The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel about a woman who is forcedto live in a changed society run by a totalitarian regime. Margaret Atwood reveals the story of Offred,a handmaid who is forced to adapt to a new society, in which she is oppressedand obligated to live a life she does not desire.
The Republic of Gilead, the land in which the noveltakes place, is what used to be the United States. Throughoutthe whole novel the author reminds the reader about the implications of asociety where women’s rights are reversed. Oppression is present during the entire novel, however there is onesocial group that is highlighted the most, and these are the Handmaids. The Handmaidsare a group of women in Gilead that serve society by providing children. Notonly are they the most oppressed in the regime, but also possibly the mostimportant. Atwood uses symbolism in the clothing to represent each social groupand how they are oppressed in different ways. In the case of the handmaids,they are forced to dress in a uniform with the colour red, and in severaloccasions, Offred shares her views on how the freedom to dress as she pleases hadbeen robbed from her.
“The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extendsover the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribedissue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I neverlooked good in red, it’s not my colour.” (Atwood, 2) In this quote, Offred complains about the clothing shemust wear, and the audience is shown how the Handmaids are controlled andrepresented with a colour. Their clothing covers their whole body, onlyallowing their face to be revealed, leading their physical identity to behidden. As mentioned in the quote, their head is covered with white wigs, whichprevent them from seeing. The colour red symbolizes menstruation blood, whichis a sign of fertility and therefore allows their physical appearance to associatewith fertility.
The clothing doesn’t only represent their role in society, whichis to provide their commanders with children; it also makes them all look thesame. A handmaid’s body is a source of regulations and control, including theirclothing, which is a designation of oppression that can be visually perceived withtheir physical appereance. As Offred is the narrator, her internalthoughts often allow the audience to gain an insight of the Handmids role insociety.
The structure of social groups In the Republic of Gilead is based onthe importance and purpose of each individual belonging to them. In the case ofHandmaids, it can be considered that they belong to a middle class as they areprovided with a quality of life that is suitable for them to conceive a child.The novel often mentions social groups lower to a handmaid, such as Marthas,Econowives and Unwomen.
“There areother women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas,some in the striped dresses, red, blue and green and cheap and skimpy, thatmark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women arenot divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can.” (Atwood,5) As the narrator does not interact with either Econowives or Unwomen, littleis portrayed to the audience about their oppression, yet if oppression ispresent in all social classes, the audience is able to use imagination tounderstand the life of those who belong to lower classes than a handmaid’s.Equality is no longer present with the newgovernment of Gilead, and Offred is forced to adapt to a world where she istold what and who she is.
“My nameisn’t Offred; I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’sforbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephonenumber, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong,it does matter.” (Atwood, 14). Inthis quote the narrator reminds herself what her true name that Offred is nother real name, yet she reminds herself that a name is irrelevant, as it notpart of your identity. Overall,the main reason as to why the Handmaids are presented a particular way in The HandmaidsTale is due to their purpose, which is to provide children. The story takesplace in a time where childbirth rate has diminished; therefore one of theprimary purposes of the government is to ensure human survival.
However, thegovernment chooses an inhumane way to solve the problem. Although oppression isviewed in every social group, it is more present for women than form men. Inthe Republic of Gilead, a woman’s role is to serve and take orders by laws thathave been created by men. The novelgives the audience an insight of a world where the roles and identities ofwomen are created for them, and through Offred’s thoughts and experiences oneis able to understand severe oppression of a government.Atwood’s novel leads the audience to questiontoday’s society. Although oppression is not present as severely as in TheHandmaids Tale, it is a reality.
Although we live in a society where equalityis a right that is fought for, control is still present in many ways. Society believes in its government and laws,however it is important that we are aware as to how much control we are willingto accept. Through the use of literature,Antwood makes the audience aware of the consequences that can occur when asolution to a problem is dealt with in an extreme way, such as in the Republicof Gilead.