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ELF Annual Research Journal 17

(2015) 209-220

A Feminist Study of Self-Actualisation in Atwood’s The

Handmaid’s Tale and Ali’s Brick Lane

Mazhar Hayat, Tabassum Maqbool**, Saira Akhter***

ABSTRACT: Subjugation of women is an open choice for all women who are caught
in patriarchy and choose to accept their lot planned for them by male-dominated society.
Silence that characterizes the identity of a female character leads her towards anguish
and as a result her personality shatters. For a woman to seek self-actualisation, she
needs to break her silence to express herself. The present research paper is a comparative
study of the issue of self-actualisation in women in Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. The study explores that how gender
roles are defined everywhere in the whole world irrespective of region or country and how
do the victimised perpetuate their oppression when they do not raise their voice against
the injustice. It is a qualitative research. Theoretical framework of the study is Hooks’
feminist theory. Hooks challenges patriarchal assumptions about women and affirms
that gender roles are not natural but cultural constructs. The mode of comparative study
is textual analysis of the selected excerpts from both the texts The findings of the
textual analysis are that protagonists of both the works have quest for self-actualisation
which is reflected in the characters’ inner turmoil beneath social conformity.

Keywords: Self-actualisation, patriarchy, victimized, gender discrimination, silence

Feminism, which generally deals with the issue of gender
discrimination, covers almost all the females regardless of their color,
religion, culture and social background. Except for a few instances, there is a
constellation of people who do not give voice to the dichotomy of gender
discrimination. However, efforts are being made on national and
international level to expose the superficiality of the myth of female freedom
in so-called civilised societies that lies concealed under the garb of equality of
human rights. We are still unable to differentiate between the victimiser and
the victimised specifically with reference to gender discrimination. In this
regard, The Handmaid’s Tale serves as an eye opener about the actual situation
of women in Western societies through the sufferings of Offred, the
protagonist of the novel. Similarly, Brick Lane which is set in the backdrop of

 Assistant Professor of English, Government Postgraduate College Samanabad, Faisalabad, Pakistan.

** Lecturer in English, Government College University, Faisalabad, Pakistan.
*** Assistant Professor of English, Government College Women University, Faisalabad, Pakistan.
210 M. Hayat, T. Maqbool, S. Akhter / ELF Annual Research Journal 17 (2015) 209-220

Bangladeshi society presents the journey of a woman towards self-

actualisation that comes only through the sequential and gradual eye-opening
experiences which Nazneen comes across in her life. The two novels, The
Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Brick Lane by Monica Ali, which are
written in different settings, depicting different cultures, different characters
and time frames reflect universal quest for self-identity in women. Offred
and Nazneen both are the victims of male-oriented social and moral world
order. Offred is a victim of a totalitarian state whereas Nazneen is a prisoner
to cultural mores; yet both, through their interior monologues, reveal a
consciousness of the enforced oppression.
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer who in The Handmaid’s Tale
creates future dystopian society called Gilead which is torn by war because of
religious extremism and sexual oppression. In this totalitarian state, some
men and women have become infertile due to excessive chemical radiation.
In this dystopian world, women are denied their humanness and are taken
for handmaids whose only role is to provide breeding. This symbolic tale
represents modern woman’s predicament of being exploited and isolated
because of the forced role imposed on herby society and her foremost fear of
being used and rendered helpless by male authority. Monica Ali is a British
writer of Bangladeshi origin who depicts the anguish and conflict of the
immigrant Bangladeshi woman who is caught between patriarchy, customs,
individuality and a desire for independence from the yoke of duty and
responsibility – all amidst the onslaught of an alien yet tempting culture. In
Brick Lane ,Monica Ali focuses on how the individual woman tries to break
through the ‘mind-shackl’d manacles’ that her social and cultural milieu
imposes upon her. We are shown the plight, dilemma, fears, contradictions,
convulsions, frustrations, turmoil, endurance and ambitions of an individual
who is defined and compartmentalised by gender and cultural impositions.
Both the works suggest that women can come out of their turmoil
through the process of retrospection, self-realization and self-examination.
According to Sarala Palkar, “It is only through self-analysis and self-
understanding, through vigilance and courage; they can begin to change their
lives. They will have to fight their own battles; nobody is going to do it for
them” (in Anuradha, 2015, p. 19).
Literature Review
Gender discrimination has been an important topic of discussion in
Western and Asian writers. Social institutions also promote gender
discrimination. With the start of eighteenth century novel, the first female
voice appeared on literary scene. Before that female perspective was
completely neglected in male-oriented literary tradition. The most
A Feminist Study of Self-Actualisation in Atwood and Ali 211

