“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” (Martin Luther King Jr.) Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale explores the effect of a Puritan, conforming society on the characters Offred, Moira and Janine. Atwood has used three diverse female characters to show the spectrum of the phycological impact of living in Gilead. Women are at a distinct disadvantage to men, only valued for their ability to reproduce. The dystopian novel serves as a warning for what could realistically become of our own future society; through the strategical use of biblical allusions, irony and theme of control.
“God made one woman for one man.” Gilead is a Puritan society; ruled by god. Biblical allusions are referenced to throughout the novel to emphasise the idea of historical events being proof that horrifying circumstances can happen again. A warning for our society. In doing this, Atwood adds a level of sophistication to the text, a social commentary on our potential future. The complexity, and oppression of Offred’s character as the narrator, is revealed to us through both past and present tense. Atwood writes in a way that intertwines flashbacks of her former life with her new life working as a handmaid. In an early flashback, Offred remembers a time before she had been stripped of her identity and rights; “I think about Laundromats. What I wore to them: shorts, jeans, jogging pants. What I put into them: my own clothes, my own soap, my own money, money I had earned myself.” Offred then recalls the time she was deprived of her right to buy cigarettes from the store, her account becoming controlled by her husband, Luke. Symbolism is used to highlight the fact that Offred is beginning to only exist for the needs of men. “We are not each others anymore. Instead I am his.” Atwood has demonstrated wordplay in order to embody this transition from Offred being an individual to oppressed to a part of Luke, then a part of the commander. We don’t ever learn her actual name, but when she becomes a handmaid she is Offred. This can be split into of Fred, Offred valuable purely for her reproductive abilities. Offred’s transition is disheartening to the reader as a women’s purpose arguably should not be based on her fertility.
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” Janine, shows the other end of the spectrum. She is also a handmaid, and although she is a conformist, Janine breaks the rules and gets impregnated by a doctor. Atwood deliberately made her character controversial, showing the different breakdown of women in the text. Janine’s constant need for approval from authority figures, frustrates the reader and eventually oppresses her as a person. Offred sees her during their lessons with the Aunts, during which Janine told the group she, “was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion.” It is portrayed as though Janine has self imposed this. “But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. She did. She did. She did. Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson” “It was my fault, I led them on. I deserved the pain.” Janine has become oppressed, as a result of Aunt Helena controlling her. Janine lets herself go towards the end, starting to act like the waitress she was in her old life. If we were to compare Janine and Offred, it could be said that Offred was the one who maintained her sanity. Atwood purposely oppressed her character, to show that even those who conform to a controlling government as a lower class will always come at detriment to those who enforce it upon them. A warning to us, and our potential future society. The theory of conformity in The Handmaid’s Tale uplifting the society of Gilead failed, and has in the past, therefore shows we should prevent it from occurring in the future. Although Gilead is a Puritan society, capitalism is shown several times throughout. The handmaids are treated like children and the Aunts control their lives.
We are introduced to Moira’s character at the beginning of the dystopia to be a bold, confident non-conformist. Offred thinks of joyful memories from her old life; Moira is included. “Where should I go? Somewhere good. Moira…” Moira is also a Handmaid at the commanders house. She escapes and Offred only sees her again at Jezebels, where she is working as a sex slave. Atwood deliberately broke down Moira’s character, symbolising how even the most independent person was forced to conform. Her oppression was significantly heartbreaking to both Offred and the audience, as she was an idolised character from the start. Commonly during a text, the protagonist or strong character will face a tough situation and come out stronger. Offred compares Moira to the handmaid that was previously in her room, leaving her the message, “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Atwood is using irony, as the authority figures in Gilead have in fact, grinded Moira down, and stripped her of not only her rights, but her spirit. This is a warning Atwood has presented, about the effect of a controlled civilisation on a person’s individuality.
To conclude, Offred, Moira and Janine; three dominant female characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, all become oppressed as a result of the controlling, capitalist society of Gilead. Offred began to only exist for the needs of Luke and the commander, Moira was confined to a lesser person, and Janine completely lost her sanity. This shows us as a generation that controlling people to get what you want out of them, known as capitalism, is not always successful. Atwood has depicted heavily that it has happened in the past, and could happen again.