LT Classics Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale Discussion

October 3, 2011 at 8:34 am Leave a comment

Okay, Challengers, here is the belated The Handmaid’s Tale discussion!

While most of Atwood’s novels deal with women and female identity, this is one of the first that deals with maintaining female roles and identity while struggling to stay alive in an openly hostile environment. A woman can literally be killed for being infertile, for having consensual sex…and her existence relies on being raped on a regular basis. Let’s discuss:

Obviously, the focus of the book is on the Handmaids, especially Offred. In what ways does Offred attempt to maintain her identity –and femininity — in the face of a patriarchal society? How successful is she?

Offred does a couple of things, namely remembering her past life, using her body to control men and having sex with Nick. Sadly, she is not quite as successful as she could be. First, remembering her past life does not do her any good, only makes her miss her daughter and her husband much more. She does repeat her old name to herself, she says, in a desperate attempt to define herself in terms outside her role as a Handmaid — perhaps that gives her some sense that she can be the person she was again at some point in the future.

The second two ways are perhaps less successful than the first. Handmaids are defined by their fertile bodies, a point we’ll discuss further in a following question. Offred’s using her body to turn on the guardsmen at the gate gives her a sense of control, to be sure, and she knows she’s making those men uncomfortable in a way only she or another Handmaid could. She’s controlling her own actions, her own body — something that happens as well when she has sex with Nick.

But. But Offred is still defined by her body in these acts, and her body is not who she is. She’s playing a part with the guardsmen, the part of the “You can look but not touch” female, the tease. She’s using the role given to her in order to assert some control, but it’s likely not satisfying. Sex with Nick is better, but again, she only does it once she’s given permission by Serena Joy. She’s still constrained.

The Handmaids are not the only victims here, however. To what extent do the wives have to contend with constraints on their own identities? How does that affect the relationship between the Wives and the Handmaids?

As early as page 16, the reader is shown a glimpse of Serena Joy’s pain. “As for my husband…he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear,” she says. This is crucial, because Serena Joy is no longer herself; she’s defined as a Wife, in everything from her clothing to her role as the keeper of the household. Her sense of self relies on her husband, and if that is stolen from her, she has nothing left.

Serena Joy has already failed in one major way — she’s been unable to give her husband a child, which is the one essential role of women in this society. Being presented with this woman, Offred, whose sole purpose is to succeed where she has failed, must be a consistent slap in the face for her. Offred exists because in terms of fertility, Serena Joy does not.

Serena Joy deals with her husband having sex with (okay, raping) Offred because she knows she must. So long as she can convince herself that she is still the most important woman in that home, she can handle it. It’s only when Offred becomes the Commander’s mistress–not by having consensual sex, but by reading with him and partaking in other illegal activities that have the same whiff of danger as covert sex would have–that Serena loses it.

“You could have left me something,” Serena tells Offred, who wonders whether Serena Joy does love the Commander. The Handmaid is not supposed to be a competitor for the husband’s affection, for his life outside the bedroom. Offred has, and that ruins any potential relationship between Serena Joy and Offred.

There are moments, however, when they share a bond as women trapped within the constraints of a male society. The moment Serena Joy tells Offred to sleep with Nick is marked by the sharing of a cigarette — a type of communion (even though Offred rejects that).

How does Offred’s role affect her relationship with her body? Do you believe this relationship was anticipated and deliberately crafted by those in charge?

Offred hates her body and yet relies on it. Her survival depends on her body’s ability to produce healthy children, but she has essentially become a walking body, an incubator, whose soul and identity are not relevant or important.

“I avoid looking down at my body…because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely,” she says. Indeed, when Offred describes herself in chapter 24, it’s almost solely in physical attributes: “I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries.”

The butter scene almost seems like an anomaly, but as Offred says, it’s a sign of hope — a sign that one day, someone will see her body as a source of pleasure, not merely an incubator for a child. Maybe Offred even hopes one day that she can love her body again, not view it as a prison, the thing keeping her subordinate and yet keeping her alive.

The Commander, Nick and Luke all respond to Offred in different ways. What factors impact those relationships, and what does it say about the men’s views of female roles?

There’s not a lot in here about Luke, except that he loved Offred and yet when society started changing, he himself became more patriarchal. He did try to escape with her, to protect her; but when she lost her ability to hold property or buy and sell, his response was not one of outrage but one of patronizing protection: “I’ll take care of you,” he says, and Offred (June, maybe?) notes that his attitude toward her is already shifting.

For Nick, Offred is…it’s hard to say. A source of pleasure, for sure. He must love her in some way, as he worked so hard to get her out of that house once he thought she might be pregnant with his child. But does he really know her? Doubtful. Offred says they don’t talk much, and though their sex is consensual, their relationship is still defined by sex and childbearing, much as Offred’s relationship with the Commander is–or would have been, without the Scrabble and the trip to the sex club.

The Commander relationship is perhaps the most interesting. The Commander appears to truly believe that men know what is best for women, and continually states that women are happier under the new regime.

“We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away,” he tells Offred, as if he expects her to thank him for rescuing her from “the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates.” He claims to have eliminated domestic abuse, anorexia, loneliness and deadbeat dads in one fell swoop. As Offred points out, he’s forgotten about love–but he dismisses this as irrelevant. As Aunt Lydia says, “Love is not the point.”

The historical note speculates that the Commander is a man named B. Frederick Judd, a man quoted as saying “Out big mistake was teaching [women] to read. We won’t do that again.” What, then, are we to make of the Commander’s fetish (there is no other word) for watching Offred read? She is only given fashion magazines, frivolous and not enough to give her any wild ideas (fashion magazines, of course, being solely concerned with the way women use clothing and their bodies to define themselves) but the mere act of reading is illicit and exciting for the Commander.

Does he miss the days when women had the power to read and develop their own ideas? Does he miss the challenge of pursuing a woman, a woman who can choose whether or not to be with him? Perhaps. And that might just be the defining factor of his relationship with Offred.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me all about it in the comments!


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Classics Challenge: ‘I Capture the Castle’ Questions Classics Challenge: ‘I Capture the Castle’ Discussion

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