conspicuous writers who have represented female voice are Jane Austen,
Mary Woll-stonecraft, Olive Schreiner, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir,
John Stuart Mill, Desai: and Bapsi Sidhwa.
As the present study deals with the works of Margaret Atwood and
Monica Ali, the literature review is narrowed down to the contemporary
criticism on the writings of the two authors. The literature review comprises
reviews of contemporary criticism on the writings of Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.
Reddy (2011) has penned down Atwood’s philosophy of the survival
of the weak against the strong with dignity. She affirms that Atwood’s
protagonists are always victimised and are at war with their society, authority
or social circumstances. Her female characters are presented as human beings
with merits and demerits and they cannot be the embodiment of the moral
perfection which is the demand of society. Her novels, especially The
Handmaid’s Tale, depict “the woman caught in oppressive stereotypes and
they show how some women struggle to create a female space for
themselves” (p. 8).
Kouhestani (2012) has commented on the world of The Handmaid’s
Tale as a dystopian society where women are marginalised, sexually abused
and made docile by men. They have no rights to control their life but men as
they are superior to women. In this totalitarian regime, “Women lost all their
rights in life, even the right to their own bodies; they were picked out by the
regime to function as handmaids for rich families, with no right to object or
choose” (p. 132). But somehow, Offred presented her story to the world and
found her power and freedom with it.
Highlighting the oppression of women in Atwood’s novel, Porfert
(2014) has presented subjugation of women as a form of sexual slavery. The
politicians in Gilead exploited the environment to attain power over others
with oils, chemicals and nuclear products etc. which affected their own lives
also in making them and the land barren. “Essentially, men raped the Earth
until it could not be raped any longer, so they turned their attention to raping
women instead” (p. 3). Women are not allowed to read or write as they are
not considered intellectuals. They are supposed to bear and rear children and
look after household affairs. “Women in that society are not people at all;
instead, they are simply walking wombs. Everything that happens in The
Handmaid’s Tale has a precedent in history or has begun to emerge as a trend
in human history; therefore, this story should serve as a warning and as a
wake-up call to the dangers to which our society could fall prey in the near
future” (p. 15).
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Noufal (2014) has dealt with the trauma of displacement as a result of

