see it as I go down the stairs, round, convex, a pier glass, like the eye of a fish, and myself in it like a distorted shadow, a parody of something, some fairy-tale figure in a red cloak, descending towards a moment of carelessness that is the same as danger. A Sister, dipped in blood. (Atwood 8).
There are multiple signifiers in the above selection. The most intriguing, perhaps, is the mirror. The mirror that hangs on the wall, “remains.” Because it “remains” it implies that the existence of the mirror preceded an event. That change, from pre-event to post-event, is the first signifier – it harkens back to a selection from Martin Heidegger’s “Identity and Difference” when Heidegger writes, “[I]n the case of the being of existence and the existence of being we are concerned every time with a difference.” (271).
There are many differences from pre and post-event. Focusing specifically on Offred, she is one of a few select women whose sole purpose is procreation. She is there to fuck and have babies. Rinse, then repeat. The white wings that frame her face, almost referencing the tunnel-vision like aspect of her situation, are representative of an active male group disenfranchising a passive female society (349), as Helene Cixous point out in “The Newly Born Woman” it also relates to the “marginalization and privatization” (840) – the fact that she is among a group of women being used to birth future generations – referenced in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” and an ideal of “contemplative purity” (817), that’s noted in the imagery of the white wings described in “The Madwoman in the Attic,” by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Going back to the mirror, it’s worthy to note how Offred perceives herself within it and how the mirror reflects her image. If the mirror is a signifier of change then Offred would have to be a signified concept. She is existing in a world rooted in a dystopian society and she is both a result of indoctrination and a lingering resistance to the change she was forced to undergo, much like Heidegger’s earlier assertion on difference – all of that is wrapped up in her opinion of being “like a distorted shadow, a parody of something” (8) in the eye of the mirror.
Furthermore there are interesting structural indicators in relation to the mirror and the larger condition of society, Offred, and the female gender. There are three sentences in the first paragraph. Their word counts amount to eight, 70, and five. Consider the sequence of the narrative – Offred sees the mirror, she goes down stairs, she recognizes herself as a paradox – and the following selection from George Batallie’s “Heterology.” Batallie writes: “Heterogeneous reality is that of a force or a shock. It presents itself as a charge, as a value, passing from one object to another in a more or less abstract fashion, almost as if the change were taking place not in the world of objects but only in the judgements of the subject.” (276). Is the perceived paradox by Offred within her conceptions of the world and the place of the female within it, or is it an assertion by the mirror of an anomaly within society? It’s both and it is neither. It shows she is the same and she is different. The paradox only exists because Offred is passing by the mirror. And Offred is only passing by the mirror because she is obligated to sustain a passive action from the rules of the male authority. The existence of the paradox is purely circumstantial and the circumstances which created the paradox exist only because of the constructed culture, which inserted Offred in her place which created the circumstantial paradox.
Offred, in relation to Gilead society, is one of many women serving a role. Within the household there are the Marthas, Rita and Cora, who cook, clean, and assume other duties, and the Wives, the most prominent in the text being the Commander’s Wife, formally known as Serena Joy, who are ceremonial figureheads, metaphors for the way the home should be in the new society. Outside of the home there are the Jezebels, the women of the night clubs – the most notable being the former handmaid Moira, the Aunts, a team of women assigned to reeducate the female masses, primarily the handmaids, and then the Unwomen, a group of women banished to the outskirts of society, tasked to clean up hazardous spills and live in other dangerous conditions – one of which is Offred’s mother. These women are separated, classified, and mostly content in their day to day life. “Mostly” is the key part.
Serena Joy/Commander’s Wife is a woman who advocated for the society Gilead is within the text. As Offred remembers, Serena Joy had a role on a biblical TV show pre-Gilead. She “could smile and cry at the same time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek, as if on cue, as her voice lifted through its highest notes, tremulous, effortless.” (Atwood 26). Yet there is an observation of Serena Joy, earlier in the text, that shows an indirect shift in her actions:
I wonder whether or not the Commander’s Wife is in the sitting room. She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet. (Atwood 8–9).
The Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, is in her designated room. She is very much the clear definition of how a woman is supposed to act within the newly constructed society. Offred, when she is talking of the Commander’s Wife, is in a shared space, a room that doesn’t have any social definitions attached to it. She notes “She doesn’t always sit. Sometimes I can hear her pacing back and forth, a heavy step and then a light one, and the soft tap of her cane on the dusty-rose carpet.” Offred’s recollection of the Commander’s Wife’s actions shows a woman who, as mentioned earlier, wanted this life but lives rather restless within it – a difference that is worthy to note in larger consideration of the text. Pre-Gilead society gave Serena Joy a voice, a platform. Gilead society assigned her to a room.
Rita and Cora, the Marthas, provide the essential housework for the home. Their presence in the novel begs a couple of questions: If Serena Joy enjoys a title/name such as the Commander’s Wife, what are the purpose of wives within Gilead society? Are they the Angel in the House that Gilbert and Gubar address? They do not cook, they do not clean, and they spend their days playing with flowers, drinking wine, and socializing with the other wives. They are children – a possession of the male figure in the household of which to see his life through. The ironic thing about that thought is that the text reveals a lot about Rita and Cora when considered in relation to Serena Joy.
