The Handmaid’s Tale and feminism: Examining characterisation in Atwood’s novel

Although a feminist story, The Handmaid’s Tale gives some surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of men while those of women can be critical. Men are the most mysterious characters; they are the ones we know least about and the ones that Offred can provide the least insight into beyond patriarchal society, dominant male figures, and sexual predators. Few male characters have more than functional roles of the patriarchal state. Most have no names, only group identities such as the Angels, the Eyes, and the Doctor, except for those who Offred has immediate relationships with such as Nick and the Commander. Atwood herself states that feminism is a broad term covering anything from ‘pushing men off cliffs to allowing women to read and write in Afghanistan’. Through the characters of Serena Joy and Moira she looks at how women’s own misunderstanding of men and feminism could result in a backlash and repression leading to a women’s way of survival that could be critical.

Nick is a romantic rather than a realistic figure, the mysterious stranger who is Offred’s rescuer through love. He is more relaxed than other members of Gilead society, wearing his hat at an angle and winking at her. She also describes details of his appearance which prevent him from seeming threatening, ‘creases around the mouth where he smiles’ p.28, whereas everyone else is described by the clothes that they wear, symbolising their status. At household prayers he presses his foot against hers causing a sensual warmth that she is unwilling to acknowledge. During the daytime he is a comic figure, at night her lover, which is made more particular as he is acting under orders either by the Commander or Serena Joy. Like Offred, he is subordinate and therefore has to remain passive until ordered to go to bed with Offred by Serena Joy. Of this first encounter Offred gives three different descriptions; his attitude is not directly described and he remains a figure that cannot be fully understood, realised or analysed. However, in defiance of danger she repeatedly returns to him and clearly falls in love with him, yet the lack of emotional response and understanding between them that is described and revealed to the reader makes it difficult to ascertain to what degree it is love or simply sexual desire. Nevertheless her description of their lovemaking is suggestive rather than simply erotic. At no point does the reader witness a direct conversation; therefore it is difficult to establish an analysis of him and his motives. Importantly she tells him her real name, something that is not even revealed to us, underlining the intimacy of their relationship. We want to believe that he is in love with Offred, yet he is the only member of the household not present when she departs. It can be taken from the Historical Notes that he did rescue her and was a member of the Mayday resistance. As a character he is very lightly described and his most significant role is as her lover, yet it is not a romantic story. Instead her relationship with him underlines the conflict she experiences of loyalty and sexual desires which eventually outweigh her loyalty to Luke and desire to escape.

The Commander is the most powerful authority figure in Offred’s life. He is a high-ranking government official and it is to him that she is assigned so as to take his name. This is similar to slavery before the abolition; once slaves were freed from their masters they would often take the same surname. Yet the Commander is an ambiguous figure, substantial and shadowy, whose motivations remain constantly unclear. An elderly man with ‘straight neatly brushed silver hair’ and a moustache and blue eyes, his manner is mild p.97, and Offred likens him to a Mid-Western bank manager. She sees him lurking by her room and trying to peer at her as she walks past, p.59. demonstrating that he presents himself as a typical male power, isolated and benignly indifferent to his domestic affairs. He performs ceremony in dress uniform and she describes his actions as ‘fucking’, with his eyes shut – making him into a comical figure. As Offred begins to know him his typical male power stereotype starts to fall away. He asks her to meet him in his study ‘after hours’ and it is revealed that he is a lonely man who requires friendship and intimacy. He does not ask her for kinky sex but instead to play scrabble, the most domestic and mundane of pastimes which appears an incredulous past normality to her. He offers her books and magazines consisting of a once normal life which are now forbidden to her, asking only for a kiss at the end of the night. This reveals a more complex characteristic to the Commander. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who treats her in a somewhat patronising way, ‘In fact he is positively daddyish’ p.193. Despite his obscure motives they manage to develop an amiable relationship. However it is still a matter of sexual power politics in which the Commander is dominant. He is traditional in his views and patriarchal assumptions, ‘Natures norms’ p.232 with which he describes Jezebels where they have a private sexual encounter. When Offred is taken away from the house of the Commander for the last time she sees him looking ‘old, worried and helpless’, expecting his own downfall shortly and in this way Offred had her revenge upon him for the balance of power between them, ‘Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking’.

