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Women Are The Dominant Figures in The Handmaids Tale

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Naomi Alderman’s 2016 ‘The Power’ explores a world in which women become the dominant figures in society as a result of the development of an ability to release electrical impulses from their fingers. Atwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’, published in 1985, thus falling squarely within the twentieth-century tradition of anti-utopian novels, depicts a totalitarian society, explored through the character of Offred, that treats women as property of the state forcing fertile women into systematic coercive rape. The abuse of power is arguably the most significant exploration of power in both novels- explored through ideas of freedom, oppression and suffering and through various literary techniques. Overall, power is presented as a dark and destructive force with its impacts effectively examined through language and structure. With Atwood and Alderman both writing at times of feminist movements and equality challenges, context has clearly influenced both novels greatly with this also be explored.

Firstly, the theme of power is effectively explored by both writers through their exploration into the idea of freedom- with differences between the lack of freedom women in Gilead experience greatly contrasting to the large amounts of freedom that the female gender, as a whole, experience in the dystopian world of ‘The Power’. The freedom, or lack of, that is shown in each novel allows for the impacts of power to be explored, enabling conclusions to be drawn as to how each author has chosen to present power and its impacts. In ‘The Handmaids Tale’, Atwood explores, through the characterisation of Aunt Lydia and Offred, freedom in Gilead despite all that women have lost. Aunt Lydia claims that the Handmaids have “freedom from” sexist acts such as catcalling and potential abuse and rape from strangers as a result of restrictions implemented by the powers of Gilead, arguing they should be grateful for such freedoms instead of mourning those that they have lost. Some may argue that Atwood is clearly referencing the notion of rape culture and victim blaming developed by second-wave feminists, primarily in the United States, in the 1970s.[footnoteRef:1] In doing so, she arguably clearly draws distinct parallels between her dystopian Gilead and the real world, in some sense thus using her novel as a warning of the dangers of such unfair and oppressive views. It brings into focus many of the anxieties and fears of contemporary Western society in what at times seems a rather prophetic way: ‘The book seems ever more relevant in a world of jostling theocracies and diminished civil liberties” (Guardian Review, 26 April, 2003, p23). Diemer Llewellyn states “the power structure refuses to see women as human”. in some sense explaining why they are therefore granted such restricted freedoms. Offred is significant in that in her narrative, she resists being reduced to a ‘two legged womb’ through refusing forget her past and name- arguably allowing for her to retain her psychological freedom. A conflict between the freedom she once experienced and what she has been indoctrinated with in Gilead is clearly evident, maybe implying that Offred isn’t fully submissive to the strong power of the state yet the psychological power and freedom within her isn’t strong enough either. This can clearly be seen when she gives a vivid description of her sighting of ‘free’ women who contrast greatly to the society she resides in now. At first, the language deliberately used by Atwood implies that Offred is not only surprised by what she sees, but also possibly disgusted as a result of the effective negative underlying tone created. She states that “They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall” and how their high heels “fit like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance.” The similes are depressive and imply a sense of unease and disregard. ‘Scrawls on a washroom wall’ imply madness and entrapment, maybe reflecting the view that in Offreds eyes, these women are trapped as they aren’t experiencing the same ‘freedom’ she is- showing the extent of manipulation and power that the regime has over her and others. This idea is further supported by Fredrik Pettersson who goes as far to suggest that “it is reasonable to say that it is actually the values of Gilead, or patriarchal discourse, which has intruded on Offred’s way of thinking” showing how the idea of freedom that her, and other Handmaids, have been indoctrinated with by Gilead has in turn resulted in the state gaining power at the expense of the female gender thanks to manipulation. Alternatively, whilst it is clear to see that Gilead has clearly “intruded” on her way of thinking, as Patterson suggests, Offred’s fight for belief in her own way of thinking is also evident- contrasting to his argument. The disgust created through the brash language of the similes could reflect jealousy that Offred is experiencing when she sees this; achieving her own psychological freedom through remembrance of the past, she is arguably still clinging on to hopes of returns to the past thus hints at jealousy when she witnesses it. The plosive and sibilant sounds in “teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts but off balance” are harsh and uncomfortable, almost as if they are being spat out implying disgust. Additionally, as Offred’s lengthy and insightful description continues, she states “Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.” There is a significant and dramatic contrast between the earlier listing and wealth of detail and the short, impactful declarative last sentence effectively coined by Atwood highlighting Offred’s breakthrough in thought. A sense of the distance between the society now and society prior to Gilead is also created through the different tenses also reflecting the change in views. Through clear evidence of female oppression and loss of freedom, effectively portrayed through Atwood’s dramatic and deliberate use of language, power is presented as a negative and destructive force which, when in the wrong hands, can take away freedoms and liberties with unjust ease. 

Similarly, Alderman also reiterates the idea of “freedom from and freedom to” in ‘The Power’ for women in the new matriarchal world- in turn generating some sense of power. Almost like ‘freedom’ that Gilead has created, the skein that women now posses gives them new found freedom to feel empowered and freedom from feeling vulnerable in societies as they did before

Secondly, the abuse of power is also explored in both ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and ‘The Power’ through dramatic and unnerving descriptions of rape. In the ‘The Handmaids Tale’, the Handmaids, fertile women, are subject to systematic, coercive rape with the aim to breed. For example, the blunt, declarative sentences in “Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing.” creates a sense of detachment and unease, effective in that it is uncomfortable to read and digest, furthering the notion of rape. Arguably, the lack of vivid and lengthy description in the place of short declarative sentences may highlight the somewhat clinical nature of ‘The Ceremony’ of which Gilead have tried to separate from a sexual experience. Alternatively, linking to the first point, it may be reflecting Offred’s psychological power in that she is successfully able to distance herself from the regime and the oppression created, giving her some sense of freedom from what she is coerced into as a result of the abuse of power. The suffering that Offred experiences is made clear in this scene. She suffers pain during the ceremony, evident in “What it really means is that she is in control…The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers” and even more so however in “maybe I’m crazy and this is some new kind of therapy.” (expand)

