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Critics’ Reactions to The Handmaid’s Tale

This essay will focus strictly on critics’ reactions to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. For the most part, we found two separate opinions about The Handmaid’s Tale, concerning feminism. One opinion is that it is a feminist novel, and the opposing opinion that it is not. Feminism: A doctrine advocating social, political, and economic rights for women equal to those of men as recorded in Webster’s Dictionary. This topic is prevalent in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood, a Canadian writer, spends most of her time featuring women in her books, novels, and poetry that examine their relationships in society.

In the book Atwood centers her novel on a girl whom happens to be one of the handmaids. These handmaids are essentially women used for the birthing of babies. According to Atwood in one of her many interviews, “women were intrinsically good and men bad; to divide along allegiance lines–that is, women who wore high heels and makeup were instantly suspect, those in overalls were acceptable”(Problems of). These ideas were and have been created by our social and political system and could not be fixed until such systems have been reformed. The feminist ideas that are expressed in this novel are necessary.

Besides, these women do exist not only in the novel but women like this exist in real life. The women are treated as property instead of human beings. The one and only purpose in their lives is to have children. The dystopic novel that she created isolated certain social trends and exaggerated them to make clear their most negative qualities. Pornography is a huge factor in The Handmaid’s Tale. It is apparent in chapter twenty where Offred describes the movies that Aunt Lydia showed her and the other handmaids during their stay at the Red Center.

This type of movie was used to show the future handmaid’s “what life used to be like” (Atwood 118). Atwood used Offred to express her ideas on pornography. Atwood obviously does not like it. But, in another sense, she emphasizes the fact that Aunt Lydia lies to Offred and the others when saying that it is how life used to be. Atwood never disregards the fact that women have been misrepresented both by themselves and by men. She is careful to go through the whole novel placing no blame, and leaving the questions to the reader.

How did this society get to this point? Could this really happen? Are we doing anything to prevent it? In the novel there is no real one strong force. Especially no male or female dominant role, which makes it hard to decide who is to blame. Feminism is clear throughout the book, and Atwood represents women very well. Many readers have questioned the novel’s character as a feminist critique. The Handmaid’s Tale delivers a conservative interpretation of women’s ideal social actions, advocating what looks more like traditional femininity, rather than revolutionary feminism. Atwood’s main character, Offred, has fantasies of being free. But Offred’s vision of freedom is very un-feministic.

For instance, at the beginning on The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred dreams of things she is sometimes allowed to do, such as help to bake bread. “Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh” (11). Offred wishing to experience touch, but why does Atwood have to display this need in such a domestic way? Baking bread, to me, is the epitome of the traditional household, where the mother stays home to bake for her man and her children. Instances such as these lead critics to say that this book is not about feminism.

Another example of this anti-feminism is the night of the Ceremony. The Commander is preparing to read from the Bible to Serena Joy, Cora, Rita, Offred, and Nick. “He’s like a man toying with a steak, behind a restaurant window, pretending not to see the eyes watching him from hungry darkness… ” (88). Atwood has the man of the house in charge of the entertainment for the evening. And how the characters are positioned in the sitting room is important. The Commander gets to sit in the big, manly, leather chair while Offred kneels on the floor and the Marthas stand. Serena is lucky enough to be seated, but she is uncomfortable.

The man has the typical position as the leader of the household. One of the best examples of Offred’s way of thinking about women is when she saves the butter from her dinner to use on her hands and face as body lotion. The Wives decided that the handmaids were not to have lotion of any kind because they didn’t want the handmaids to be prettier than they already were. Offred uses the butter in case someday, someone would want to touch her again in the heat of passion. “To such devices have we descended” (97). Apparently, lotion is the key to beauty in Offred, or possibly Atwood’s, mind. Beauty is inside, as well as outside.

Lotion doesn’t make you pretty. The same can be said about fashion magazines, such as Vogue. Offred longs to read the magazines that the Commander offers her because she longs to go back to the days of being empty-headed, reading garbage instead of the classic books of the time. Feminism isn’t about such frivolous things as fashion magazines and lotion. The most obvious example that leads critics to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a pro-feminist book is close to the end when the Commander takes Offred to the whorehouse, dressed as a whore. At first, Offred is not too keen on the idea.

But it soon grows on her. She would be able to wear make-up again, and dress in clothes that are revealing. This thought excites her. She doesn’t think about having her own job again, or being independent again. She dreams of playing dress-up. “And it would be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free” (231). Dressing up equals freedom? Not to a feminist. The second to last line of the novel is the most disturbing. “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped” (295).

That is a defeatist attitude, if there ever was one. Offred dreams up ways of escaping out of the situation, either by fleeing or death, but is too chicken to try them. A feminist, like Moira, tried and tried to escape until they just about beat her down. Offred was a disgrace to the female sex, in that she never took it upon herself to better her situation, or to be rid of it for good. These examples are the reason critics tend to see the anti-feminism side of The Handmaid’s Tale.

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