You are on page 1of 10

Singh 1

Trisha Singh

Mrs. Mann

AP Literature block 2

8 November 2017

The Handmaids TaleReally, is it a Classic?

The Scarlet Letter, 1984, Animal Farm, The Odyssey, and Brave New World, and the

famous Shakespearean works Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Twelfth Nightall these

famous works of literature are famous for a reasonthey are the classic novels of the literary

canon. To qualify as a classic novel, the novel must be relatable to cultures, must exist beyond

the generation in which it was written, must be analyzed through multiple literary perspectives,

must inspire other novels of the same genre, and of course, must provoke an emotional response

from the reader. The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood certainly coerces readers to become

aware of their political surroundings and to take preventative measures from their society to

create an oppressive dystopian world; all the female characters in the novel have no political

power whatsoever, so this storyline provides readers with an example of how a futuristic

dystopian novel can look like. While The Handmaids Tale is a good read, the novel lacks certain

qualitiesits message can really only be focused on the feminist and marxist literary

perspectives, its content is not groundbreaking as it is based off other novels in the dystopian

genre, and its extreme, heavy-handed symbolism makes the theme of womens oppression too

repetitive and too simple for readers to understandthat dont allow it to be amongst classic

novels in the literary canon.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood takes place in the Republic of Gilead, where

women are either Wives or Handmaids; Wives are simply wives of the male Commanders and

nothing more, while the Handmaids exist solely to bear children to their Commandersthe
Singh 2

protagonist Offred being a Handmaid herself and having to overcome these issues. Despite the

dystopian feeling of the novel, The Handmaids Tale certainly evokes an emotional response

from the reader, making them feel disgustedthis emotional aspect being one of the few things

in The Handmaids Tale that can truly be attributed as a characteristic of a classic novelas

though such a thing could never happen in our own modern society, because the society of

Gilead centers on the oppression of women. According to multiple reader responses, Beauchamp

noticed that in Canada, they said could it happen here? In the United States, they said how

long have we got? Such were the reactions. . . But it is in America, where the tale is set, that

reaction has been the most intense, most alarmed (1). Of course, readers will be very shocked at

what goes on in the novel, as Atwood intended the novel to be a warning for the modern world

today to be careful and aware of their political surroundings. This is an ironic reaction, however,

because America is the international face of democracy, even though it is America where there

are womens rights movements, especially those revolving around the topic of abortion. America

is also a hypocritical nation, since as it advocates for democracy, but it still doesnt really care

when other people under an oppressive regime and cannot live in a democratic atmosphere; for

an example, Americans ostracize Islamic individuals easily, but when American-born people

commit unspeakable crimes, no one is willing to take any immediate political action.With this

ironic future portrait Atwood suggest that we are also Gileadians, constantly under scrutiny by

the plethora of institutions with which we must have contact with from the IRS audit to the

university examination. And we are also the auditors and examiners who scrutinize others

(Hammer 46). Stephanie Hammer brings up a good point; we are always cynical of the

government, and we get riled up over the smallest things, but nothing can really be stopped when

it comes to issues that really matterbut we still continue to turn everything to politics, and our

social problems are based off of those political controversies. Whether this brings up feelings of
Singh 3

anger towards political moves or any appreciation of political activities, The Handmaids Tale

still does evoke an emotional appeal to readers, and that fact renders it as a classic only in that

aspect, although as whole, the novel is not a classic.