Although it is implied that women are now protected from things such as sexual abuse as a result of the Gilead regime, it is interestingly contradictory of the truth and many argue that Atwood, by portraying the rape of the Handmaids as a religious and an evolutionary necessity in the eyes of Gilead, is showing an extreme form of what the rape culture of the 1980s represented. Barbé Hammer explains how the Commander “suggests that women’s liberation forced American men to take thus (Gilead) drastic action; ergo the present regime is ultimately the women’s ‘fault’”. In emphasising this, maybe Atwood is again highlighting the problems in our own world- implying that Gilead is an escalated version of our own society. 

Likewise, in ‘The Power’, the abuse of power is explored through shocking descriptions of abhorrent acts such as rape and violence, most evident through Tunde’s transparent third person narrative. Alderman has, in her dystopian matriarchal world, flipped societal expectations and stereotypes of rape with a young man instead becoming the victim of an ‘old woman, mid forties, wiry, small hands and a long, thick plait like an oiled rope.” With a skein, and thus power to control, this power is abused in attempt to rape and harm someone without. Effective use of asyndetic listing creates a rough and ragged image of the older woman emphasised greatly by the simile “like an oiled rope” implying age, yet also maybe some sense of toughness and thus threat. In some sense, Alderman is maybe playing on fears of her readers, with between 60% and 99% of rapes and sexual assault perpetrated by men, the description of the woman somewhat similar to society’s traditionally stereotypical appearance of a male attacker allows for it to seem even more so realistic. The uncomfortable and sinister sibilance of “She licks her lips. He can see her skein twitching at her collar bone, a living worm”, whilst creating energy and pace when reading, in doing so creates a sense of evil and possess a threatening nature. The metaphor describing her as a “living worm” not only emphasises her animalistic nature but maybe also her persistence- when cut in half, worms are well known to survive and thus through this comparison, Alderman is possibly alluding to the power of under-estimation. In this sense, it could be suggested that maybe Alderman is challenging society’s views of women, especially those of an elder age or who lack capability and are thus regarded as inferior to stereotypically stronger males. Oppression of certain groups can often lead to rebellion, think the French Revolution for example, so arguably, similarly to Atwood, Alderman is warning us of the effects too much power, unequal shares of power or abuses of power can cause. 

Additionally, whilst power is explored in similar senses in both novels- it is also explored in contrasting senses. Power is presented as fiercely destructive and dangerous in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and, whilst also arguably the same in ‘The Power, it is also presented as a somewhat natural and iridescent force by Alderman. Semantic fields of nature effectively employed throughout ‘The Power’ almost allude to power as natural and a necessity, contrasting greatly to the forceful and brash nature of power alluded to by Atwood. For example, when describing the skein, Alderman, through the third person narrative of Roxy, states “She can smell something a bit like a rainstorm…There is a long red scar: it’s patterned like a fern, leaves and tendrils, budlets and branches.” Whilst a threatening force, the skein (and therefore power) through simile is presented as fairly gentle and delicate. Perhaps Alderman is juxtaposing its harm with her tender description to either hide its power or to reflect how it being repressed by those who posses it. Furthermore, through effective comparison to nature- the idea of the skein as a power which can grow and develop is created -allowing for possibilities of it to become as fiercely destructive and dangerous as that in ‘The Handmaids Tale’. As a result of the effective use of lexical field, the notion of power as a good thing is cleverly alluded to. Nature is good and pure: “fern” and “budlets” are signs of growth and health, and maybe Alderman is suggesting that when used graciously, power can be positive and beneficial. This idea is furthered by Michael Burton who states “this concept is central to the novel” with us wanting “to believe, so deeply, that power is and can be used for good. The novel’s speculative what if is, in itself, a reflection of that.”

Contrastingly, power in ‘The Handmaids Tale’ is presented as dangerously brutal and destructive, through the same technique of lexical field (among others). The colour “red” is constantly referred to throughout the novel- such as “red umbrella”, “my face is red”, “red gloves”, “the colour of blood”. Red suggests blood and therefore pain and death, yet alternatively that of the menstrual cycle and thus childbirth. In this sense, the dark power of Gilead to reduce women’s importance and significance to that of their fertility, and the dangers of this, is clearly and dramatically emphasised. Connotations of blood and pain further highlight the tolitarian military regime of Gilead in which violence is a common force used, therefore highlighting the downfalls of excessive power. Interestingly, contextually, the colour red is a traditional marker of sexual sin when linked back to the scarlet letter worn by the adulterous Hester Prynne in Nathanial Hawthorne’s tale of Puritan ideology of which Atwood had interest in.

In conclusion, both authors successfully make use of their novels to bring warning regarding what they are writing about therefore presenting power, all in all, as a dangerous force. Atwood uses ‘The Handmaids Tale’, her escalated dystopian version of our current society, to highlight the dangers of oppression and coercion through female subjugation and violence. Alderman uses ‘The Power’ arguably to do a very similar thing, through role reversal she creates an enjoyable yet disconcerting look into a flipped, dystopian world where the abuse of power is examined as is oppression and suffering. Alderman however, arguably has a slightly more positive view of power in comparison to Atwood, possibly reflecting changes in society from the 80s- current day.

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Women Are The Dominant Figures In The Handmaids Tale. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
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