As the Commanders wife, Serena Joy is the most powerful female presence in the daily life in Gilead. Offred can observe her in her social role as one of the Wives but also at close quarters in her own home and she appears as more than just a member of a class of hierarchy. Unlike the other Wives she is referred to by her own name, but she is elderly and childless and therefore has to agree to having a handmaid in her own home as she cannot produce children herself. She clearly resents Offred as a reminder of her inability to have children and as a violation of the sanctity of marriage. It is ironic that we learn she was previously an ultra-conservative voice on domestic policies and the place of women within the home. Offred observes this as she is trapped within the ideology which she created, ‘She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her’, p.56. Serena Joy’s only place of power is her living room, where she has nothing to do but knit scarves for the Angels, and her place for expression is her garden. Yet even there she has to be assisted by her husband’s chauffer. Despite her apparently submissive status as a Wife, there is a harsh toughness and masculinity about Serena Joy. She lacks femininity, which juxtaposes her husbands ‘daddyishness’ and perhaps susceptibility to manipulation or pliability by Offred for hand creams, magazines, and pieces of information. Serena Joy, unlike her husband, has no weakness of ‘nature’s norms’ and therefore no susceptibility. It is impossible for anyone to know what she is thinking. In Serena’s cigarette smoking and use of slang we see evidence for this toughness. It is at her suggestion that Offred sleep with Nick to become pregnant, ‘She is actually smiling, coquettishly’ p.216. Serena Joy represents two aspects of Gileadean society, the role of dutiful Wife as a privileged status, as well as a twisted plot in infidelity and the extremes that people are willing to adopt in able to conceive. This is arguably a method of survival for perhaps desperate women, pushed to this extreme by inability to conceive and the social structure, which she ironically contributed to herself. However Serena is still unforgivable for she has her own revenge too, deliberately with-holding from Offred the news of her lost daughter and a photograph of her which Offred has been longing for. Serena is beside the commander when Offred leaves the house, her farewell to Offred holds none of the pieties of Gilead, ‘“Bitch,” she says. “After all he did for you.”’ p.299. Serena Joy demonstrates the very ineffectiveness of falsity of Gilead society and the criticism of her from a feminist perspective is criticism of anti-feminists and also of the perfection, which is a symbol of a decaying and flawed society.

Moira is the only female character within the narrative that is portrayed positively and with admiration by the narrator as she constantly resurfaces in the narrative. She is the embodiment of resistance and rebellion, identified by her own first name because she never became a handmaid. From Offred’s point of view she embodies female heroism, although from the point of view of Gilead she is criminal. Although brought to the Red Centre, she manages to escape on her second attempt, disguised as an Aunt, which was not only comical but is symbolic of her refusal to conform to the Gilead class basis. She therefore becomes what all other Handmaids would like to be but don’t dare and Offred envies her courageous resistance, ‘Moira was our fantasy… We hugged her to us, she was us in secret, a giggle; she was the lava beneath the crust of daily life’ p.143. However when Offred last meets Moira at the Jezebels, she finds that she did not manage to escape to freedom but was instead caught at the border and sent to the brothel where she says she will have three or four good years before being sent out to the colonies. In this final meeting it appears that Moira’s spirit has been broken by Gilead, yet she still declares herself to be a lesbian and her values as a feminist and as a heroine lie in her speaking out and challenging tyranny and oppression.

In conclusion, although written from a feminist perspective The Handmaid’s Tale allows for closer analysis of characters to understand the complexities of an oppressed society. It does not simply deal with the oppression of women; Gilead outlaws choice, emotion and free will. Pornography, sexual violence and infidelity are all outlawed but so is love. It is not merely oppression of women, but oppression of human rights. Atwood is highlighting that we see gender roles too plainly, that this is both true of men and women.

 Sophie Peters


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