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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale presents a disturbing future dystopia in which all power is stripped from women and left in a male-dominated power structure. Throughout the novel, betrayal remains the over-arching theme, seen in men’s betrayal of women as well as the reason behind abandoning all sense of self and former relationships. Society’s betrayal of women as a whole leads Gilead to a power hierarchy which leaves handmaids, specifically June, no choice but to betray themselves by giving in to the society which strips them of identity and leaves them with no personal relationships and a constant trial to stay alive.
Stuck in a society which has stripped all meaning and emotion from sex, and justified by self-preservation in a power-dominated ménage-trois, June commits acts she is both ashamed of and doesn’t enjoy. Driven only by her need to stay alive, she continues to follow these orders, blocking them from her mind as much as possible. During the time in which June is known as “Offred”, the stratification of the society of Gilead has shifted solely to accommodate an act which is made perfunctory and shameful. The “Ceremony”, as it is called, is void of emotion and simply exists as an obligation in order to procreate. “What he is fucking is the lower part of my body… Nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (94). This is June’s account from the ceremony around which her life is now entirely based. Even this early in the process, she has separated herself from what she once knew and created a new knowledge of what takes place, recognizing that this is not like the passionate sex she once knew with Luke, but is reduced to the simple act of insemination. For the entire community sex, has lost the meaning it had before and has shifted to this monthly ritual: “This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty” (94-95).
This change in thinking is one of the most serious in the new society. Though nothing vital has been eliminated and procreation will continue, what was removed from society may as well have been an essential part of living. Without it June, and even the Commander, struggle to know where boundaries lie and how relationships should exist. The Commander orders June into his office, breaking all semblance of structure and tenants by thinking himself to be above the law, and putting June in a position where she has no choice but to follow him, but could still be killed for following his orders. She is left with no way out, and while the Commander realizes this, he sees his own need for companionship as a higher priority, knowing the cycle of handmaids will continue far past June, and caring more to make a real connection to someone. In his office the Commander does not want sex or inappropriate behavior, but rather something that has become even more intimate, real companionship. Each night, as her visits continue, the Commander requests a kiss from June “He draws away, looks down at me. There’s the smile again, the sheepish one. Such candor. ‘Not like that,’ he says. ‘As if you meant it.’ He was so sad” (140). This glimpse at the Commander’s true desires shows that more than being a corrupting authority, he too has a hard time in this society of emptiness that he helped create.
The restructuring that took place has moved focus from that of love and relationships to the need for reproduction, making Serena Joy’s sole purpose to wait for a baby. Her status in society depends on June’s pregnancy, creating an odd power dynamic between the two of them, as they are completely dependent on one another. In her desperation Serena Joy offers the idea of breaking the rules and arranging for June to have sex with Nick, intending to better her chances, and once again showing the corruption that exists in the society which was created to be void of corruption. “This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: heavy, formless, dark; collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort” (205). The irony of the commander and his wife requesting that June break the rules is both overwhelming and appalling, as she could be betrayed and killed at any time for anything she does, even following their instructions. She is stuck in a position of deciding whether she should follow the rules set out for her by society or follow the orders from her superiors to break these rules. Knowing either path could lead to her demise, June chooses the more interesting path and follows the orders of her Commander, as much as she sometimes despises her actions. With the Commander, June separates herself from her actions as much as possible, seeing it as a duty more than an experience. “With the Commander I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close” (269). June’s separation from intimacy with the Commander is her way of maintaining the hope that one day she can return to a life in which she is with someone she loves. The Commander’s request for June to accompany him to Jezebel’s, though an interesting experience for her, exposes the reality that there is no room for intimacy in this society which has made it both obsolete and a necessity. There is no middle ground between procreating and making love in Gilead, where personal relationships have no place. “The trouble is that I can’t be, with him, any different from the way I usually am with him. Usually I’m inert. Surely there must be something here for us, other than this futility and bathos” (255). June’s separation from her actions has become so deeply ingrained that she cannot reach past it to take part in something more than she has had for the past five years. Her focus remains on staying alive, keeping herself restricted to breaking the rules, but internally removing herself from her actions in order to maintain the hope of being herself and in control of her own body and mind again one day.