The Handmaids Tale has some aspects of a classic novel in that it can be applied to

history and is even relevant in modern-day politics. In the Historical Notes at the end of the

novel, it is revealed that Offreds narrations were really a recording of tapes that retold her story

after she had escaped from the Republic of Gilead; these recordings were presented in a lecture

hall by professors in 2195, who were still doubtful that Gilead had even existed, since they had

no factual information to prove that Offreds tapes were accurate historical recordingsmuch

less the consideration that Offred herself was an actual person who didnt make up the other

characters of her life. This goes to imply that even in the future, we can very likely continue to

be sexist, even after conservative ideologiessuch as those exaggerated in the Republic of

Gileadare discontinued. After all, the purpose of a dystopian novel is to warn readers against

an exaggerated, currently destructive thing, that destroys our modern society. Dominick Grace

has various advances degrees, which include an Honors BA in English and Theatre, as well as a

masters and PhD. concludes that Pieixoto, the man narrating the Historical Notes, reveals how

humans are eager to have the factual information and the concrete evidence of political

occurrences (487). This tendency for humans desiring factual information shows that even in

the face of scientific issues, they can still become political, if the data is not used correctly.

Indeed, Professor Pieixoto still doubts the accuracy of her recordings, rather than focusing on the

social and political tensions of the Gilead era. Even with social media, the news, and all the

information we get today, everything is biased and may not actually be correct, but we still

believe it because it is socially deemed to be a source of factual information. When Offred

watches news, regarding the war, with the rest of the women in the household, she questions its
Singh 4

content, asking who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I

watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none

(Atwood 82). In this regard, The Handmaids Tale obviously warns against the oppression of

women, and may even resemble the political propaganda that influences our modern world

today. Gorman Beauchamp, a professor who teaches humanities at the University of Michigan

with a PhD, explains that by now a canonical text. . . a work particularly revered by pessimists,

The Handmaids Tale has been widely viewed as a serious commentary on the socio-political

conditions of the day (1). Indeed, The Handmaids Tale is absolutely Margaret Atwoods view

on how political oppression can easily come to rise, and how a humanitarian viewpoint can

examine this process of the making of an authoritarian society. The oppressed women also

parallel historical events where a group of individuals were persecutedthe Jews in the hands of

Hitler. As Stephanie Hammer relates, the grim realities of Offreds actual existence resemble

those of a concentration camp inmate, far more than those of a gothic heroine (41). These

incidents certainly parallel each other, but The Handmaids Tale seems more unrealistic because

the oppression is against half of the population (females), which is unlike the smaller

demographic of the Jewish population in Germany. In fact, when Offred narrates her experience

of remembering her mother participating in the Take Back the Night Marches documentary,

these marches were still common when Atwood began her work on the novel, probably in

1983 (Templin 1), and may even be the source of inspiration for Atwoods novel to demoralize

abortionists and the pro-choice side of the abortion issue. When Offred mentions how she sits

with Wife Serena Joy in the parlor, she explains that possibly shell put a hand on my shoulder,

to steady herself, as if Im a piece of furniture. Shes done it before (Atwood 79). As a further

continuation of abortion issue, we continue to see women themselves being treated as objects

that dont have the same political or social rights as men. This adds to the novels credibility
Singh 5

because it is able to connect to other similar historical events that have occurred, in the same way

that classic novels do.

Margaret Atwood spins a contradictory twist on the foundation of the society of the

Republic of Gileadthat women are immensely valued for fertility, and yet these women are

only as helpless as the babies they bear. As the oppression of women (and the lack of resistance,

except Offred) is the base of the plot, readers focus solely on the feminist and marxist literary

perspectives. Women in todays world take it for granted that they have their rights, but The

Handmaids Tale revisits the feeling of women being oppressed. In the novel, women arent

even permitted to go out unless they are in the company of someone, that person being either a

guard or another Handmaid; the Handmaids have to be extremely vigilant in their behavior as

they go anywhere, especially when they are pregnant. Offred goes on walks often with her fellow

Handmaid companion, Ofglen, in the beginning of the novel. When narrating her view on her

walking company, Offred says, her name is Ofglen, and thats all I know about her. She walks

demurely. . . with short little steps like a trained pigs on its hind legs (Atwood 19). As Ofglen

is described, women cant even walk confidently, only walking timidly as they are looked down

upon by the whole society, despite the fact that they are the sole bearers of future offspring of the

