The Issue of Female Subjugation and Nature Exploitation in Novels

Margaret Atwood is known for her writing as a weapon to fight for vital issues. She connects the destruction of nature and women in a male-dominated society. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she creates a totalitarian state called Gilead where “men have become sterile and women barren because of illegal ecological malpractices.” She has tied exploitation by society to how it affects women. “Seen in Surfacing, the protagonist, a victim of male torture, similarly as nature is that of industrialization, returns to Quebec Island in search for her father but turns out to be in search of her identity.” Atwood, from the protagonists’ viewpoints of the Handmaid's Tale and Surfacing, focuses on the issue of female subjugation and nature’s exploitation in the present day society, which is dominated by industrialization and urbanization.

Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale explores female subjugation through the protagonist, Offred, who becomes the voice for the suppression of women in the totalitarian state of Gilead. In the beginning of the novel, Offred describes the roles of the women of the society. “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Martha’s, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can”. This proves how women are divided into purposes shown by their dresses. Everything is organized and females must take responsibility of their own task. “Their individuality is stripped away from them for good. Women who were dressed “cheap and skimp, that mark the women of the poorer men” illustrates women as objects who represent their husbands. Women are incapable of being seen for who they truly are and instead are judged by men’s rank. Women in societies have no value and unable of accomplishing without following rules of this society. Furthermore, “In Gilead's power structure women are subservient to men because they are considered not as capable as men. This system involves the marginalization of women, illustrating Simone de Beauvoir's point in The Second Sex that a man defines a woman not as autonomous but only as relative to him. He is the Subject and she is the Other”. This related to the point created about the marginalization of women in Gilead and their ranking compared to men. The inclusion of Simone De Beauvoir’s point adds back to the idea that women are inferior to men and it’s a male dominated society. To add on, Offred stated this when she sits in the bath and compares how she used to think about her body to how she thinks about it now. “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. 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”. This quote has proven how Gilead’s attitude toward women has brainwashed her mind. Offred before, thought of her body as an instrument. Now, her body is only important because of her womb, which can produce a child. Gilead treats women as objects vital for the creation of children. The language used dehumanizes women and reduces their position in society tremendously. “In similar fashion, the goal of the Red Center is to shape thought--there, to teach each novice Handmaid to accept the ideology of Gilead and her eventual role as what Aunt Lydia calls 'a worthy vessel'”. The Red Center, also called the Rachel and Leah Re-education Center, is a place where women who have ovaries that can carry children for high ranked men, are trained to become handmaids. Teachers trained its students in a quality of mind.

Throughout the Handmaids Tale nature’s exploitation in society through the misuse of radioactive substances has also been explored. Seen in the Historical Notes in the end of the book by Atwood is information on the topics discussed.

“Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal — in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system — and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays”.

“Gilead existed because it was directly influenced by the conditions of science and its impact on the environment. Wrong scientific advances resulted in environmental contamination, which contributed to the political situation of Gilead as a totalitarian state.” Proves the connection on how people in Gilead dealt with scientific innovations, which later triggered environmental degradation. “An environment made toxic by the irresponsible use of chemicals has led to a dangerous level of male and female sterility (although male sterility is never openly admitted)”. An increase to stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities was related to the misuse of chemicals that led the environment to be toxic. To add on, Offred said this when the Birthmobile, a small van that transports Handmaids to a fellow Handmaid’s birthing at her Commander’s house, took her.

“The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center. 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”.

This captures fears about the slow violence of ecological toxicity on people and environments in a crisis. Proves the global environmental damage that has taken place in this society. “The exigencies of Atwood's future, however, brought about by extreme environmental pollution and a consequent drastic decrease in fertility, necessitate and justify a practice like handmaiden, condemnable as it might be by today's fundamentalist canons” (Beauchamp 5). Atwood warns humanity against the dangers of misuse of pesticides and radioactive due to the exploitation of nature because of development. This depicts environmental misuse of this society and results in how it affected the lives of women.

Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, through the unnamed protagonist who is a victim of male torture, follows up on the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society. At a point in the novel, the protagonist believes she has let herself to fall under the control of men. “The unborn child was my husband’s, he imposed it on me, all the time it was growing in me I felt like an incubator. He measured everything he would let me eat, he was feeding it to me, he wanted a replica of himself”. Margaret Atwood had the protagonist state this to emphasize that men take advantage of the bodies of women. “They control the process of childbirth which makes women a powerless victim. It makes women feel like she is a vessel whose only function is to divorce her mind from her body and reproduce.” “Recollecting her previous role as a vessel for her former lover's child, the narrator regards her possession of a womb as a weakness that permitted her ex-lover to impose upon her an unwanted pregnancy”. Her perception of herself reveals how she has thought of the betrayal of her body. Second, this scene was a conversation between Anna and David, another couple on the trip with the narrator and her boyfriend. Anna was relaxing by the lakeside when David asked her to take off her bikini for his documentary. “Come on, take it off,” David said; his light-humor voice… “It won’t hurt you, we need a naked lady.” … “You’ll go in beside the dead bird, it’s your chance for stardom, and you’ve always wanted fame. You’ll get to be on Educational TV,” he added as though it was a special bribe”. Here, Anna is described using animals. This proves that women are seen as inferior to men like animals. 'David‘s camera has raped Anna‘s female image, it has forever trapped her warped self in its lens. The camera symbolizes the male power over the female body.' “The animal body as symbols of colonial domination is further critiqued when the final 'random sample' that David and Joe film is Anna. While she sunbathes on the dock, David tells her to take off her bathing suit and to pose for the camera. She resists and he attempts to bribe her, by telling her that this is her chance to be a star, that she will 'go in beside the dead bird'. When she continues to resist and Joe intervenes by asking David to leave her alone, David responds by saying 'shut up, she's my wife”. This further proves how women, despite being in a relationship, are inferior to men. Anna’s body is reduced to its sexual function and interpreted for David’s sexual desire.

In Surfacing, the narrator shows that the natural life of Canada is shattered, lost its beauty and has looked more like a typical American colony. The narrator hops into a canoe and takes off without her friends, hiding alone, she says

“Further in the trees they didn‘t cut before, the flood are marooned, broken and gray white tipped on their sides, their giant contorted roots bleached and skinless; on the sodden trunks are colonies of plants, feeding on disintegration; laurel, sundew the insect eater, its toe nail- sized leaves sticky with red hairs. Out of the leaf nests the flowers rise, pure white, flesh of gnats and midges petals now, metamorphosis”.

The narrator develops sympathy for the island as she’s been there. She finds that the Americans are destroying the beauty of nature. The relationship between Americans and nature is the relationship of misuse and land being striped away of its beauty. “Civilization invades and is superimposed over nature every time humans interact with and within the natural world”. This explores that invasion of nature and the consequences of humans’ interactions with it. Another example, the narrator said this when her companions and herself, arrived by boat to her birthplace, which is on an island.

“After we landed we found that someone had built a fireplace already, on the shore ledge of bare granite; trash was strewn around it, orange peelings and tin cans and a rancid bulge of greasy paper, the tracks of humans. It was like dogs pissing on a fence, as if the endlessness, anonymous water and unclaimed land, compelled them to leave their signature, stake their territory, and garbage was the only thing they had to do it with”.

The narrator turns to dislike the Americans for what they did to the island and compares them to dogs. Americans should preserve the beauty of the environment rather than destroy it. In the novel, Americans are associated with negatives. They do bad things to nature to prove their power. “Years later, the narrator recalibrates the source of national threat in sensing Canada's vulnerability to an invasion by Americans, whom she at first envisions as a 'disease ... spreading up from the south'… resulting in the appearance of Americans having power and Canadians being devoid of it. The exploitation of nature is due to the urbanization of Americans in Canada and how they are taking over.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids’ Tale and Surfacing portray victimization of women and including the misuse of nature. The land’s natural beauty is being stripped away and in turn, being destroyed due to development and civilization. Similarly, women, in a patriarchal society, are victims of abuse. Female subjugation is complete, and the male who controls them subsumes their identity. Women are seen as objects and have little to no position in society. Margaret Atwood explores both of these ideas in her novels. 

09 March 2021
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