Through almost the entirety of the novel, June manages to maintain hope, though faint, and finds vicarious rebellion in Moira and Ofglen, even in a society so deprived of all things hopeful. June searches everywhere for even a scrap of evidence suggesting hope and on the inside of her wardrobe she finds it: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Even without knowing the meaning June uses this as her motto and her words of inspiration, left from a woman who knew all too well what she was going through. “I pray silently: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds right, and it will have to do” (90). The writing on the wardrobe is forbidden, so June cherishes it as a secret she keeps, seeing it as her little piece of power and connection with someone else, as distant as it may be. Moira becomes her lifeline of hope, beginning in college before the new society took hold and continuing through the Red Center and Jezebel’s. Her rebellion and irreverence stay with June even when they are apart for so long, offering a sort of optimistic heroism and the hope that there will be a way out of the hell which has become her life. Moira’s escape from the Red Center was impressive, conning her way out by threatening and posing as an Aunt. She was known to be the disobedient one, but this level of dangerous risk-taking was unheard of. “Moira had power now, she’d been set loose, she’d set herself loose. She was now a loose woman” (133). June’s passive attitude left her to experience rebellion through Moira and the others’ more exciting and dangerous choices. Moira’s daring approach ran out, however, and at Jezebel’s (ironically June’s moment to live dangerously) she confided in June that she had given in, that she was content being a plaything for men because she was allowed to have more freedoms than those confined to households. Moira’s bravery and gumption far exceeded that of most, so when she gave up on her dream of escape and conceded to be part of a society which exploited her, it caused June to feel as if she had no hope left either. Her acceptance of having only three or four years left, rather than looking for another escape plan showed June that her hero had faded and was broken, just like herself. “I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swash-buckling heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.”(249)
Moira wasn’t June’s only hope. In fact, as thrilling as Moira’s life was in June’s mind, Ofglen offered an even greater sense of hope. Ofglen’s hope was almost tangible in its accessibility, and June, though wary to become a part of the group, found herself relying on the “Mayday” group for hope of a future escape. June was lured into the group by the sense of belonging and power in a group of such magnitude and secrecy, though her reverence for this group did not overshadow the fear she still felt for the societal structures that bound her. Ofglen’s status in this organization meant that she was both a friend and a threat to June, offering companionship and information during their outings, but also the chance of exposing what she knew about June’s secret meetings with the Commander if she were ever caught. Ofglen demonstrated incredible perseverance through her suicide, knowing that she would expose others, and hanging herself as her last vestige of self-control in the society which stripped her of it in all other ways. Similar to the disappointing end felt with Moira’s acceptance of the way things were, Ofglen’s suicide, though a relief, also exposes June to the enormity of influence society truly has over all of them and that hits her even harder than Ofglen’s death. “I want to keep on living in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power” (286). Despite her hope and her fantasies of one day being with Luke and her daughter without constraints, June abandons everything she once believed in and hoped for and resigns herself to the same conclusion Moira reached; she has been broken by society.
June feels immense guilt and sorrow over her own betrayal of Luke, even with the knowledge that she will never be with him again; Gilead’s society has cultivated a shame which envelops her even in her simple desire for pure human connection. Even following instructions, June feels guilt in being with Nick. Society has stripped all meaning from the act, but her feelings for Nick, though human nature, are still forbidden in her mind because she had no resolution with Luke, and a part of her heart still belongs to him, or at least she thinks it should. “And I thought afterwards: this is a betrayal. Not the thing itself but my own response. If I knew for certain he’s dead, would that make a difference?” (p.263). Gilead’s denial of all personal connections has left June with no one to turn to and no one with whom she can be herself. Nick offers that escape to a place where she is human again, not literally, but emotionally, and that is something June can’t pass up. She has given up everything she once was and everything she once loved and poured herself into this new relationship, as dangerous as it may have been. It becomes the one thing she can look forward to, and the one way she can escape from the unfortunate reality she faces daily. “The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him… Telling this, I’m ashamed of myself… There’s pride in it, because it demonstrates how extreme and therefore justified it was, for me. How well worth it” (271). Though she’ll never see them again, and knows that she’ll never have her other life back, June still feels as if she is betraying her family, but continues, even though she is ashamed of her actions because she never knows when it will end. She stops listening to her guilty feelings and begins living in the moment because she has nothing else to live for. She has betrayed the person she once was and she doesn’t like the choices she makes, but still can’t make herself abandon the newfound emotion she has for Nick. “I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow” (267).
June resigns herself to the realization that life will never be the same, and as much as she wants it to go back, she has been broken by Gilead’s society to the point where she can’t help but be a part of this clandestine relationship, even one where they agree not to love each other. She is left with nothing else to live for.
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