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The Handmaids Tale is a piece of literature that teaches the reader universal truth as well as life lessons. The novel has been banned in some school for being too offensive to Christians and sexuality explicit. Other think the novel should be read by many. The novel brings to light violence against women, can make the reader see the importance of independence and makes the readers question the authority surrounding them. Margret Atwood is a well known feminist author, who incorporates some form of a lesson about feminism into her novels. The novels characters are highly influences by society and how it defines what matters about a person. The government in Gilead is very strict and the women start to have trouble finding a purpose for themselves. There are lots of symbols in the text that help magnify the lessons about feminism and power. The Handmaids Tale by Margret Atwood is about a dystopian world and when viewed through a feminist sense reveals the importance of feminism and how the lacking of it may lead to the oppression of women.
First, throughout the book it is brought to light how much the society around them can define one person. In the novel the society around women defines who they are allowed to be. Women get their jobs assigned to them by the abilities to have children or not. When they go out in public, if their allowed they have to follow strict government rules. They have to be in pairs of twos and only say phrases that are government approved. Women have no choice in what they wear it is assigned to them because it have to follow societies standards. Also women in Gilead society can no longer own any of their own land, or read or write. “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dressed, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men”. In this quote Offred is talking about how all the women have to wear different dressed that label different statuses in society.
These labels that they have to wear around through the colour or pattern of their clothes come from the men they are connected to. “That was one of the things they do. They force you to kill within yourself. The way that society is constructed in Gilead forces women to shut out who they are within. All that women are now valued for in the new society of Gilead is their bodies, the ability to do their work and play their role. The way the society is constructed when Gilead was made lead to their bodies being the only thing that defines women.
Second, in the way Gilead works the only thing that now matters about the women is there bodies. Since their bodies define who the women are, the women are very conservative about how they show them. Always having to hide their bodies caused the women to grow ashamed of their own skin. When a women is a handmaid the only part of her that really matters to the family she’s working for is her ability to bare children. Prior to Gilead women were valued by their personalities and skills but now all that matters is what they wear and if they do their job correctly. Offred expresses that living in Gilead has lead her to feel foreign to her own body. Offred even found it hard to believe that she used to comfortably walk around with lots of skin showing and especially amongst men. “My nakedness is strange to me already […] did I really wearing bathing suits at the beach? I did without a thought, among men without caring that my legs, my arms, my thighs and my back were on display, could be seen. Shameful immodest. I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because its shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that defines me completely” (Atwood 12.4)
The social standards of Gilead cause her to look at her own choices from the old world and be upset with herself. It’s as if she’s slut shaming herself for what used to be considered normal. Offred is no longer valued for her personality she is identified by her body so she is now conscious about how its viewed by others. The way that the new society works in Gilead was set up by the government that is now a dictatorship.
The way society works in Gilead leads to the women feeling useless. Women no longer are allowed to use their minds which is oppressing them because the men still can. The women are no longer being respected or appreciated for their personalities and can no longer read and write. Men are now taught to look at women as just bodies who are completing their work. The way that the men are supposed to look at women is objectifying and belittling them. Men can no longer socialize with women unless approved on and they shouldn’t get attached to them being as they’re only workers. Being unable to express their thoughts or read and write makes the women feel as if their useless.
Also the women are being objectified, the clothing that they wear is all that defines them. “Agreed to it write away she didn’t care. Anything with two legs and a good you know-what was fine with her. They aren’t squeamish, they don’t have the same feelings we do”. Offred is expression the fact that to the wife she doesn’t matter at all the only thing that does matter is her ability to have children for said wife. “This is the kind of touch they life: folk art, archaic made by women in their spare time from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am being wasted. Why do I want?”. Offred is comparing herself to folk art in this passage, she sees it as of she os being wasted and she is feeling useless. The way women are valued in Gilead versus the old world is and example of bad feminism.
Third, the books main theme is feminism. As we continue reading other themes come up along with it. The other two main themes were power and sexuality. These themes were an aid to further the theme of feminism. The way the theme of power was incorporated into the book showed how it added to the deterioration of women rights. The power the men had over women left them with no say in their own lives. Gilead is a dictatorship that left men with all the power.
Everyone who lives in Gilead is constantly surveilled by the government even in their own homes. The lack of women rights in Gilead forces them to use their sexuality illegally to get what they want from men. The government kills gays, lesbians and abortion doctors. They don’t allow second marriages and dictate what women are allowed to wear. With the strict laws nobody can fully express who they fully are. The power of sex was very prominent in the novel, Offred’s affair with Nick would be an example of this. She felt more free, open and happier while having the affair. The commander Offred works for has affairs with his handmaids, the previous one killed herself because people found out about it. This doesn’t stop the commander from doing it he doesn’t consider the risk that he’s putting the women at. Women in Gilead risk their lives for the possibility of love because they feel so alone.
Gilead is supposedly providing a safer society for women to live in. Women now have little to no contact with men and are supposed to be there for each other. They are paired in twos to go outside their homes, they are supposed to provide support during times in sickness, child birth, death and they all work together. Offred’s Mother was a feminist activist. She used to do pretests for things like abortion rights. The lack of women rights in Gilead made Offred see that her mom was right about the need to speak up for her beliefs. Offred was worried that feminism would alienate her from men but that happened anyway in Gilead. Throughout the book we see the perks and the flaws of feminism that the reader can learn lessons from.
Also, there are many symbols being used in this novel and it also teaches us valuable lessons. The Handmaids Tale is a dystopian/utopian novel that teaches the reader important lessons about feminism. Also the use of symbols showed the rider insight into the novel. One of the symbols that was used through the novel was costumes. All the women wore different outfits that labeled them. The colour red was worn by handmaids and red can symbolize power, blood or rebellion. The colour blue can symbolize virgin Mary which is the opposite colour of what the handmaids wear. Another important symbol would be mirrors. Mirrors reflect whoever looking in. The handmaids no longer being able to look at themselves in the mirror could symbolize and identity loss.
We learn to appreciate the freedom we have right now, because we never know when it can be taken away. Our sexuality can be powerful, in the novel Offred has no say over her body or reproductive rights, but she manipulates the commander with her body to get what she wants. We learn that its important to speak up. Offred should have spoken up about feminists and women rights, because maybe protests could have changed the way Gilead is and now she has no voice. Our voices matter and we should speak up for what we believe in. The book also teaches us that fear is powerful. Everyone in the book fears the consequences of the government if they defy it. It is hard to defy what everyone else is doing.
In conclusion the dystopian world in the novel shows the reader the importance of feminism and how without it can lead to oppression of some. Margret Atwood did an excellent job at prevailing many important lessons throughout out piece of literature. The main theme in the novel was feminism, along with sexuality and power. The novel also makes the reader think about how much authority is controlling us. The Handmaids Tale by Margret Atwood is a well written novel that forces the reader to consider how our daily lives are being ran.
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