Republic of Gilead. However, the power struggle that the women experience goes to even more

extremes, due to the fact that women are split up to face off against each other. Through this

marxist literary perspective, women have even less power since they cant all band together

against the men; in the case that they did all support each other, women could very likely have

had more power and couldve even caused Gilead to collapse earlier. Moreover, the Handmaids

dont even have real names and are only called as of and the name of their Commander

Offreds Commanders name is Fred, so the name Offred is really read as of Fred, which

Atwood purposefully intended to be read in this meaningful way, to show exactly how powerless
Singh 6

women became under menmere sexually objects that socially, werent accepted as sexually

desirable in public, yet were coveted in secrecy. Offreds name itself literally symbolizes that she

is of Fred, but this name can be also read in a more subtle way; her name can be read as off

red, which symbolizes how Offred doubts the society (because she goes off the mainstream

red color, which is meant solely for the Handmaids) and even foreshadows that Offred will

eventually start to rebel against the society by breaking the taboos of Gilead. For instance, Offred

secretly meets the Commander and plays Scrabble with him, even though these individual

meetings are not allowed because women arent supposed to be sexually desired, but rather

valued only for their child-bearing capability. Aunt Lydia, one of the older women who keeps

the younger Handmaids in check, criticizes how women dressed freely before. Modesty is

invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. . . What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls

(Atwood 28). As Aunt Lydia cruelly encouraged, modesty is the only acceptable thing for

Handmaids, and she degrades them by calling them girls. Indeed, women are not considered as

mens equals in the novel, and they are only useful to produce offspring. When Offspring goes

out of the house, she sees a pregnant Handmaid who she had seen in her pre-Gilead lifea

woman who was gang raped, but was ridiculed by other women when Aunt Lydia explained that

it was really the womans fault for appearing in such a way that led her to be rapedand now,

all the other women are envious of her fertility. In fact, at this moment, Offred remembers

hearing about pregnant Handmaids who were stabbed out of pure jealousy by some other

Handmaids. The pregnant womans belly is like a huge fruit. Her hands rest on it as if to defend

it, or as if theyre gathering something from it, warmth and strength (Atwood 26). Atwoods

purpose for including this scene with the pregnant women is to compared her belly to a ripened

fruit, which represents a symbol of fertility. Ironically, even though women are weakened in The

Handmaids Tale because of their ability to give birth to children. Because they have no power
Singh 7

against men, this child-bearing capacity is a womans way of gaining power and strengthening

themselves more, compared to other Handmaids; simply by giving birth, one Handmaid will

become much more prestigious, and even this sliver of power over the others is precious by each

individual Handmaid. The portrayal of an oppressed women differs vastly from what most

readers consider to be the portrayal of a modern womansomeone who is intelligent, reliable,

and capable of many things. The majority of readers will definitely not be able to fathom how

their own modern societies can turn into something so destructive and so tyrannical. Offreds

narration reveals the answer to this exact question in the novel: women did not lose their rights

immediately, but rather lost their rights individually, in a slow process, that made it more likely

for these certain political limitations to be taken into effect. If a single political legislation were

to limit the rights of women in a single go, that would never be able to run (whereas smaller

legislation would be more likely to pass, simply because they are on a smaller scale and therefore

less controversial). In the novel, women lose their independence, after first losing their jobs, then

their money, and is then followed by their lack of electronic communication that is unsupervised

by males. Madonne Miner, who has a PhD in English and is the Dean at Weber State University,

explains this process of women losing their freedom. Women depend on men intellectually,

economically, physically, emotionally. We see the evolution of this dependence in scenes

immediately after she learns that all women have lost their jobs and that their credit accounts

have been transferred to their nearest male relatives (Miner 157). This further emphasizes the

fact that The Handmaids Tale is heavy on the feminist perspective, since it revolves around the

struggles of a woman, and it is also heavy on the marxist perspective, which shows how there is

not only a power struggle between men and women, but also amongst the women themselves

this lack of readers being able to look at The Handmaids Tale through several literary

perspectives does not deem it as a classic.


