Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopian society ruled by religious extremists. The men are assigned jobs by the government and women are dependent on their husbands for everything. Women cannot have bank accounts must adhere to strict dress code. The color of a woman’s dress determines her social standing and financial status. All the citizens are threatened by the ever-watching “eye”. At any point in time a van may pull up with an eye on the side and drag a citizen inside, never to be seen again.
The regime even goes as far as to punish women that have ever been divorced or remarried. (This is pertaining to choices women made before the regime took over. Under current law women are not allowed to divorce or remarry.) Divorced or remarried women are outcasts to society and are given the lowest possible position as a Handmaid, if they are lucky enough to not be killed. The Handmaids are assigned to live in the houses of government officials and their sole purpose is to bear children for these men and families. There is a population crisis and any woman that does not have social standing can become a handmaid to avoid other menial labor jobs.
The main character Offred provides a realistic view into how majority of people would react should they ever find themselves in such a situation. She is not a loud protester against the government. Anyone who does that is hung. She silently leads her life within this new government. She does as she is ordered by her officer and his wife. She shows her rebellion to the system by refusing to have children. Once a handmaid has a child she is given higher position in society and freed of her duties and given her own place to live all provided by the government.
Many of the officers in the new regime are old, therefore making it difficult for the handmaids to conceive children from them. The blame is placed on the handmaid, rather than the officer, if she is unable to have a child. Every few months the handmaids are rotated between officers. If after multiple rotations a handmaid does not conceive she is placed in a labor camp or killed. Many of the doctors that the handmaids go to for their monthly doctors’ visits are quite young and offer to “help” the handmaids conceive. The handmaids gossip about which of them used the doctor’s “services” to get pregnant so she can graduate to a different job or if possible to her independent life. Despite knowing that she will be stuck as a handmaid for many years or be killed, Offred refuses to get pregnant at all costs.
Offred shows her independence from the society with her silent rebellion. She is aware the government needs the handmaids to boost the declining population. Despite the fear tactics used by the government to maintain control, Offred knows that she is more valuable to the regime than they let on. The population is aging and soon there won’t be enough women at an age where they can conceive children, and therefore the population won’t grow and continue. With this key bit of leverage in mind, Offred works within the system to break out of it rather than openly fighting against it.
Offred joins the underground resistance group May Day. (Code for French term m’adiez, meaning help me.) With the help of this group Offred eventually escapes the regime and leaves behind voice recordings in the tunnels of her life within the regime and how she worked within it to find a way out. Offred’s character points out that it’s not in the loud shouting and screaming that people can demand a better life for themselves, but rather the small things we do or say in everyday conversation. The goal is to help spread hope and strength among a population and lead to the downfall of the power that is the oppressor.
Leave a comment below on your opinions if Offred would be considered a feminist.