migration and identity crisis in a new world in Brick Lane. However, he argues
that this exodus also lends confidence to the women to get exposure to the
outside world and gain self-confidence. In Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane,
Nazneen faced various hazards in a multicultural country and proved her
strength by surviving successfully even after her husband returned his native
land alone.“Her (Monica Ali’s) novel suggests that migration of the women
characters to foreign lands can be a source of achieving freedom for them”
(p. 449).
Dandan (2010) has appreciated Monica Ali for presenting strong
female characters from third world in her novel Brick Lane. The setting of
this novel is London where white and black people live together. Dandan has
discussed the issue of racism in detail when he presents the experiences of
Chanu who says he would have got permission if he would be a white
person. Similarly, the British draws bad picture of the South Asian countries.
“Shahana, the elder daughter who is born and bred in London is deeply
affected by this presentation. She even thinks that there is no toothbrush and
toilet paper in Bangladesh and she strongly resists going back” (pp. 10-11).
To sum up, the review of the above-cited works from various
dimensions e.g racist, cultural and religious provides sufficient ground for the
comparative study of the two authors from feminist perspective with
particular focus on the issue of self-actualisation in women.
Research Methodology
The present study is qualitative research. It invokes comparative
study of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.
The mode of enquiry is textual analysis. Excerpts from both the texts are
selected keeping in view their relevance regarding the key research issues of
the study. The theoretical framework of the study is Bell Hooks’ feminist
theory. Hooks (2000) affirms that female subjugation is a universal
phenomenon. She challenges the mechanisms of patriarchy through which
women are established as biological, social and psychological inferiors. She
emphasises that the learning of feminist theory and history makes essential
parts of the process of self-actualisation and the practice of freedom. Gender
relations are not something natural. “Feminists are made, not born” (p. 7).
They are cultural, social and historical constructions of patriarchy. Hooks
(2000) further says that women are everywhere under pressure to silence
their voices. She believes that to seek redemption from male dominance,
women need to deny what society demands from them as typical women and
they need to be vocal to find out their place. “We refuse to be what you want
us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be” (p. 194).
A Feminist Study of Self-Actualisation in Atwood and Ali 213

The rationale for selection of Hooks’ feminist theory as a conceptual

framework of the study is that it provides the major strains of feminism
which are the key research issues of the present study. The two writers
belong to two different cultures but they have shared view of female
subjugation and gender discrimination irrespective of different frames of
reference. Both the writers present female protagonists who are dissatisfied
with their defined roles which is reflected in their anguish beneath social
conformity. They break their silence to value their existence.
Data Analysis
The analysis and the discussion f the two works is mainly based upon
the inner turmoil and the agony of the protagonists and the way they try to
express their dissatisfaction with their lot under their assigned roles.
Turmoil beneath Conformity with Assigned Roles in Offred and Nazneen
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (Handmaid) is presented as a paragon
of sacrifice in a male-dominated society. She accepts her imposed role
happily or unhappily but at the end of the novel through retrospection, she
deviates from her constructed role to find a measure of intellectual autonomy
and self-realisation. Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen who belongs to
Bangladesh but moves to England after her marriage with Chanu who is
thrice of her age. Chanu instead of being obliged to Nazneen for her sacrifice
to accept him as her groom because of her family’s willingness, forces her to
realize that she is lucky enough to have educated husband like him.
Throughout the novel, we can see Nazneen and her daughters’ silent
sacrifices but at the end of the novel she takes a step towards breaking her
silence and to value her existence.
The Handmaid’s Tale, at the very outset, begins with the inner anxiety
of the main character Offred in Gilead which is a theological state
established in place of USA after murdering its President and congress men
by military. In Gileadean world, the fertile women are kept as handmaids at
the houses of high ranked officers whose wives are unproductive. “Women,
forced into servitude as Handmaids, are ordered into producing babies for
the governing elite” (Somacarrera, 2006, p. 52). Offred was kept along with
other women for their training as handmaids. They were treated as slaves
who had no right to communicate with men but just to listen and to obey
their orders. Drawing the pen-picture of the atmosphere, she informed the
readers that they were not allowed even to communicate with each other.
The Gileadean government made such arrangements as they were afraid of
conspiracies and resultant escape of the subjugated handmaids as a result of
their interaction with each other and with men. Males were generally the
object of fear to the handmaids. They were like the ogres who must be
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obeyed otherwise they will eat them. “Gilead, at bottom, is a vampiric realm,
a society sick with blood” (Bloom, 2009, p. 2). But there was a ray of hope
that if they would be lured by the handmaids, they might help the handmaids
in their escape.
The guards weren’t allowed inside the building except when called,
and we weren’t allowed out, except for our walks,… around the
football field, which was enclosed by a chain link fence topped with
barbed wire… They were objects of fear to us, but of something
else as well. If only they would look. If only we could talk to them.
Something could be exchanged, we thought, some deal made, some
tradeoff, we still had our bodies. That was our fantasy. (Margarate,
1996, p.2)
The introductory scene makes us ready for militia rule of
fundamentalists in United States renamed as Gilead. In this post-war regime,
the men and women are assigned various roles. In the dearth of resources
and man power, men need to propagate the white race for which they make
women their handmaids. Offred is one of the handmaids who are trained for
this job at a high-school gymnasium and are kept under strict discipline. This
world can rightly be called a dystopian world presented in the novel. Moylan
says that “dystopian narrative is largely the product of the terrors of the
twentieth century”, (in Tolan, 2007, p.148). In substantiation of Moylan’s
notion of dystopian narrative, Tolan (2007) says “The Handmaid’s Tale is
certainly grounded in contemporary fears and preoccupations” (p.148). The
men of the lower ranks who are their guards exchange looks with them but
they can either shoot them if any handmaid tries to escape her bondage or
help her escape. In this ambivalent scenario, there is no system of rights and
duties. No harmony and equilibrium is present in this society. This extreme
situation is agonising for women.
In Brick Lane, we see that the anxiety of Nazneen is similar to that of
the Handmaid. Both are kept in a restricted environment where they are
bound to obey their male supervisors by negating their selves. In Brick Lane,
Nazneen is shown as a dumb lady who is forced to do what her society and
her husband allow her to do and she is helpless to utter a single word against
it. She is forced to get what is made available to her within four walls by her
husband according to his accord only. Living in British society, Chanu,
Nazneen’s husband, yearns for Bangladeshi culture and traditions and asks
his wife for sticking to their religious norms. “He does not allow his wife to
go alone along the streets” (Ahmed, 2010, p. 173). He does not like that his
wife should mingle with strangers outside their house.
She was free to wish it but it would never be. She did not often go
out. Why should you go out? Said Chanu. If you go out ten people
A Feminist Study of Self-Actualisation in Atwood and Ali 215

