Analyzing Women’s Plight in The Handmaid’s Tale: Dehumanization and Oppression
Women’s Role in Enforcing Patriarchal Control:
There is always a possibility that in a male-dominated society, women are the ones who impose and control the rules set out by them over women. In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood portrays a dystopian society of Gilead in which the male-controlled society restricts women’s individuality and power, erases their identity, and forces them to comply with imposed rules. Women are sexually and psychologically exploited, manipulated, and controlled by assigning them socially restricted roles. Although the Republic of Gilead’s totalitarian power structure and control are composed and imposed completely from the top by men, it is women in the position of power that maintain the structure of this society and control over women.
Women’s Roles and Stripped Identity:
With the social division of women comes the status structure that aims to strip away women’s power and create tension that would lead to the disunity of women. The physical and psychological oppression leads women to personal dissociation from female beings, loss of their identity and individuality, and lack of compassion for other women. With the loss of identity and individuality comes the dehumanization of women as they detach from their bodies and lose their empathy for each other.
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The Status Structure and Imposed Roles:
The Gilead’s status structure takes all power away from women, with the exception of the Wives and the Aunts, and assigns women into socially restricted groups and roles associated with them. Firstly, the women are grouped into a few categories: Wives, Aunts, Handmaids, Marthas, and Unwomen, stripped of their names and forbidden to read and write. While Offred, a Handmaid, recalls their planned escape with Luke and her daughter, she also reflects on her name, “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden.
I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” Offred’s name is taken after the Commander, Fred, to whom she is assigned. Offred tries to convince herself that her actual name does not matter anymore as her identity is stripped away, and only her body has a function assigned to it. She is no longer a person but an object for the use of others. Without her real name, she starts losing her identity and individuality. Striping the Handmaids of their real names is a powerful way to take away their individuality, identity, and power and make them feel unimportant.
Manipulation and Division Among Women:
Secondly, the women with some power create tension between women to ensure that they are not united and thus easy to manipulate to fulfill Gilead’s agenda. During one of Aunt Lydia’s lectures, she condemns the women who did not try hard to conceive the babies, “Some women believed there would be no future; they thought the world would explode. That was the excuse they used. They said there was no sense in breeding. Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: such wickedness. They were lazy women, … They were sluts” (Atwood 113).
Aunt Lydia’s comments are meant to impose upon the Handmaids the ideas and beliefs of Gilead, specifically to ingrain the importance of their breeding role in society. At the same time, they meant to limit the Handmaids from forming their own opinion about other women and invoking hate against them. In the Red Centre, the aunts are indoctrinators of the status structure whose role is to train and brainwash the handmaids to obey and fulfill their duties as well as mentally separate them by encouraging a betrayal. In essence, women become a tool for men to control other women.
The Outcome of Oppression:
The physical and psychological oppression leads women to personal disassociation from female beings, loss of their identity and individuality, and lack of compassion for other women. For instance, the women in Gilead are only valued for their ability to conceive and bear a child. Otherwise, they are stripped of their gender identity and become worthless. The fertile women, the Handmaids, are obligated to fulfill the maternal duties that are placed upon them. This biological oppression is their destiny, and they cannot escape it. Just before one of the meetings with the Commander, Offred reflects on her purpose in life: “We are for breeding purposes …There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts…We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.’ Offred comes to realization and acceptance of her maternal or breeding role that is imposed on her and the fact that she cannot escape her destiny.
She compares herself to the two-legged womb that is ready to conceive and become a vessel through which she would fulfill her biological destiny of caring for and delivering children for some of the high-ranking, barren families. Offred becomes complacent not by choice but by her destiny and detaches from herself and her emotions. By doing so, she loses her identity and individuality. In addition to the biological, psychological oppression takes a toll on the handmaids’ which in turn negatively impacts their feelings and compassion for other handmaids.
During confession or so-called Testifying time at the Red Centre, Janine, one of the handmaids, testified that she was raped by the gang and had an abortion when she was only fourteen. After her confession, Aunt Helena asks the handmaids a series of questions that are meant to blame Janine for being raped. In response, the other handmaids unanimously contemn her while knowing that testifying was a powerful way to break women, “For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her. Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. We meant it, which is the bad part. I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then.”
The following week, right at the start of Testifying, Janine blames herself for being raped. The unanimous response to Janine and her acceptance of fault demonstrates that psychological pressure placed on the handmaids is very effective. Women become submissive to their new role as Handmaids, and in doing so, they no longer have compassion for other women. They accept and internalize their oppression and respond in the manner expected from them, not necessarily in the way they feel about it.
Although Offred acknowledges that for that very moment, they all consciously despised Janine, she also acknowledges that she is no longer the person that she used to be (Atwood 72). It is evident that in response to psychological oppression, women disassociate themselves from female beings, lose their identity and individuality, and no longer stay united and supportive of each other. The systematic subjection of women to Gilead’s class structure results in women’s acceptance of external oppression. By accepting it, women become internally oppressed as well.
Dehumanization and Empathy Loss:
When stripped away from their identity and individuality, women become dehumanized and have no empathy for other women. For instance, by referring to herself as the national resource, Offred emphasizes that she is no longer a human being with free will but the property of the state. She reduces herself to only a body while she is naked in the bath and reflects on how she viewed her body before Gilead and now, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will… Now, the flesh arranges itself differently.
I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.” Offred views her body before as an extension of herself. Now, she no longer exists, but only her physical body is important, with the womb being a central object. As much as she is aware of her changing sense of herself, her thoughts and reflections show that she has internalized Gilead’s attitude towards women as objects for bearing children. Another form of dehumanization that is placed on the Handmaids is subjecting them to a monthly ceremony of sexual intercourse with the Commander with the premise of conceiving a child for his family.
The Handmaids to the Commanders are not asked to consent to sexual intercourse with him as sexual coercion is institutionalized in Gilead. At the most fertile time of her menstrual cycle, Offred is prepared for and takes part in the ceremony. While the Commander’s wife holds her hands, the Commander performs his sexual act, “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it, the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating, too, would be inaccurate because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for” (Atwood 94). Through ceremonial rape, women are oppressed and dehumanized as their reproductive organs become the property of the state with the sole purpose of producing a child.
During the ceremony, Offred disassociates herself from her body. She uses vulgar and ordinary language to describe the intercourse between herself and the Commander, which proves that there is no emotional connection between the two of them. By distracting herself and disassociating from her body, she can fulfill her reproductive role. Furthermore, she does not blame anyone but herself for what happened to her at that very moment, claiming that she signed up for it, although the alternative was to be sent away to work in servitude in the agricultural and polluted areas. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, might feel humiliated by watching her husband’s sexual intercourse with Offred as she asks Offred to leave the room right after the ceremony. She offers no sympathy or any mental support to Offred, which indicates a lack of empathy for other women.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, 1998.