Singh 8

Classic novels inspire other novels in the same genre, but The Handmaids Tale itself was

inspired by other dystopian novels (such as 1984) during Margaret Atwoods early years of

writing the novel and therefore does not contain any groundbreaking content. Miner discusses

how the novel is a dystopian novel, as it is a futuristic novel centered on the tyrannical society of

the Republic of Gilead. Most readings of The Handmaids Tale approach the text, quite rightly,

as a dystopian novel, a cautionary vision of what might happen if certain attitudes are carried to

the extremes (Miner 149). So naturally, the novel does have many aspects of a traditional

dystopian novel. However, Stephanie Hammer points out that unlike most common dystopian

novels, such as 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaids Tale lacks. . .

futuristic technological trappings, meaning that its warning isnt based on any type of scientific

danger or technological problemrather highlighting the social problem of the oppression of

women. By lacking one of the critical elements of a dystopian novel, this is the one of the very

few aspects of The Handmaids Tale that contributes to its uniqueness and its own style of

originality. In spite of this, the fact that the more common elements of the novel, especially at the

plot level, shows exactly how strikingly similar it is to other novels of the dystopian genre.

The theme of The Handmaids Tale warns against societal oppression, especially that of

women, but this is reiterated too often, making it too simple for readers to be able to understand

Atwoods important messageall of this not allowing it be in the literary canon. When Offred

walks past the chauffeur Nick into the house, she notices that the tulips along the border are are

redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cup but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what

end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode

slowly, the petals thrown like shards (Atwood 45). As in every novel, flowers and fruit

symbolize femininity and the birth of children. The red of the tulips parallels to the red dresses of

the Handmaids, which in turn symbolizes period blood as a sign of womanhood. The petals
Singh 9

thrown out like shards shed light on the fact that women are no longer delicate, fragile creatures

and are instead burdened with the task of becoming impregnated and giving birthrather than

living freely as Offred did in her past life before Gilead was formed. This reinforces the ideology

that women in the Republic of Gilead are solely to produce children for Commanders and

nothing more.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale has an important purposeto reveal that the

consequences of oppression after losing our rights will be the formation of a dystopian world.

The novel does provide implications for our future and has referenced the political oppression of

historical events and provides a story of personal experiences in the midst of a tyrannical

oppression, to show the reader what can potentially happen if we do not take care to insure that

our rights are not infringed upon and urges us to become aware of our surroundingsto not

succumbing to an ignorance that tolerates any kind of unjust behavior, including political and

social oppression of certain demographics. In spite of this, though, The Handmaids Tale is too

simplistic and really only allows readers to focus on two literary perspectives (rather than

several), and is too similar to other dystopian novels, and therefore cannot be considered a

classic novel of the literary canon.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaids Tale Means in the

Age of Trump. The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2017. Accessed 7

Nov. 2017.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaids Tale. McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Beauchamp, Gorman. The Politics of The Handmaids Tale. Midwest Quarterly, vol.

51, no. 1, pp. 11-25. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.


Singh 10

Grace, Dominick M. The Handmaids Tale: Historical Notes and Documentary

Subversion. Science Fiction Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, 1998, pp. 481-494. Accessed 17 Oct.

2017.

Hammer, Stephanie Barb. The World as It will Be? Female Satire and the Technology

of Power in The Handmaids Tale. Modern Language Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1990, pp.

39-49. Accessed 18 Oct. 2017.

Miner, Madonne. Trust Me: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The

Handmaids Tale. Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 37, no. 2, 1991, pp. 148-168.

Accessed 17 Oct. 2017.

Templin, Charlotte. Atwoods The Handmaids Tale. Explicator, vol. 49, no. 4, 1991, p

225. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

Related Interests