In today’s society, a ‘conventional’ relationship between a man and a woman is easily defined. It is one based on freedom of choice by both partners, equality of gender, and emotional attachment. It is acceptable to say that in Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, none of these are permitted. This book shows a society completely unlike our own, one that has been constructed on the Old Testament, where women are seen as ‘biological vessels’ and are obsequious to men, and there is no place for ‘romantic love’.
The setting of The Handmaid’s Tale – known as Gilead – is a totalitarian government, originally based on Old Testament patriarchy. This structure forbids rival loyalties or parties, so all loyalty must be for the group of men that govern the State. Such a structure means that women are assigned ‘roles’ according to their biological ‘usefulness’.
These ‘roles’ are divided into six legitimate categories of Wives, Daughters, Aunts, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives. Each category of women is required to perform their task properly, whilst obeying the rules set down for them by the patriarchal government. To illustrate, each group has different functions in the society, but still no one woman is able to act as an individual. The handmaids, for example, have been reduced to the ability to create another life, their fertility –
“We are for breeding purposes…There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts…We are two-legged wombs…”
With each rule that governs their lives comes a punishment for disobeying it. Though being unable to express any sort of individuality is difficult for the women of Gilead, the thought of being hung at a ‘Salvaging’ or taken away by the Eyes (Gilead’s Secret Police) is enough to assure them that being repressed personally is bearable. Sometimes their ritual behaviour can be made bearable by the award of luxuries. Wives – being closest to the Commanders – have ready access to ‘black market’ items such as cigarettes and makeup, even alcohol. Handmaids on the other hand, are given their necessities, but things like hand cream or cigarettes are merely desirable items at the back of their mind – bait to be used by more powerful figures. These women have been placed to serve their government through their positions and relinquish all desires for emotional attachment.
By having legitimate groups of women, it follows to have illegitimate groups. During the story, we are introduced to the concept of “unwomen” – those who are unable to reproduce, or simply refuse to obey orders. Another illegitimate group that we learn of is the one that Moira eventually joins – prostitutes or ‘Jezebels’. These two groups only reiterate the point that individualism is not allowed, and is not welcomed, in this government.
The assigned roles of the women help to form the socially acceptable relationships of Gilead. The most formal of the man-woman...