Critical Essays Women in The Handmaids Tale


Atwood, who is famous for depicting themes of betrayal and treachery through the creation of strong and vulnerable female characters, produces a vivid set of possibilities with the women of The Handmaid's Tale. The interplay between Aunts and Handmaids-to-be creates an intense effort at subjugation and indoctrination. The creators of Gilead show foresight in turning woman against woman, a method similar to Hitler's use of prison trustees for some of the more onerous jobs of his death camps, particularly the placement of victims in ovens and burial details for those mowed down by machine gun fire. Although Offred resists brainwashing, her regular references to Aunt Lydia's tedious, one-dimensional precepts and aphorisms ["Modesty is invisibility"] indicate the success of the program. So thoroughly indoctrinated is Offred that she admits enjoying taunting Janine, a victim of gang rape, and even succumbs to mass hysteria and takes an active role in a public execution. When a Japanese tour group tries to photograph Offred, she obscures her face behind her winged headgear and replies affirmatively to their question, "Are you happy?"

These instances suggest that Offred teeters on the brink of total acquiescence, a fact that haunts and terrifies her. Lacking the tough courage of a rebel, she keeps before her the examples of her mother and of Moira, both capable of razzing the establishment, of subverting authority. Offred lacks Moira's chutzpah, as demonstrated by the dismemberment of the toilet flusher for use as a weapon against Aunt Elizabeth, but Offred does possess a sense of humor that is similar to Moira's, a valuable buffer for some of her stolid moodiness and haunting dreams. Like some adults, Offred is approaching mid-life (roughly the age of Christ at the time of the Crucifixion) when she learns to value her mother's commitment to women's rights. A little like a sorrowful child herself, she looks back at her own daughter and dares hope that the child retains some memory of mother love.

Against the large screen on which Offred plays out her servitude are the lesser "Of's" — the first Ofglen, who maintains the dogma of Handmaidenhood during visits to the cemetery and past the Wall; the subsequent Ofglen, who whispers that her predecessor hanged herself; and Ofcharles, the nameless, story-less victim of a Salvaging. A strong "Of" is "Ofwarren," who retains enough of her former personality to be called Janine through most of the novel. A cloyingly complicitous trainee at Red Center, Janine annoys even the iron-spined Aunt Lydia with her ecstasy and cathartic reliving of gang rape. However, Atwood rescues Janine from the stereotype of the sycophant by revealing an early scene of mental derangement, followed by a head-forward, contraction-wracked birthing, and tears for little Angela, the handicapped infant whom she can never claim as her own. In the end, Janine/Ofwarren becomes Ofsomebody else, but her mind ceases to observe rationality. Like a ubiquitous clerk or receptionist, she wishes her Handmaiden sisters to "have a nice day." To Offred, Janine, now "in free fall," is unsalvageable.

Clustered about Janine and the other breeders is the pecking order of Gilead womanhood: Wives, Daughters, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, and Unwomen. Serena Joy is a composite drawn from Mirabel Morgan, Tammy Faye Baker, and Phyllis Schlafly; she is the true turncoat against women and must live with her futile hope for a return to traditional womanhood. Her own television career curtailed, Serena now suffers the pain of arthritis as her joints, like her compassion, freeze up. Her hands, endlessly turning out geometrically cloned hominids on knitted wool scarves, reach for the effusive flowers that mock her sterility. Like Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello, Serena associates herself with the willow, a gentle symbol of endless grief. Like Niobe, the weeping non-mother of Greek mythology, Serena has no choice but to support Offred in concubinage to the Commander and surreptitious couplings with Nick if the family is ever to produce a child.