Women Marginalization in T"he Handmaid’s Tale" By Margaret Atwood

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the author, Margaret Atwood, marginalizes women in many ways. To comment on power and privilege afforded to women, Atwood uses redefinition of language, creation of setting, and narrative voice to marginalize women. Set in a theocratic future, Gilead, where women are subjugated, the novel was written in 1985, shortly after the sexual revolution in which women were campaigning for sexual autonomy. It acts as a commentary on the marginalization of women in society. Devices are used to marginalize women in the novel, which is significant to modern culture and society.

Power and dominance are ascribed to men, and women are marginalised as subordinates in The Handmaid’s Tale. This is achieved through the manipulation of language. Biblical quotations and misquotations are enforced in daily language in order to increase the amount of control Gilead exercises over the personal lives of the people. One example is the Handmaid’s standard greeting, ”Blessed be the fruit’, which manipulates the original Biblical meaning of the phrase. It was originally a greeting to the Virgin Mary, referencing her child, Jesus. Biblical phrases are taken out of context and manipulated by Gilead in order to achieve the goals of Gilead through a source that seems to have divine authority. This satires the mindset of alt-right fundamentalists who manipulate Biblical quotations in order to serve their own agendas. This redefinition of language by twisting common phrases or knowledge is key in establishing authority of men over women. 

Gilead also creates a society in which women’s individuality is effaced. When Ofglen commits suicide, she is casually replaced by another woman, showing how Gilead exercises its power over the identity from a woman, treating her as a replaceable good. Furthermore, a name, in modern contexts, represents self-identity and possession of oneself. However, in Gilead, Offred’s name explicitly illustrates that Offred is a possession of the Commander, stripping her of her identity. This device satirizes the tradition of a woman taking their husband’s last name during marriage, emphasizing women’s dependency on men.

The constructions of society and its hierarchy are also vital to the marginalisation of women in Gilead. The hierarchy in Gilead is constructed in order to place men above women socially, politically and economically. The military of Gilead are all male, and the Handmaids are seen to be constantly fearful of them. The Commanders have the largest amount of power in Gilead, and their wives’ power only exists because of their connection to a Commander. A Commander’s Wife is only allowed to make decisions which her husband approves of, and can only exercise her power at home, showing that her power is relative to her husband’s position. Furthermore, the men’s hierarchy is more flexible than women’s. Men can move between ranks: from Guardian to Angel, and may be able to receive a wife. Women, in contrast, are “stuck” in their roles as Handmaids, Marthas, or Wives. This shows how, even in gender-specific hierarchies, men are given more power and autonomy than women, commenting on the inflexibility of women’s hierarchies in modern contexts. Power over language for women is removed in order to restrict what they think and the means of forming ideas. The Bible is the only book that is allowed in a household, and only the Commander is allowed to read at all. This is a historical allusion to Puritan society in which women were educated only for domestic purposes, separate from men. By removing their access to the Bible, Gilead removes women’s ability to question the laws made allegedly from the Bible. This removes women’s power over society or politics, through removing their access to language, money, individual choice and freedom of press. By limiting the access women have to these rights compared to the men, Gilead creates marginalisation of women.

Women are also marginalised through the limitations on their roles in society. Atwood has chosen a character observes but cannot understand, and because Offred is the “everywoman”, we see that she is a representation of Handmaids in Gilead. Offred remarks, ‘who knows if any of it is true?’  when presented with knowledge from Gileadan news programs. This rhetorical question indicates the absolute ignorance she is kept in about the workings of the world outside of the house they live in. By choosing a character who is marginalised in her private and public life, Atwood allows the reader to understand the utter marginalisation of women in Gilead. This personal narration provides an insight into the mind of a marginalised individual, demonstrating the negative effects of marginalising women. This illustrates the lack of knowledge women in her position had about politics.

The pervasive influence of male-dominated thought throughout history is used to ridicule the mem controlling the voice of women. In the epilogue, Professor Pieixoto is the transcriber of Offred’s recorded tapes, naming his talk ‘Problems of Authentication in Reference to The Handmaid’s Tale’. This indicates his disbelief in Offred’s authenticity. Atwood uses Pieixoto, a male historian who is focused more on hard facts and identity, to show how Offred is still marginalised after her death, and how her voice is still perverted and devalued by men in positions of academic and social authority. Men such as Piexoto are used as examples to represent the continued devaluation and marginalization of women. 

In conclusion, Atwood uses these devices to show how women are marginalized in Gilead and satirises the reader’s own society in order to expose the flaws inherent within social constructions, language and historical influences. This affects the reader as it contains allusions to their own context and ridicules the conventions that many people at the time of writing found to be traditional values. Readers in today’s context will also find these themes relevant in the power struggle between men and women.

09 March 2021
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