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Sheerin Khasawneh

Ms. Mann

AP Lit Block 3

4 November 2018

The Handmaid’s Tale​: Diversity in Literature

A salad with a variety of different vegetables is more attractive than a bland salad

containing the same type of vegetable. All those seeds were planted in the same garden

containing the same soil; and yet, they grew to look dissimilar from one another. Each seed

provides a different story which adds more flavors to the salad. In America’s salad of literature,

each vegetable represents a different novel. Each novel is understood through different lenses.

Margaret Atwood’s ​The Handmaid’s Tale,​ exemplifies a true classic novel for the novel can be

interpreted through multiple viewpoints which portrays a figurative relatability.

The Handmaid's Tale ​discusses the harsh treatment of women in a dystopia and the novel

is credible for it is written by a female author. The novel can be understood through a historical

perspective because time repeats itself and a classic novel brings a cognisant awareness to

traditional meanings. Therefore, a classic novel should trace back time. Paul Kingston’s

scholarly article juxtaposes Atwood’s dystopian regime, Gilead, to the Iranian revolution and the

changes they both undergo:

“If Gilead's experience was anything like that of Iran's in 1979, it was religious radicals
in Gilead who hijacked the revolution away from a more broad-based political
opposition, part of which was democratically oriented. Similar to Iran, one is
immediately struck by the intensity of Gilead's coercive statecraft – the imposing display
of security forces, the omnipresence of 'the eye,' public executions, the threat of
banishment to 'the colonies,' and the rigid policy of censoring anything from 'the time
before'” (835).
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Atwood did not directly compare Gilead to Iran post-revolution which is why Kingston was able

to make a literal historical interpretation. Atwood, along with many other classic novel authors,

has a clear sense of history and are able to witness the way a regime turns on their own people

after a revolution. Atwood, in an article posted by ​The New York Times, ​stated:

“‘The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the
planet,’ she wrote. ‘Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would
die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long
been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a
population’.”

Women have been used as political pawns in the change for new world order among many

countries throughout history. Religion has embedded its way into human morals and groups of

people find a sense of comfort in theories prolonged and unchanged by time. Eve picked the

apple, women wear the hijab, she has no right to choose the fate of her pregnancy, and other

conservative theories, can create conflict in certain cases such as the Iranian revolution and

Gilead because if there is a massive change the change should be beneficial. Instead, history

repeats itself and ​The Handmaid’s Tale​ is able to create a significant trace back in time. Atwood

created a specific female class system that “exploits the Bible as the basis for a fertility cult, and

has skillfully enslaved appropriate women into a state of surrogate motherhood, calling them the

Handmaids, on behalf of the sterile Wives of the Commanders” (Nakamura 4). She intentionally

created a realm where a certain group of people are targeted upon because the relatability is

relevant to modern and historical times. Women facing oppression in a totalitarian regime is

classic within itself.

Atwood created a patriarchal society with a female class system to disunite the women

further which feeds into a more male dominant regime. It is prevalent that woman-on-woman
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hate is a result of the misogynists tactics Gilead uses on women. Women must appear strong

when they are misused and in order to remain strong women need to empower one another and

stick together. And yet, the class system marginalizes women even further: “The creation of the

social category of 'the handmaid' itself, while oppressive to the handmaids, may provide the rest

of Gilead's women with negative incentives to comply with the regime” (Kingston 835). This

class system- similarity seen in India’s caste system- results in a form of resentment between

women of different social statuses. Tara J. Johnson wrote a piece on the novel and discussed

Victor-Levy Beaulieu perspective:

“she said that the character of Aunt Lydia ‘is based on the history of imperialisms. For
example, the British in India raised an army of Indians to control the rest of the
Indians...So, if you want to control women, you have to grant some women a tiny bit
more power so that they’ll control the others’” (70).

The Aunts play a conflicting role in Gilead because they appear strong but follow the laws

fabricated by men to punish women: "Aunt Sara and Aunt Elizabeth patrolled, they had electric

cattle prods slung on thongs from their belts" (Atwood 14). Atwood purposely created these

Aunts to show “female marginalization and subjugation by the absolute patriarchy of Gilead in

the form of different leaders who are there for prolonging the unjust treatment of women” (Sahu

4). A feminist reading of Gilead would find pride in the women that obtain some form of control

in a male dominant regime; however, a feminist interpretation regarding the Aunts would include

mistrust between women. Why would Atwood create such derogatory female characters? After

all, according to the Commander, “All we've done is return things to Nature's norm’” (Atwood

250). When women are disenfranchised from their rights including “a total prohibition on

reading and writing,” then there would be no other job than “fulfilling the function of a literal

womb” which is all women need to partake in in order to reduce the extreme population growth-
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which was the main reason Gilead was formed (Nakamura 5). The women of Gilead are defined

by their fertility and their bodies ability to perform maturnal duties completely disregarding their

cognitivity. The ritual to perform non-sexual sex-another term for rape- is expected of women

which alludes to women with strict reproducing obligations such as queens and princesses and

women in arranged marriages. According to Mahmuda Nongjai, “the regime deliberately stirs up

the fear of sexuality in order to separate sex from sexuality” which reveals Atwoods hidden

meaning behind the feminist lense: no feelings, no problems (180).

