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Humans can only experience life subjectively: each of us is rooted in our own individual positions that cause us to perceive differing shades of reality. An awareness of this universal condition permeates Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as June, the protagonist, constantly hints at the discrepancy between what society recognizes and what the individual perceives. Such awareness of this distinction allows June to subvert societal norms that ensnare her in conditions in which all semblances of power are placed out of her reach. She realizes that she can never overtly exert power, but can still subtly rebel against the system that oppresses her. In ironic displays of defiance, June takes advantage of her oppressed position to manipulate individuals who have more social power than she does.
June’s perception of the illusion of power is evidenced by her observation of the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy, knitting elaborate scarves for the Angels. Such an activity is a common pastime for the wives of Commanders, even though June “can hardly believe the Angels have a need for such scarves” (Atwood 13). Nevertheless, June recognizes that knitting is satisfying in that it creates easily attainable goals for Serena Joy. The act of completing a scarf allows Serena Joy to experience a semblance of power: there is satisfaction in the idea that one is able to make some kind of difference in the world. However, June hypothesizes that “these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in their turn. Maybe it’s something to keep the Wives busy, to give them a sense of purpose” (13). Thus, the discrepancy between power and reality is revealed: though it seems like the Wives are able to utilize their exquisite abilities in making needed scarves for the Angels suffering at the front lines of battle, knitting is very likely meant to be merely a form of distraction to keep them busy. From the standpoint of the knitters, such an idea is not obvious, as they have no reason to question an activity that gives them a sense of fulfillment. Thus, the utter extent to which women are deprived of power is demonstrated: even the small success of being able to knit a scarf for someone else is snatched from them without their knowledge.
In comparison to the Wives, June and other handmaids possess an amount of autonomy that is even more minuscule. June is fully aware of how society is deliberately structured to deprive her of freedoms. She obediently walks to the market with Ofglen, cloaked in her heavy red dress, her face shielded by the white wings attached to her hood in a perfect demonstration of meek submission. However, at the same time, her mind is racing with musings about rebellion. As she passes the Guardians one day, she recognizes that, in the present, they have no outlet for their lusty desires. Thus, she gives her hips a small shake, fully aware of the effect such an action will have on the men, and thinks to herself, “I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers, surreptitiously” (22). June understands that in her position in society, she is essentially the property of the Commander. Her recognition of this designated position allows her to exploit it: she takes advantage of the fact that she is untouchable in order to torture the young men. To an outsider, she seems to be passively accepting her fate by obediently going to the market with her fellow Handmaid, vulnerable to the guns of the Guardians, but in that instant, she is the one with the greatest power.
The men in the novel are presented with realities that seem much more promising than the ones women face. June recognizes that the Guardians dream “of being allowed possibly to marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own” (22). However, it is revealed later on in the novel that even men as powerful as the Commander are unsatisfied with their lives. This is quite ironic insofar as the Commander is one of the individuals who played a role in formulating the laws that govern Gilead. June begins to manifest semblances of power over the Commander after they begin meeting secretly at night. She is the only one aware of his vulnerability: a craving for companionship. Only she is able to present him with the thrill and secrecy of intimacy that he desires. Because of her weak position in society, any complaints she might make against him would only ensure her death. Thus, she is the only one he can trust to keep quiet about his violation of the law. When she hints at wanting to put a stop to their nightly meetings, he seems nervous and June observes how he stares at her “with intent bright eyes. If I didn’t know better I would think it was fear” (187). Obviously, the Commander does not fear June because she does not have any power over him that would threaten his life. However, his desire for her company makes the thought of her absence uncomfortable. He is ready to submit to her demands in order to erase that discomfort. June’s recognition of this willingness grants her bargaining power with the Commander: she has the ability to coerce the man into giving into her requests. As a result, she is able to convince him to tell her information about Gilead that previously had been concealed from her.
Though societies like Gilead rob women of the ability to exert power in obvious ways, June is able to strain against the confines society has attempted to place upon her. A Handmaid is seen as a helpless figure in Gilead in comparison to a Commander, but no one individual is firmly in power over the other. What society perceives to be true could differ drastically from what the individual perceives. At the end of the novel, June recognizes that other individuals may also be subverting the system in their own subtle ways. She realizes that her observation of the Commander’s Wife could have been wrong: knitting may not be a method of submission, but a sign of stubbornness, as June muses, “I see those evergreen trees and geometric boys and girls in a different light: evidence of her stubbornness, and not altogether despicable” (203). Even if June can never truly know why the Commander’s Wife is so bent on knitting those scarves, she recognizes the possibility that they serve as a mechanism of demonstrating the Commander’s Wife’s willpower in a world in which she is deprived of the ability to strive for much else. Women in Gilead cannot exert power in traditionally obvious ways, but they find ways to do so covertly, in ways that go overlooked by society, but remain obvious to themselves.
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