The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Women’s Place in Gilead

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood features women’s place in Gilead as one of its central themes. As one of the best recognized feminist novelist in English, the author applies sexism attitudes in a community and carries them further to show complexities of feminism. The text shows morals and horrors of sexism and humanism vision which are taken to the limits. The rights of women and their freedom have been trampled upon and for that reason; they are used as recreational objects. Living in a dystopia of a cultural feminism, the handmaids are viewed as dominant images in the society highlighted by the novel, a factor that makes them despoiled with a loss of identity. This essay will, therefore, explore the place of women in Gilead society; a dystopian society controlled by men.

Gender Issues and Feminism Aspects

It is not easy to read the novel without having a slight understanding that gender issues and feminism aspects are significant to it. Women are the primary victims in this society as conceived by the playwright. Her view of the Gilead society is a reflection of the undocumented inequalities and abuses that women came across in the feasible world. Feminist issues are raised soon by showing Gilead as a regime in which men possess all the power. Women in this community are very submissive in all ways possible to an extent that they are unable to work and earn a living like men. They similarly cannot vote, possess wealth or do anything that seems to give them power and undermine men’s roles. The oppression comes to inform of rape, forced labor, and ceremonial appropriation of their reproductive rights. As though that is not enough, their freedom of reading and writing is limited. This is not just a humiliating restriction, but it also takes away the desire and opportunity of recording their personal history. The only thing that seems of value is their ovaries and womb, as they are reduced to fertility. “I used to think of my body as an instrument of pleasure…” (Atwood, p.73). Atwood uses a language that indicates that women’s emotions and feelings are merely seen to float around their womb.

Women as Both Victims and Supporters

Nonetheless, Atwood is careful to present women not majorly as victims. In fact, several women in this society support the government and assist in keeping other women in line (Butler, 1999). Handmaids are for instance controlled by wives and Aunts assist in instilling discipline on their fellow women. The tale creates a manageable taxonomy of the entire prevalent roles for women in the Gilead state. Although Wives’ and Aunt’s roles seem better, the bottom line remains that all options are bad and the entire group of women remains servants to men rather than free beings.

The Role of Wives, Aunts, and Marthas

Starting with the Wives; they were considered righteous and uncontaminated by the standards of the Gilead’s government. These women suffered emotionally after seeing their husbands having weekly sex with the Handmaids in search for children. Aunts were as well ranked high as the wives but their duty was to indoctrinate the Handmaids into their fresh duties. For instance, Aunt Lydia presided over Bible classes and births to amputations. A different group comprised of Marthas who worked as servants to the Wives. They were ranked low following their incapacity to give birth. As a result, they cooked, cleaned, and assisted in caring for the offspring of the ruling class. Handmaids, on the other hand, involved fertile women who were forced to bear children by the powerful men. They were their commander’s property who received names in relation to their commanders. For instance, Offred earned her name from Fred her commander. They were regularly raped during ‘ceremonies’ purposely to give birth to children; nevertheless, failing to conceive meant joining Unwomen as labor slaves. Below the Handmaids were Unwomen (nuns, lesbians, women activists, political rebels, old women, and ineffective handmaids) who could not do any of the female roles assigned by the patriarchy. They were considered less of humans and sent for forced labor in colonies like cleaning toxic wastes and burning dead bodies. Moira in Atwood’s Dystopian Fiction (p.28) offers a detailed description of the colonies saying that, “In the colonies, they spend their lifetime cleaning up…This bunch doesn’t like dead bodies lying around, they’re afraid of a plague or something. So women in the colonies there do the burning.” As a result of the lethal exposure, their survival was reduced to a maximum of three years after which they weaken to death. This group of women received very little attention and care. Another common group of sterile women known as Jezebel operated as prostitutes by attending to men of substance in informally certified brothels. They were the type of women who did drugs and slept around with anyone because they were left to their own devices by the Aunts. Although the Atwood does not clearly mention how Jezebels came into being, they were women who could not be assimilated into the regime but who could still stand a chance of laying men.

Gilead as a Mirror to Contemporary Society

When making a consideration about Gilead as a mirror to the contemporary society, the literary loss placed on women in this dystopian world poses as the regime's most cruel weapon. In the present environment, the aptitude to read and compose literary work is vital if anyone wishes to go up the socioeconomic ladder. Although today's women are finding their way in writing and reading, there are still some gaps to be filled for them to remain fully free. These gaps can only be filled by creating gender equity societies.


After a close analysis, it becomes clear that all women in the book are slaves in one way or the other. Taking a look at Wives and Aunts, they all acted to satisfy the desires of their masters, even though they were more privileged than the other women. Handmaids suffered more psychologically than physically, but the Unwomen group suffered both physically and emotionally. They were exposed to bodily torture more than the other groups. Contrasted to the position of men as powerful and authoritative, women held the least roles, running from Wives to Unwives and Jezebels. Perhaps, Atwood is sensitizing her audience that from traditional setting, women were still suffering under men’s dominance in patriarchal societies. But in a way, the novel tells about the present and the future, signifying that the present day society will run under the same issues less there are remarkable transitions in both women’s and men’s understanding and social doings.

Works Cited

Atwood. Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Great Britain: O.W Toad, 1986. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York & London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Kuźnicki, Sławomir. Margaret Atwood's Dystopian Fiction: Fire is Being Eaten. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

November 24, 2023




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