will say “I saw her walking on the street”… Besides, I get

everything for you that you need from the shops. Anything you
want, you only have to ask. (Ali, 2003, p. 45)
By demanding a role outside the domestic boundaries, women are
not snatching away male role but they are demanding a voice of their own in
favour of their own rights. When males have the right to live a life of their
own choice; they have freedom and right to pursue happiness, then why can’t
women have a life of their own; why can’t women spread their wings and
sore above men. Why don’t women have the right to design and chalk out
their own destiny?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator reminds us that there are
different kinds of freedom, which the people in the Commander’s house
know about. She is not only forbidden from jumping out of the window or
running out of the door, but also denied the possibility of committing suicide
as a way of vengeful self-destruction. The world of Gilead is a world that has
really been well thought out to curb any sort of escape.
I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolor picture of
blue irises, and why the window opens only partly and why the
glass in it is shatter-proof. It isn't running away they're afraid of.
We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can
open in yourself, given a cutting edge. (Atwood, 2003, p. 3)
In this passage, we see that how women are caught in the male-
constructed cobweb of social traditions. This stereotypical attitude towards
women is a universal phenomenon. “For postmodernists and anti-
essentialists, gender categories are historically, socially, and culturally situated,
and as such, are restrictive labels that do not recognise the individual.”(Tolan,
2007, p. 150). Women are bound to live under surveillance in the homes.
This gender discrimination is not a matter of individual conduct but is built
on different social institutions. They are treated as non-entities without any
individual wish. “In Atwood’s novel, each of the characters is categorised in a
manner that is seen as limiting and dehumanising” (p. 150). This unequal
treatment of women leads to a turmoil and rebelliousness in women.
We have love. Love is happiness. Sometimes I feel to run and
jump like goat. This is how we do on way to school. But not much
room for running here and I sixteen year old and married woman.
Everything good between us now. I do not let my tongue make
trouble for it as my husband say. Just because man is kind to wife it
do not mean she can say what is like. If women understanding this
no one will beat. (Ali, 2003, p. 25)
This passage from Brick Lane which is a piece of correspondence
between Nazneen and her sister Hasina represents Hasina’s view of a happy
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marriage which is in reality based on unconditional compliance with male-

