Tag Archives: A Handmaid’s Tale

The Use of Sexuality by the Female Characters and Government in 1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood’s construction of A Handmaid’s Tale takes a lot of influences from the world of 1984 in order to construct that world from Julia’s perspective.  I wished to take into account my reading of 1984 to see just how this affects the portrayal of the characters and the government in both of the novels.  Due to the length of each of the novels, I will focus on the specific aspect of sexuality and how the women use it to either connect with society or be isolated from it.  Furthermore, there is the connection of the government, specifically how they control the people, through the use or limitation of the peoples’ sexuality.  The topic of this paper owes a lot to the construction of Julia in 1984, predominantly how she is a secondary character who has the majority of her scenes focused on her sexually connecting with the novel’s protagonist.  The difficulty of this paper will come from isolating the scenes in A Handmaid’s Tale that would best contribute to how the government uses sex to isolate the people; this is due to how the majority of the novel is focused on sexuality.  Though this problem is circumvented by focusing on the following questions:

1.)    Does the act of marriage contribute to a powerful connection between the two people involved or does the government have a negative effect on it?

2.)    How does the government in each novel differ in their procedure for controlling sexuality and how does that affect the mental and societal statuses of the people?

3.)    What connections do Julia and Offred form with the people around them and does the use of sex hinder or help these connections?



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Understanding “Why” Does Not Make it Right

There were various ways in which A Handmaid’s Tale could have been closed. However, the current choice of ending is interesting, because not only does Professor Pieixoto discuss the recovering process of the tapes from which the tale was extracted, he also defends the Gileadean ideology by showing agreement and understanding of why Gilead society practiced the way they did. In fact, there is not much concession as Professor Pieixoto insists on the audience understanding why this society was indeed reasonable in their laws and had the intentions of protecting women and their “biological destinies” (204) while giving men the unshakeable power of control.

For the first half of his speech, Professor Pieixoto does well in maintaining a certain level of objectivity when he presents information on the recovery and restoration of the cassette tapes found in the army locker. However, his subjectivity in the way he later states that Gilead’s “genius was synthesis” (281), makes me a bit weary of the information he is choosing to share with the audience. Usually “genius” and “synthesis” have very positive connotations, but when they are used in the context of Gilead society, I find it difficult to convince myself that – despite Gilead’s so-called innovativeness – the “synthesis” they were trying to achieve was ever truly attained. Because of this bias, the credibility of the Professor diminishes greatly; I become much more suspicious of his intentions and his message.

This subtle tone of Gileadean support changes very little, because towards the end of his speech, when presenting possible outcomes of Offred’s escape, he suggests that by leaving into the “outside world” (285) Offred is also leaving her “protected existence” (285). The fact that he uses “outside world” to describe life outside of Gilead strikes me as odd, as though he is admitting to the isolation and lack of freedom Gilead has in relation to all other places on earth. Further, suggesting that women were more “protected” in Gilead makes me curious about his idea of “protection” and if, to him, this means having to exchange an individual’s freedom to have it. I would expect a professor willing to speak on the topic of Gilead to also have certain ideas of what is ethical and unethical, especially in terms of whether the application of ethics is only relevant to one gender or to both.


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The Only Hope is in the Historical Notes

The historical notes acts to create a sense of hope for the dystopian society described by Offred through use of the freedom of the future setting to take note of the people that were able to escape and tell their story.  The historical notes mentions “various Save the Women societies, of which there were many in the British Isles at that time”, thus showing the reader that not the entire world was overtaken by the Gilead regime and there were still people working for women’s rights and freedoms (304).  The historical notes also prove that the society was unable to continue and faded into obscurity to the point that future historians are left with a few articles and diaries to piece together what happened.  The author uses the historical notes to frame the story in a way that best explains the use of the first person perspective that is telling the story in the past tense along with the protagonist’s despairing and frustrated tone.  The historical notes placed after the story allow for there to be an element of hope without detracting from the tension present in Offred’s story.  The two separate tones in the novel allow the author to add hope without detracting from the danger of the regime or adding any positive elements to the society.  Their presence also leaves Offred’s fate shrouded in mystery, allowing the reader to infer whether she escaped or even received anything close to a happy ending.  The historical notes with its less suspenseful tone are able to delve into the possibility of Offred’s escape and the decline of the regime while still preserving the previous segment’s atmosphere of hopelessness and danger.



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Safety vs. Oppression

In this story, Offred is a girl who is living in a world of safety.  The life she leads is different from our lives in countless ways, however, it is all veiled in the idea of being safe and under protection.  The individuals in this story are being protected, it would seem, against their own will and to such a degree that it is no longer just protection and has moved so far to the extreme it has become negative.  Margaret Atwood’s story “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an intriguing discussion of the difference between being protected and being oppressed.

The women, and especially the handmaids, in this tale are confined to incredibly stringent rules that the concept of their safety has in many instances become a secondary concern to the need to reevaluate the freedoms that have been lost.  The women in this story used to have “freedom to” act the way they pleased and dress in a manner they wanted, whereas now due to all the oppressive protective measures that have been taken, they are able to “walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles” (Atwood 24).  Although these women have been given the “freedom from” men such as the ones who would yell at them on the street, they have lost much more than they have gained it appears.  While there may be less crime and this may be a safe place for them to exist physically, oppression is never a good place for individuals to exist.  The women of this novel will never really feel free because “freedom from” is being obedient and allowing someone else to make your decisions whereas “freedom to” is an individual making their own decisions and learning to be safe in the process.


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Dehumanization of Women

In the city of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, women are protected from violence but at a horrible cost- their absolute freedom. Women are no longer raped or abused by strange men but must submit to the state-sanctioned rape by their commanders. In chapter five Aunt Lydia speaks about freedom: “There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it” (Atwood 24).

The “freedom to” she is referring to is the freedom to choose. In chapter eleven we can see how Gilead has taken away Offred’s ability to choose. The doctor has given Offred an escape and yet she is horrified at the thought of such freedom, of being able to make her own decisions: “Why am I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, taken no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, a salvation” (Atwood 61). Offred has become accustomed to the prisoner lifestyle of Gilead. When she bears her chains well they are almost comforting for her and she does not dare to do otherwise.

The “freedom from” that Aunt Lydia talks about is freedom from violence. “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles” (Atwood 24). In chapter thirteen Janine testifies about how she was raped and had an abortion at fourteen, something that would never happen now in Gilead. However, with this freedom from, another freedom is taken away. In the society of Gilead, women are always the guilty party as is shown when the women in the group chant that the rape is Janine’s fault for leading the men on. The next week Janine admits, “It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserve the pain” (Atwood 72).

Through a close reading of Aunt Lydia’s quote in chapter five, we see that in Gilead women are protected and given freedom from many evils but at the cost of their own free will and choice. Furthermore women are dehumanized in this society as shown in the quotation: “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” (Atwood 73). Before, Offred’s body was an extension of herself but now she is no longer the master of her own body. Her body is now only the covering of the only thing that matters in Gilead- her womb. Offred is no longer a woman or even a human being-only a womb.



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