Margaret Atwood’s Ecofeminist Views In The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, is a thought-provoking novel written by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale describes the double dilemma of the dual dominations of women and nature, portraying huge environmental issues in the near future, which results in the experience and struggle of women in a dystopian patriarchal society. Margaret Atwood expresses her Ecofeminist views in the novel through the deconstruction of the traditional binary oppositions that indicate the oppression upon both female and the environment.

The central insight of Ecofeminism is that the ruination of the environment and the historical oppression of women are often interwoven. Generally, Ecofeminist criticism focuses on two point of views: androcentrism and anthropocentrism. The core vision of Ecofeminism is that “a historical, symbolic, and political relationship exists between the denigration of nature and the female in Western cultures”, and the relationship is patriarchal society. Ecofeminism contributes to both women’s oppression and domination of nature by criticizing discrimination against both women and nature in a patriarchal society.

The setting of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is crucial to the reader’s understanding of Atwood’s Ecofeminist views. In the novel, as hierarchical oppositions are social constructs, state-sanctioned depression based on gender and race becomes the norm in the virtual country “Gilead”. Territory much of the land is radioactive or poisonous because of toxic waste, so the birth rate has fallen dramatically. The society thus develops a rigid hierarchy, which shows that infertile women, homosexuals, political dissidents, supporters of abortion, non-whites, and members of religious groups other than the brand of Christianity sanctioned by the state, are below the Commanders in the hierarchal society. Dualism is socially and historically constructed and produced in relation to power and differences. Among these dualisms in the novel, three pairs stand out: fertile and barren, voice and silence, and human and non-human. By deconstructing them, Atwood infuses her Ecofeminist views into the world she creates.

The first binary opposition is fertile and barren. In Gilead, potentially fertile women are caught to be Handmaids who become birth machines after brainwashing under the oppression of men, while unfertile women have to face the disposal of radioactive waste. Also, Handmaids are treated as something disposable. If they cannot get pregnant after monthly “ceremony”, which is modeled on Genesis in which Rachel and Jacob used their made Bilhah as a surrogate, they will be forced to clean up toxic sludge. In addition to the “fertile and barren” dualism, the babies that the Handmaids give birth to are divided into “baby and ‘Unbaby’” according to their health conditions when they are born.

However, when the protagonist Offred becomes a handmaid of a military Commander, Fred, the contradiction in the novel happens. After undergoing the horrifying monthly ritual, she still does not get pregnant. Ironically, it is the Commander who seems to be sterile. “Despite the obsessive focus on procreation, actual children are notably absent from Gilead. The only child described in the narrative is the young daughter from whom Offred has been painfully separated”. Besides, in the novel, Atwood says, “an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet”. By deconstructing “fertile and barren” in this way, Atwood implies that being fertile is not superior to being barren, and female’s fertility or infertility certainly should not be the standard of social relationships. Also, the environment results in human babies, in spite of human intervention, which is a stingy satire on anthropocentrism.

As for voice and silence, Atwood indicate that like nature, women are only regarded as defenseless reproductive tools by men in the novel. Women are deprived of self-identity and the control over their own bodies, thus becoming “the other” and being oppressed and exploited like nature. They are robbed of the access to an education, the right to vote, and the chance to work for pay, and most are also forbidden from reading. The social relationship between male and female described in The Handmaid’s Tale is the typical relationship in a patriarchal society, which male is dominant, while women is “the other”. Through the protagonist Offred, Atwood says Handmaids “are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices”. Moreover, Handmaids have no freedom of speech. Their every move is monitored by the Eye, which is government spy. By revealing this power relationship, Atwood criticizes men’s domination over women and nature.

Furthermore, Atwood adopts “écriture féminine” to reverse the power relationship between male and female in terms of voice and silence. Coined by French theorist Hélène Cixous, the term “écriture féminine” is connected to “openness writing”. “I know they are watching, these two men who aren’t yet permitted to touch women. They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me [....] I enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there”. In this case, Offred is not silent anymore because she takes the wheel. Because human desires are not restricted to a particular gender. Describing her body from an external perspective, Atwood tears up the binary opposition of voice and silence.

Offred’s ability to view herself from the outside here is manifestation among many of her “openness” to imagining the perspectives of others. At other times, Offred describes her body from a different perspective:

“I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory [....] I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, though black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars (73-74).

Sinking into her body, Offred explores a territory that is inaccessible to others – a “more real,” vast “space” within, huge as the sky. Her own territory. She says its treacherous ground, but still – her own.

But seem capable of reproducing are forced to become Handmaids their purpose is to provide healthy babies for commanders of the military class, these women are renamed for the commander that they serve. Atwood’s Protagonist is called Offred, which signifies her status as a possession - she is of Fred. The name also suggests that she is an offering she has been Offered to reproduce the other classes of women that remain in Gilead include wives married to commanders’ econowives

 “Bless be the fruit,”she says to me, the accepted greeting among us. “May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted.

Thus, in the perverse relations of Gilead, the distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural,” between human and nonhuman, are grotesquely inverted or reduced. In a central passage Atwood suggestively links these levels of imagery and theme, clustering the ideas of institutionalized reproduction, environmental pollution, and the inversions between animal, vermin, and human that result from these perversions of normalcy. As Offred explains,

“The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Death watch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.

I can’t think of myself, my body, sometimes, without seeing the skeleton: how I must appear to an electron. A cradle of life made of bones; and within, hazards, warped proteins, bad crystal jagged as glass. Women took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that souped-up piss flowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobody’s fault, during the earthquakes, and the mutant strain of syphilis no mould could touch. Some did it themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred with chemicals.” 

While the academic community has extensively explored the Ecofeminist theme in The Handmaid’s Tale, prior studies have failed to fully investigate Atwood’s Ecofeminist ideas from both the perspective of deconstructionism and formalism. By tackling anthropocentrism and androcentrism, Margaret Atwood shows her Ecofeminist views that construction of dualism marginalizes women. Among these troubling dualisms, there are three most noticeable pairs: fertile and barren, voice and silence, and enter and margin. Moreover, several symbols of oppression reveal Atwood’s idea that the fate of female is deeply connected with that of nature. The conceptual links between the dominations of women and nature are located in an oppressive patriarchal conceptual framework characterized by a logic of domination. Symbols of disenfranchising women include names of different classes, the languages they use, and the anthropomorphism behind the colors of clothes. 

09 March 2021
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