constructed vision of a happy matrimonial bond. Like Handmaid, Hasina is
also kept under male hegemony. She is brought up with the notion to keep
her family happy. She is told that a female should be a symbol of endurance.
Through her letter, she narrates to Nazneen that she is happy because now
she has realized that family’s happiness is dependent on a woman. She
further says that her husband advised her to keep silence against all his
complaints in order to avoid quarrel. As a result, Hasina has developed
repressions to her exceptions to the complaints of her husband. This has
created a happy family now.
The above-mentioned textual passage has ironical tone. If a woman
strangles her desires to fulfill her husband’s orders, it may lead to happiness
resulting in love between the couple. The notion of gender supremacy is
constructed by men and women are forced to live an inferior life under their
rule. Mortada (2010) in her article “The Notion of Women as Bearers of
Culture in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane” presents the catalogue of responsibilities
to be fulfilled by the women in Bengali culture and she says:
…how women are forced to ingrain themselves in their cultural
surroundings, how they function as the entities of their family’s
(and thereby of society’s, community’s and nation’s) morals and
ethics, and how women are blamed and rejected if they do not take
on the roles and responsibilities expected of them by their
society/culture.(p. 58)
In other words, both the writers Atwood and Monica Ali are
indirectly vocalising gender-based disparity and advocate the women to break
their silence and voice for their rights.
In Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, who is emotionally drained and feels left
out by the world, expresses resignation and self-denial and leaves her fate to
the will of God. This reflects her absolute dejection in the face of this
monstrous world of men.
Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you've let
me off, I'll obliterate myself, if that is what you really want; I'll
empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I'll give up Nick, I'll forget
about the others, I'll stop complaining. I'll accept my lot. I'll
sacrifice. I'll repent. I'll abdicate. I'll renounce. (Atwood, 2003, p.
While telling her life’s story to her daughters, Nazneen expresses
similar mood of endurance and resignation. She says to her daughters that
she does not have any qualms or doubts about her life. But in reality her
biggest complaint is her gender. She has a true faith in God. She believes that
God is the only one who knows about her life. She has come to believe that
A Feminist Study of Self-Actualisation in Atwood and Ali 217

