What is freedom? According to Webster’s Dictionary, freedom is the quality or state of being free. In fact, people define freedom in many different ways. Most of us can agree, however, that one of the most oppressed groups is women. Throughout history, women have been seen as a second-class citizens and objects. Many writers have taken up the cause of oppression of women in their work. In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explores the role that women play in society and the consequences of their values. The protagonist Offred lives in a society focused on spiritual and physical repression of female identity. When Offred’s actions are examined
The most significant conflict emphasized in this novel is the oppression of women’s right; how their freedom is taken away and how they are used as reproducers.
The Republic of Gilead was created by overthrowing of the United States government and a powerful authority group taking over after a huge government called The Eyes. As a result, many strict rules were set upon women; how quickly their rights were taken away from them. The main character, Offred, was one of the women’s whose rights were taken away from them and how her life was completely turned upside down. As Atwood introduces us to the exposition of the novel, we find out how the regime seizes everything they thought to be pleasurable. This includes clothing, literature especially old magazines, and cosmetics. Offred states,
“I remember the rules, rules that were never spelled out but every woman knew: Don’t open your door to a stranger, even if he says he is the police. Make him slide his ID under the door. Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble. Keep the locks on and keep going. If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night.
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. I think about having such control. 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. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. (Atwood 24)
In the past, women would have “freedom to”; however, The Handmaid’s have “freedom from”. This signifies how the society of Gilead has become cautious and tries to prove that they have ‘more’ freedom. Unfortunately, when ‘freedom from’ happened women lost their independence being watched by the eye. Contingent on the perspective you look at it from, different people have comforted from the change in freedoms.
Imagine growing up in a society where all women are used as a machine. A machine that only reproduces kids. In Gilead, child production has become a function. Handmaids are the reproducers of babies, no matter if they want it or not, if not they get sentenced to death. Offred was compelled to become a Handmaid, a fertile woman whose job is to bear children for a Commander who has an infertile Wife. The novel displays how Offred’s ordeals of being a Handmaid with relatively no rights. She wishes that she will become pregnant one day so that we won’t be sent away or get killed. Atwood quotes, “she’ll never be sent to the Colonies, she’ll never be declared Unwoman. That is her reward” (Atwood 127). Handmaid’s see pregnancy as their deliverance knowing that being pregnant is their reward. However, she feels hopeless for every month with menstruation. Atwood write, “each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.” (Atwood 73) This quote symbolizes fear and violence towards women; especially fearing for their lives to see blood. It means if they see blood their lives are literally in danger. It emphasizes how the Handmaid’s lives are useless to the society if they can’t make babies.
The Gileadean government created a system where women in the society has nothing useful to offer except reproduction to the Commanders. How the women are being prized for their fertility and not any other duty. Shirley Neuman, professor of English at the University of Toronto, agrees that women’s freedom were customary. Neuman states, “The novel’s outwardly conformist and once independent Offred has seen her social value reduced to reproduction, and her personal freedom completely curtailed.” (Neuman) Neuman emphasizes how women have no opportunity to work, acquire any kind of education, and even their rights are taken away. The rebuttal opportunity of women signifies the control that men have over women. We even see this in the novel, how the handmaids are taken away from their own families so that they can bear children for a commander. This aspect leads to the utmost of life under a cruel masculine regime. The women’s being denied as a human being and the only role they have in the society is making the man happy and reproduce for them “Men are sex machines, and not much more. They only want one thing.” (Atwood 144)
Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes the consequences of how women are downgraded and how they virtually have no rights. Gilead, a society were the women’s rights was turned upside down. Atwood portrayed how the novel was directly conflicting with the idea of oppression of women’s rights. The main character Offred, is a woman who lives in the era of Gilead times. She had to oppress her freedom to live. How she was oppressed as a women; used to bear children for men’s happiness. We see how Offred couldn’t recognize her rights. The tale shows how women were suffering recognizing their own freedom in the society.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 1986.
- “Freedom.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freedom.
- Neuman, Shirley. “‘Just a Backlash’: Margaret Atwood, Feminism, and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 3, Summer 2006, pp. 857–868. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3138/utq.75.3.857.