Atwood uses colors and attractive objects to mimic a symbolic meaning behind the way

women in ​The Handmaid’s Tale​ are perceived. Women are separated into six social classes

represented by color: the Commander’s wives wear blue, the Martha’s wear green, the

Econowives wear blue and green stripes, the Commanders daughters wear white, the Aunts wear

khaki dresses, and the Handmaids wear red. Behind each dress is a women that is assigned a

color and is expected to be morphed into her specific duty. White represents purity and youth,

khaki represents work and dedication, green represents growth and fertility as well as greed and

jealousy, blue represents loyalty and trust but also sadness, and the stripe design refers to

destitute and imprisonment. Atwood makes it clear that the most popular color is red:

“Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood… The white wings too

are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen” (18). The

Handmaids wear red because red is seen as scandalous, attractive, bold, and ruthless. The color

red contains a plethora of meanings regarding different regions of the world. In ​The Handmaid’s

Tale​, red exemplifies dehumanization. The handmaids are meant to be silent with their minds,

mouths, and bodies. They are meant to obey-just as any other woman is- sexually. This is why
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the Martha that looked at Offred, a handmaid, refused to smile at her, “...it’s the red dress she

disapproves of, and what it stands for” (Atwood 10). This Martha contributes to the

woman-on-woman hate mentality and the unraveling of feminine bondage. Martha's wear green,

therefore, green can represent disgust and in this case, disgust towards a Handmaid. The colors

stand significantly to make a statement regarding the class of the woman, and the choice she

made for herself. The choice is either to be unwoman or a sex slave; one dies of poisoning and

the other is raped on a daily basis. Also contributing to the woman-on-woman hate is the

Commander’s wife who dislikes Offred out of envy for her ability to reproduce with the

Commander. The Commander’s wife happens to smoke cigarettes but enforces the law of Gilead

as much as she can, knowing that cigarettes are illegal. Her hypocrisy unveils her sadness, like

tears, and her contract to strive to obey and stay calm, like a blue ocean. She knits blankets and

tries to create maternal designs to fill her feminine void. There is a similar sense of uncomfort

within each woman’s duty: “Instead of individual expression, the handmaids are draped with

fabric so that they become one recognizable caste separate from society” (Roland 6). Each

woman voluntarily participates in a position defined by their fertility or traditional minimal

duties. Offred compares the women of different classes to pearls: “Think of yourselves as pearls.

We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we

must suffer her adjectives...I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit” (Atwood 114).

Pearls are pure, white, and clean; however, they are also kept inside a hard, rough clam shell and

they are easy to remove. Atwood used pearls to juxtapose the women of Gilead to symbolize the

purity inside every woman will be removed and used for their attractiveness. Everybody wants

the pearl inside the clam because of its beauty but nobody wants the clam without the pearl.
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Offred felt a connection to the women they each mask a forbidden temptation. This is the energy

Offred is meant to radiate in the red cloak:

“They touch me with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red
skirt sway around me. It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog
with a bone held out of reach, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it, because none of
this is the fault of these men, they’re too young. Then I find I’m not ashamed after all. I
enjoy the power; power of a dog bone, passive but there. I hope they get hard at the sight
of us and have to rub themselves against the painted barriers surreptitiously” (Atwood
30).

The only sense of recognition and pride is through the only aspect of her acknowledged:

femininity. She only has her appearance left and the attention she receives is a reminder that she

is still noticed and that makes her feel some sense of humanity even when the attention is

negative.

Relatability is an arbitrary aspect when determining a novel as a classic, for there will

always be different life experiences creating different forms of relatability. ​The Handmaid's Tale

has one consistent meaning, but there are multiple ways of finding the theme behind a series of

intertwined connections to history, art, and femininity. The classic novel excels beyond the time

period of the plot.


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Work Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on What ​The Handmaid's Tale​ Means in the Age of

Trump.” ​The New York Times,​ The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2017,

www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-age-of-tru

mp.html​. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Atwood, Margaret. ​The Handmaid’s Tale.​ New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.

Johnson, Tara J. “The Aunts as an Analysis of Feminine Power in Margaret Atwood’s ​The

Handmaid’s Tale.”​ ​Nebula 1.2​, pp. 68-79. September 2004.

https://cdn.atria.nl/ezines/IAV_607294/IAV_607294_2010_4/Johnson.pdf​. Accessed 23

October 2018.

Kingston, Paul. "The Joyless Republic of Gilead: Reflections of a Political Scientist on the

Operatic Production of Margaret Atwood's ​The Handmaid's Tale​." ​University of Toronto

Quarterly,​ vol. 75 no. 3, 2006, pp. 834-835. ​Project MUSE,​ ​doi:10.1353/utq.2006.0259​.

Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.

Nakamura, Asami. "Margaret Atwood's ​The Handmaid's Tale​ as a multidimensional critique of

rebellion." ​Journal of American and Canadian Studies,​ no. 30, 2012, p. 3+. ​Academic

OneFile,​

http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A329730999/AONE?u=fol36665&sid=AONE&xid=

68f23573. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.

Nongjai, Mahmuda. “Gender Politics in Margaret Atwood’s Novel ​The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Aligarh Muslim University, vol. 1, May 2013, pp. 179-183. Research Scholar,

http://www.researchscholar.co.in/downloads/29-mahamuda.pdf​. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018.


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Roland, Karla M. “The Symbolic Power of Red in Margaret Atwood’s ​The Handmaid’s Tale.​”

East Tennessee State University, pp. 1-30. Undergraduate honors Theses.

https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1171&context=honors​. Accessed 23

October 2018.

Sahu, Aarti. "Portrayal of marginalized women in Atwood's ​The Handmaid's Tale​." ​Language In

India​, May 2016, p. 1+. ​Academic OneFile,​

http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A456498263/AONE?u=fol36665&sid=AONE&xid=

daee0249. Accessed 23 Oct. 2018

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