Feminism in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
In The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood explores the role that women play in society and the consequences of a countryís value system. She reveals that values held in the United States are a threat to the livelihood and status of women. As one critic writes, “the author has concluded that present social trends are dangerous to individual welfare” (Prescott 151).
The novel is set in the near future in Gilead, formerly the U.S., at a time when the population rate is rapidly declining. A religious regime has taken over, and women are used as breeders to boost the declining birth rate among the Caucasian race. Women are owned by men and are breeders. In the New World Order love doesnít exist, but the act of love is the only form of intimacy.
Atwood gives readers a firsthand look at the second class treatment of women through the eyes of Offred, the handmaid. Offred has been ripped away from her husband and daughter to become a breeder for someone whom she doesnít love. How does a person respond to this type of situation?
Atwood reveals Offredís struggle by introducing the foil character, Moira. Moira doesnít get to tell the reader her story; rather, it is told through Offred. This narrative choice accentuates the difference between the two women. Both women dislike the situation in Gilead. However, while Offred resigns herself to her lot, Moira rebels against the regime. Moiraís character unfolds with her escape from the rehabilitation centerña risk none of the other handmaids, including Offred, would ever dare to take. In fact, Offred is frightened with the idea of escaping, not because of the consequences, but more because she is ìlosing the taste of freedomî and finding the walls of her oppression secure (133). This is not the case with Moira, however, and this is why Atwood makes a point to refer to Moira by her slave name only once.
Unlike Moira, Offred is desperate to conceive the Commanderís child in order to survive. Both women parallel many women in todayís society. On one hand, there are feminists who rebel against society no matter what it costs. On the other hand, there are women who are just trying to survive and find their place in a society in which they are second class citizens. In the novel, Offred is torn between smearing her face with butter to keep her complexion and hanging herself. In the same manner, she is caught between accepting the status of women under the new regime and following her own desires to gain knowledge and fall in love. Offred doesnít know whether to accept the circumstances and die inside, or to fulfill her own desires, set herself free like Moira has done. The contrast between Moira and Offred reveals Atwoodís attitude towards women and their sometimes self-destructive submission. Atwood shows the oppression of women through the extreme setting of the story, but she also allows the reader to see how women passively oppress themselves.