if male dominated world cannot be changed, it must be endured. She has

actually abandoned her claim for equality with men but here she is expressing
her willingness for a space for self-existence under male yoke.
I have no complaints or regrets to tell you, said Nazneen. I will tell
everything to God. What could not be changed must be borne and
since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This
principle ruled her life. (Ali, 2003, pp.15-16)
Quest for Self-actualisation in Offred and Nazneen
Beneath the mood of resignation, compromise and compliance with
male-oriented concept of happy married life lies the quest for self-identity
and self-actualisation in both the protagonists. Offred’s reservations with her
existing name which is actually a state contrived label reflects her quest for
real identity. The label ‘Offred’ which literally means a handmaid to be bred
by Commander Fred denies the handmaid her earlier identity as a faithful
wife, a devoted mother and a responsible employee in a computer library.
Offred expresses her quest for self-identity in the following words:
My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses
now because t's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your
name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but
what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of
this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to
dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an
aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that's survived from an
unimaginably distant past. (Atwood, 2003, p. 82)
The narrator is disclosing her real identity which she believes is lost
in this male oriented society. She tells everybody who listens that the name
Offered which is bestowed to her by the rulers of the society is not her real
name. Her real name is also lost in this male world just like her other traits.
She says that no living soul identifies her with her real name, they are all
forbidden to do so by those ogres. She tries to convince herself that her
name is not important for her identity. But in reality all her reasoning and
logics are wrong. Her real name is as important to her as is her soul; it is as
important to her as is her belief in her feminine freedom.
Nazneen in Brick Lane seeks self-actualisation through a turn of
events in her life. Chanu, her husband, loses his job and comes under heavy
debt. These trying circumstances bring out the best in her. She purchases a
sewing machine and starts stitching and earns money to feed her family as
well as to pay back the debt of her husband. This in turn gives her feelings of
financial and social autonomy. In the meanwhile her interaction with Karim
brings her out of emotional stagnation and she feels a renewed interest in
life. Unlike Chanu, Karim treats her with respect and gives weightage to her
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opinions and makes her feel important. However, despite this renewed
interest in life and faith in her abilities, Nazneen faces a conflict between her
loyalty to her matrimonial bond and her love for Karim. She is confused that
either she is the architect of her new life or it is the decree of fate as she has
been taught by her mother that lives of women are fated. Nazneen expresses
this intellectual crisis in the following words:
If ever her life was out of her hands, it was now. She had submitted
to her father and married her husband; she had submitted to her
husband. And now she gave herself up to power greater than these
two, and she felt herself helpless before it. When the thought crept
into her mind that power was inside her, that she was its creator,
she dismissed it as conceited. How could such a weak woman
unleash a force so strong? She gave it to fate not to herself. (Ali,
2003, pp. 299- 300)
Nazneen resolves the conflict by rejecting the belief that lives of women are
fated and she decides to live independent of men and male-constructed
beliefs and assumptions about women. Finally, she decides neither to go back
to Bangladesh with her husband nor to marry Karim.
Hence, this is the process of quest for identity and self-actualisation
through which the female protagonists of both the novels have gone through
after critical encounters with men in their life.
The data analysis of both the novels, Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, clearly indicates male
chauvinism in two different social setups. Atwood exhibits in her dystopian
novel a situation where females are categorized on the basis of their physical
capability to produce new generation. They are not even given their names,
instead they are recognized on the basis of their uniform and work capability.
On the other hand, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is set in an Eastern background,
where the protagonist leaves her village after arranged marriage to reside in a
foreign land but she fails to leave the traces of her culture behind. In addition
to this, her husband keeps on asserting his authority on her in different ways.
Both the novels address the same issue of predefined female roles designed
for them to follow without taking their agreement or consent. Their suffering
and mental drudgery gradually lead them towards consciousness of their
situationand both start a thinking process to know about their place in
society and at home. Their awareness gives them courage to fight for their
rights. Offred successfully flees from the Gileadean society and Nazneen
becomes brave enough to live in a Western society without her husband.
This comparative study gives a sort of validation to the fact that female
negation and then female struggle for self-identification and self-actualisation
A Feminist Study of Self-Actualisation in Atwood and Ali 219

is not the problem of only one society or culture but it is penetrated into all
the societies and cultures of the world.
The comparative study of the two works establishes that women-
oppression is a universal phenomenon if women uncritically submit to the
roles assigned to them by male-oriented culture. The study reveals that both
the protagonists undergo emotional and psychological agony that stems from
gender discrimination. Although Offred and Nazneen are performing their
allotted roles yet peace of mind and happiness have disappeared from their
life. They try to seek self-fulfilment and happiness through resignation to the
norms of male oriented world but the drive for self-actualisation remains
unquenched. Finally, they demand a voice of their own through financial and
social autonomy which is reflected through Offred’s rejection of her role of a
handmaid and Nazneen’s rejection of male patronage in her life. So it is
proved that freedom from male oppression and gender discrimination can
only be materialized if women challenge their assigned roles and realise that
they need to be the architects of their own destiny. There is no way towards
redemption of women from the mechanisms of patriarchy except female
220 M. Hayat, T. Maqbool, S. Akhter / ELF Annual Research Journal 17 (2015) 209-220

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