Consider the following selections “Her sleeves are rolled to the elbow, showing her brown arms.” (Atwood 19) and “Doing their job, said Cora. Keeping us safe. Nothing safer than the dead, said Rita, angrily. She was minding her own business. No call to shoot her.” (Atwood 31). The first quote deals with Rita, a short description of her color. She’s ethnic. She isn’t an old white lady. Her place in a biblically-rooted society will never be more than the color of her skin. But she’s in the book. Offred spends time on recounting her various details. Rita’s wants and motivations are open for debate yet she gets the chance to be debated. The second quote addresses the simplicity of Cora. The arm of Gilead society nestles her head as she sleeps and she’s fine with that. All Cora wants is for Offred to pop out a kid so she can “have a little child to spoil in the kitchen, to iron clothes for, to slip cookies into while no one’s watching.” (Atwood 45). But the text, Offred, isn’t critical of that. She seems to respect her. She “would rather have the disapproval, I feel more worthy of it.” (Atwood 45). Cora is another example of the long sequence within the novel: all women are able to follow all paths.
Moira ended her narrative within The Handmaid’s Tale at Jezebels or “The Club,” as the men referred to it. For someone who was so bold, so engaging at the start of the text, there is a notable amount of a laisse-faire quality to her in this environment. Offred notes:
She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something – what? – that used to be so central to her? And how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?
I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack. (Atwood 259).
Much like looking at Rita and Cora through the lens of Serena Joy, Offred sees herself through Moira. Moira is, or was, an ideal, or idealized, to Offred. Much of the text devoted to pre-Gilead space features Moira in some capacity. She was a charming, flashy figure. She had a gold fingernail, wore one earring and purple overalls back then. She fornicated. She drank. She got high. She was/is the exact opposite of what the Gilead society expected of her. And when her ideals clashed with the rules of Gilead, they usurped her. There’s an interesting constructionalist paradigm and counter-paradigm contrast within the two graphs. She goes from having male characteristics, in context with Gilead society, in the pre-Gilead society, to being, or being forced to be, a construction of what women are required to be in the society. In many ways Moira is only who she is because the culture she was in made her to be her. Her difference, any of the women’s differences, is routed in a powerful opposition.
Offred’s mother was the quintessential 1960’s feminist activist. She protested. She pushed for equal rights. She wanted her daughter to keep pushing. Before the fall of Gilead, Offred recalled the following comment from her mother:
You young people don’t appreciate things, she’d say. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get to where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many woman’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far? (Atwood 131).
The text only confronts Offred’s mother once in Gilead society. When Offred meets Moira in the bathroom at The Club, Moira lets her know that she saw her mother in a video about the Unwomen. The Unwomen never even get a point to be seen in the flesh. They are people that Gileadian society cannot place. A large flashing message that a woman without place is not even a woman, as the prefix suggests, in the new world. As far as Offred’s mother is concerned, she is someone who advocated for equal rights – to obtain some sort of perceived masculine quality for the feminine society. Her place among the Unwomen is a reference to that loss.
Offred speaks of all of these women, and more, yet never seems fully invested. She often feels passive, to herself and to the reader, which can be attributed to the fact the text is a transcript of a recording more than it is a written work. The text is the supplement to the tape, something the reader never hears – almost mocking the relationship of Offred and her mother or Offred in relation to any of the other female characters. She is the second sequential step to all of their stories. As Barbara Johnson suggests within “Writing,” “They are at once additions and substitutes simultaneously bridging and widening the gap between God and the speaker.” (Johnson 345). If “God” is read as “Truth,” Offred’s insights read as a woman advocating a type of passive feminism, something unrealized within the society of Gilead or Pre-Gileadian society. Or maybe it’s because passivity was a requirement in Gilead. As Cixous scrolls, “Either woman is passive or she does not exist. What is left of her is unthinkable, unthought” (349). All of Offred’s observations were of passive women; the shuffling of Serena Joy, the indifference of Moira, the house-bound nature of Rita and Cora. It’s possible that Offred tells their stories to illustrate that women are only “women” when they accept their roles – that the acceptance of the culture voids the power of the individual, negating a feminist ideal that can be attributed to any woman and adhering to a generic conception of feminine rights that is forced upon every woman. The latter feels more appropriate than the former but both hold weight.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston. Houghton Mifflen Company. 1986. Print.
Batallie, George. “Heterology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 273-277. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” Theater Journal. 40, 4. 12/1988. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 519 – 531. Web. 5/21/15.
Cixous, Helene. “The Newly Born Woman.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 348-354. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra. Gubar, Susan. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 812-825. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. “Identity and Difference.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 271-272. Print.
Neuman, Shirley. “‘Just a Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism, and The Handmaid’s Tale.” University of Toronto Quarterly. 75, 3. 857-868. 2006. Web.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakracorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Malden, Ma. Blackwell, 2004. 838–854. Print.